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What is Lemon Zest & How To Zest a Lemon

Diane Westphal
Last Updated on
by Diane Westphal

Lemon zest provides color and flavor to your dish, from vegetables, meats, desserts, cocktails, and soups.

However, lemon zesting comes in different forms, requiring various tools to get the perfect zest.

Read on more to find out all there is to know about lemon zest, what it is, how to zest a lemon with tools, without a zester, and recipe ideas.

What is Lemon Zest?

Lemon Zest

The lemon zest is the outermost part of the rind, primarily used for flavoring.

The lemon peel includes the inner skin layer that protects the lemon, called the albedo, also known as pith. The fleshy pith is usually bitter, which most people avoid. The pith is the inner white membrane below the zest and protects the inside of the lemon.

The outer layer is called flavedo, also called flavor, due to the lemon’s natural oils located under the surface. The zest is made entirely of the flavedo. This part also tends to have no bitterness and tastes tangy. The zest is also brightly colored, glossy, and textured, which people can directly see.

The zest is filled with aroma due to its natural, essential oils. Today, it’s in various recipes, ranging from baked goods to salads, poultry, seafood, specialty drinks, and much more.

Besides its versatility and taste, it also has numerous health benefits, which may include:

  • Boost immunity system
  • Promote heart health
  • Anti-cancer properties
  • Anti-fungal properties
  • Promotes healthy skin
  • Antioxidants

Continue reading to learn more about how to zest a lemon with various tools.

How to Zest a Lemon

Before you begin zesting a lemon, you must make sure the lemons are clean and free from wax.

To avoid this issue, buy organic lemons.

  • If you do not have organic lemons, you can remove wax through the following steps:
  • Put the lemons in a colander or any bowl
  • Run the lemons through hot water, through the tap, or from a boiled kettle
  • Scrub the lemon gently with a vegetable brush or soft sponge
  • Rinse thoroughly with cold water
  • Then leave it to dry or use paper towels

Organic lemons still need to be washed and dried but require fewer steps, such as just running the lemons through a tap or any cold water.

After you’re done zesting the lemons, use the juices in your dishes or your water—don’t let it go to waste! Keep in mind that one lemon can produce one tablespoon of zest. Also, you can store lemon zests in a freezer bag for later use. Lemon zest can stay fresh in the freezer for 4 to 6 months.

Let’s dive into zesting lemons with a zester, Microplane, grater, vegetable peeler, and knife.

How to Zest a Lemon with a Zester

Lemon zester

There’s a reason it’s called a zester, as it’s the preferred tool to zest lemons for decorative purposes.

The best zesters have a handle that fits perfectly in the palm. The metal head is angled with small holes to lift away the lemon’s outer layer, producing beautiful curly ribbons of lemon rind without touching the bitter pith. If you want to get creative and candy the lemon zest, the zester is the best tool to use.

A zester is only useful for removing the outer layer of citrus fruits. They are also inexpensive and won’t cram up the kitchen drawer.

Use the following steps to zest a lemon with a zester:

  • Gently run the sharp end of the tool along the lemon’s surface
  • Circle the lemon while you produce bits of zests
  • Do not go over the same area more than once, as you may hit the pith

That’s it! Once you run the zester over the lemon, you will feel how much pressure you must apply. It is essential not to be too aggressive, as it may ruin the zest or mix bitter bits into the mix.

Once you’re done, the zester is easy to clean and ready for use again.

How to Zest a Lemon with Microplane

Microplane

Using a Microplane grater to zest lemons is one of the easiest ways, and it locks in the oils, which may produce more flavor. Microplane graters are not the same as cheese graters, as they’re slimmer and more comfortable to use.

The best microplane has a handle that grips well, along with a skinny metal body with sharp yet small raised edges, producing fine zest pieces.

To use the Microplane to zest lemons:

  • Gather a bowl or plate to grab the zest in front of the Microplane
  • Hold the steel shaft steady with your dominant hand
  • Gently rub the lemon over the sharp edges, and be mindful of your fingers to avoid injury
  • Drag the lemon down over the grater
  • Turn the lemon over as the rind is removed and avoid digging into the pith

It’s also a versatile tool, great for other fruits such as coconut, solid for chocolate, other citrus fruits, garlic, and ginger. It is also affordable, making it a handy tool on a budget that produces great zests.

Once you’re done, carefully clean the Microplane and store it away.

How to Zest a Lemon with Grater

Grater

For many, the cheese grater is “ole reliable,” as its multiple surfaces are great for shaving most vegetables and fruits.

