You’re more than familiar with lemon juice—you squeeze a bit into your hot water, you spoon some into your salad dressing for a kick—but what about lemon zest? Citrus zest—the colorful outer rind of lemons, oranges, grapefruit, etc.—can add a bright, zippy flavor to everything from lemon loaf cake to spinach orzo and even a glass of frosé. But how do you zest a lemon so you don’t get any of that bitter white pith? And how do you do it with the tools you already have in your kitchen right this second, whether that’s a microplane, vegetable peeler, citrus zester or good ole paring knife? Don’t worry, we’ll explain.
How to Zest a Lemon with Whatever Tools You Have in Your Kitchen
How to Zest a Lemon
First, pick a less ripe lemon
A slightly harder, less ripe lemon will be easier to zest than a softer fruit that gives easily when you grip it, so instead of palming all the lemons at your grocery store until you find a juicy one, take the tough guy home this time. If you’re using the zest but not the lemon juice for your recipe, don’t toss the whole lemon just because it’s not ripe yet. A zested lemon is going to dry out and become pretty useless if you try to store it in the fridge as-is.Cover the sad, rind-less lemon in a piece of plastic wrap or place it in a plastic baggie first and then double back to it within the week to reap all its juicy benefits.
Next, choose your method
Best for: Baking, dressings and marinades
A microplane looks just like a cheese grater but in super-cute miniature form. But don’t let its size fool you—microplanes have rubbed the skin off knuckles around the world. To zest that sucker...
- Grab your lemon in one hand and the microplane in the other and press the lemon into the microplane.
- Rub it quickly up and down against the sharp edges, rotating the lemon and watching your fingers as you go until enough zest has been sheared off the fruit.
Some of the rind will fall from underneath the microplane, so it makes sense to do this over a plate or bowl, but a lot of it will be stuck to the microplane’s underside, so check there if you’re like, Wait, where’s all my zest? And stay away from that pith while you’re at it!
Microplane: Microplane 46120 Premium Zester ($13 at Amazon)
2. Citrus zester
Best for: Garnishing drinks
Citrus zesters are similar to vegetable peelers but with one slight difference: Instead of having one long vertical blade, a zester has one very short, slightly hooked blade or a few of them. If it has several, it might look like an itty-bitty (very sharp) rake. Using a zester will give you long, thin pieces of zest—like the kind you want for that adult beverage. Zesters are easy and intuitive to use, so don’t worry if you’ve never worked with one before. To zest...
- Hold the lemon in the palm of your nondominant hand and the zester by the handle in your other.
- Press the blade down into the rind and drag it across the fruit toward your thumb.
Tip: Instead of getting short pieces from the side of the lemon, turn the fruit as you zest it to get a long curlicue.
Citrus zester: OXO Good Grips Citrus Zester and Channel Knife ($9 at Amazon)
3. Vegetable peeler
Best for: Using rind in soups
Of all these tools, we’re willing to bet you’re most familiar with a vegetable peeler and bonus points: It’s a safer option than a paring knife as it gives you much more control. To peel the rind off the lemon...
- Hold the fruit like you would a potato
- Lay the sharp part of the peeler against the lemon with your other hand and gently pull it toward you. You should be left with a thin strip of zest, sans pith.
You can stop right here and toss that rind into a soup for it to steep or you can place it onto a cutting board and mince it into tiny pieces to (sorta) replicate the effect you’d get from a microplane. Your pieces of rind won’t be nearly as small or uniform, but it’s close enough and it’ll do the trick in a pinch when you don’t happen to have a microplane.
Vegetable peeler: Spring Chef Premium Swivel Vegetable Peeler ($9 at Amazon)
4. Paring knife
Best for: When you don’t have any of these other tools
If you’re not used to using a paring knife, (please!) be careful not to let it slip across the lemon and into your unsuspecting fingers or palm. To do this...
- Hold the lemon in your nondominant hand and the knife in the other.
- Brace the thumb of your knife-wielding hand against the fruit and press the blade at a severe angle against the skin.
- Remember that we’re trying to avoid peeling off that bitter white pith with the rind, so hold the blade with as much control as you can and glide it across the skin in a very thin cut. This isn’t a downward motion into the lemon; it’s more of a skim across the top to try to peel off the outermost layer of the rind.
You should end up with a thin strip of zest, and just like with our peeler option, you can call it a day here or chop and mince it into a million pieces for your recipe. And if you don’t know what to do with it…keep reading!
Paring knife: Mercer Culinary M22003 Millennia 3.5-Inch Paring Knife ($6 at Amazon)
How to Use Lemon Zest
- In drinks
Now that you know how easy it is to make one (or several) of those artfully twisted curlicues fancy bartenders liven your drinks with, you can replicate it at home. The next time it’s your turn to host book club, decorate your friends’ rosé lemonade with colorful ribbons of zest and accept their compliments gracefully.
- In dressings and marinades
Lemon (or lime, or orange, or grapefruit) zest is an unexpected and easy way to bring big flavor to your food. It can be whisked into the dressing of a simple zucchini salad or stirred into the sauce for your flank steak (marinate, it in half the sauce for at least two hours then use the rest when serving). Zest works really well with rich olive oil as a base to build dressings and marinades on. Try adding fresh herbs and garlic or a smoky spice like paprika to create your own from scratch.
- As a baking staple
Glazed blueberry cake, lemon-raspberry whoopie pies, lemon icebox cookies, lemon-ricotta pancakes—there’s really nothing lemon can’t be baked into successfully. When the lemon zest is baked, the oils from the rind seep into the batter and enrich whatever you’re baking with a deep, mouth-puckering lemon flavor that fans of the citrus will die for.
- As (more than just) a garnish
A garnish is usually an afterthought for those of us who aren’t food bloggers, but lemon zest is anything but. Seriously. Grated lemon zest sprinkled on top of a dish right before you dig in is the easiest way ever to add a final elegant touch and a welcome punch of flavor. Try it on top of pasta limone, roasted edamame or braised lemon chicken.