A cheese grater also presents the opportunity to change the rinds’ size from small to medium. Although, small zests tend to be better for most purposes.

Use a grater to zest a lemon following these steps:

  • Use a plate, bowl, or cutting board to catch the zest
  • Tilt the grater 45° on the side with the smallest holes, which are also the sharpest
  • Drag the lemon downwards with moderate pressure, removing the rind
  • Continually turn the lemon to avoid shaving the pith
  • Once the yellow outer surface is removed, you’re done!

You may use the other holes for different zest sizes, as each has its advantages. For instance, smaller zests are great for decorating, and larger zests for flavor. 

Zesting Lemon with Vegetable Peeler

Peeler

A vegetable peeler, also known as a potato peeler, comes in handy for various tasks, including zesting a lemon.

Vegetable peelers produce large slices, much bigger than using other tools such as a zester, Microplane, and the fine holes on a cheese grater. These large pieces are great for garnishing desserts, drinks or infusing lemon into an oil, syrup, or vinegar.

If you’re not a fan of the large slices but only have a vegetable peeler, you can use a knife to chop it into more refined pieces.

Before peeling, know that it is easier to hit the pith with this tool than a zester, Microplane, or grater. It is essential to be aware of the pressure applied.

Use the vegetable peeler to zest lemons but following these steps:

  • Begin at one pointed end and carefully peel down the lemon
  • Feel the pressure and assess if its too soft or too harsh
  • If the pith has any breakage, the pressure was too aggressive
  • If the pith is exposed correctly after removing the yellow outer layer, continue around the lemon
  • Avoid going over the same area, as the pith may enter into the zest bits

Consider using the remaining lemon, as it should be intact and ready for juicing, as a garnish, or added into any dish.

Zesting Lemon with Knife

Knife

Using a knife may be the most challenging option to zest a lemon, requiring more technique and sensitivity.

A paring knife is a solid choice, although a sharp chef’s knife may also do the trick.

Zesting a lemon with a knife presents the opportunity for large slices, which may produce more bold taste in dishes.

You can zest a lemon with a knife following these steps:

  • Grab a cutting board and place the lemon steadily, beginning with the top of the fruit
  • Cut into the skin, carefully peeling the strips
  • Continue working around the lemon as the pith is exposed
  • Be cautious of cutting too deeply, especially with a sharp knife
  • Chop or mince the slices into smaller pieces as desired

After zesting the lemon with a knife, cut the lemon into small pieces to use in your food for more flavor.

How To Zest a Lemon without a Zester

If you do not have a zester, you can use a knife, which most people have in their kitchen. A sharp chef’s knife is desirable for close peeling.

Vegetable peelers or a Microplane are inexpensive choices, useful for other produce after zesting. A cheese grater is also a common choice, especially the fine edges.

Once you zest the lemon using a knife, slice the pieces and store the remaining zests in a freezer bag. 

3 Lemon Zest Recipes Ideas To Try

Here are three lemon zest recipe ideas to try that involve poultry, desserts, and pasta.

Lemon Chicken Breasts Recipe with Lemon Zest

Lemon zest and chicken breasts go immensely well together, and it’s easy to create.

Total time: 1 hr

Prep time: 15 min

Ingredients

  • ¼ organic olive oil
  • 3 tbsp minced garlic
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine (optional)
  • 1 tbsp lemon zest
  • 2 tbsp squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 ½ tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 tsp salt and black pepper
  • Four boneless chicken breasts (Each 6 to 8 oz each)
  • One lemon

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F
  2. Using a small saucepan, warm the olive oil on medium-low heat, add and cook the garlic for 1 minute. The garlic must not turn brown.
  3. Turn off the heat and add into the saucepan white wine, lemon zest, dried oregano, thyme leaves, squeezed lemon juice, and salt
  4. Add the sauce on the bottom of the baking dish (not on top of the chicken)
  5. Place the chicken on top of the marinade, and lightly brush with olive oil for browning
  6. For more lemon flavor, cut a lemon in 8 wedges and put it into the baking sheet
  7. Put the chicken breasts into the oven for 30 to 40 minutes. Wrap them in foil, and let them rest for 10 minutes.
  8. Sprinkle with salt and pepper

Lemon Bars Recipe with Lemon Zest

Lemon bars are a popular lemon zest dessert, bursting with flavor and smooth to taste.

Total time: 1 hr 35 min

Prep time: 10 min

Ingredients for the filling:

  • 6 XL room temperature eggs
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp lemon zest
  • Confectioners sugar
  • 3 cups granulated sugar

Ingredients for the crust:

  • 1/8 kosher salt
  •  ½ lb unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 2 cups flour
  •  ½ granulated sugar

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F
  2. For the crust, begin with two sticks of butter, ½ cup of sugar, and cream them together with a mixer
  3. With the mixer on low, add two cups of flour and 1 tsp of salt
  4. Put the dough into a 9 x 12 pan, flour your hands, and press it into the pan
  5. Chill for 15 minutes in the freezer, then bake it for 15 to 20 minutes until light brown
  6. Cool on a wire rack and leave the oven on
  7. Prepare the filling by whisking together the eggs, lemon zest and juice, sugar, and flour.
  8. Pour the filling over the crust and bake for 30 to 35 minutes until filling sets
  9. Cool at room temperature and cut into triangles
  10. Dust with confectioners sugar

Lemon Pasta with Lemon Zest

Have you ever heard of lemon pasta? It turns out lemon zest is excellent with pasta, creating a delicious lemon sauce with a tangy flavor. The best part is that it’s swift and easy to make, requiring less than 20 minutes.

Total time: 18 minutes

Prep time: 10 mins

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb spaghetti (or pasta of choice)
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 1 tbsp lemon zest
  • Salt and pepper
  • ½ cup fresh lemon juice
  • 2/3 grated Parmesan

Instructions:

  1. To prepare cooking the pasta, boil water in a large pot and put a dash of salt
  2. Once the water is visibly boiling, add your pasta into the pot
  3. Cook pasta until tender, which usually takes 8 to 10 minutes; stirring occasionally
  4. In a large bowl in the meanwhile, whisk olive oil, lemon juice, and Parmesan to blend
  5. Once pasta is done, drain it in a colander (or however you want), and reserve 1 cup of liquid
  6. Toss pasta into the lemon sauce and the reserved liquid, adding ¼ each time to moisten
  7. Season with salt and pepper
  8. Garnish with chopped basil and lemon zest

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Buy Lemon Zest?

Yes, you can buy lemon zest. However, it is dehydrated, which does not provide the freshness of zesting a lemon. You can rehydrate the lemon zest by adding warm water and letting it sit for 10 minutes, but there is a distinct flavor difference. Store-bought lemon zest is suitable for fast recipes, but not if you want a fresh meal or dessert.

How Do I Get Lemon Zest?

You get lemon zest by removing the outer layer of lemons, known as the rind. Use tools such as a zester, Microplane, grater, vegetable peeler, or knife. Each tool provides different zest shapes depending on the occasion or meal. If you dig too deep, you puncture the pith, which provides a bitter flavor.

What Does It Mean to Zest and Quarter a Lemon?

To “zest and quarter a lemon” means to remove the rind from the lemon, then cut the lemon into four pieces. Once you are done zesting a lemon, it still is useful, as the lemon slices are great for cooking and applying the juices to any dish.

What Is the Difference Between Zester and Grater?

The key differences between a zester and a grater are size and convenience. Zesters are small and are handheld comfortably in the palm, using a metalhead to shave the lemon, providing curly, long zests. A grater such as the Microplane provides small zest bits. A cheese grater provides small zests, too, although using a different side with bigger holes may provide larger slices.

What Is the Difference Between Lemon Zest vs. Lemon Juice?

The main difference between lemon zest and lemon juice is the consistency. Lemon zest is a solid that comes from the outer layer of the lemon. Lemon juice is a liquid that comes from the inside of the lemon. Lemon zest also tastes tangy, filled with essential oils. Lemon juice is more acidic and tart-like.

Conclusion

It is now a modern-day skill to learn how to zest a lemon. The lemon zest is versatile and great for all types of cooking. Whether it’s sweet, sour, or salty foods—lemon zests have a place.

Also, lemon zests are great garnishes for any meal, including cocktails!

How to zest a lemon without a zester is also possible using different tools, such as a Microplane, grater, vegetable peeler, and knife. Each tool allows the zest to come out in various sizes, providing options.

Overall, any recipe requiring lemon zest will provide the dish a more bold, tangy flavor that packs a punch.

Lemon
About Diane Westphal
Diane Westphal
Diane lives with her husband and 2 children on a small ranch in Southern California, where she's able to grow a good portion of the food that she prepares for her family in a variety of kitchen creations.Diane has been formally trained and has spent stints in multiple noted restaurants in her region and currently consults with commercial catering businesses. She enjoys writing about food as much as she engages in making her creations.
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