What Is Lemon Zest?

Zest! It’s a noun! It’s a verb! It’s super flavor! It really is. The more you know about lemon zest, the more you’ll use it.

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August 30, 2021
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lemon zest

Photo by: Diana Taliun

Diana Taliun

By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen

Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.

Zest of a lemon. Lemon peel. Lemon rind. Yup, it’s confusing. The answers are simple, especially since we’ve got words and pictures to explain it. By the time you get to the recipes, you’ll be an expert.

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Close up of lemon cake with lemon glaze on marble surface

Photo by: Cris Cantón/Getty Images

Cris Cantón/Getty Images

What Is Lemon Zest?

Lemon zest is the bright yellow, thinnest outer layer of a lemon. Technically, it’s called the flavedo, but there isn’t going to be a quiz, so we’ll keep calling it zest. The zest is the most intensely flavored part of any citrus fruit due to its high concentration of natural oils. The zest benefits the lemons as much as it benefits us when we want all the flavor possible for making lemon bars, cakes, pasta and drinks: it’s there to protect the inner parts of the lemon from pests, the buggy kind and the microorganism kind.

How To Make Lemon Zest

Technically, the lemon makes the zest, you’re just harvesting it from the lemon so you can use it in a recipe. Jokes aside, there are many ways to make lemon zest. There are a few specialized tools that will make zesting a lemon easier, there a few that can be used for more than just zesting and then there’s the tool everyone probably already has: you can use the edge of a knife to scrap the zest off the lemon. It won’t be pretty or fluffy, but it will be loaded with flavor. The most important thing to remember, no matter which method you choose, is to avoid the pith. It’s the white part of the lemon just between the zest and the juicy segments, and it’s bitter. You don’t want bitter. For a full how-to, see our story, How to Zest Citrus Fruit.

Fine Handheld Grater

To make very fine, fluffy zest, use a fine handheld grater such as a Microplane. Hold the grater upside down in your dominant hand and the lemon in the other hand. Move the grater back and forth on the lemon, turning the lemon as soon as any white starts to show up. The reason you’re holding the grater upside down is so you catch the zest in the grater, instead of scattering it all over the cutting board. When you’re finished, flip it over the grater tap the zest into a bowl.

Channel Knife Zester

Here's another handy tool you can try: a channel knife with a zester. The zester is the end with the tiny holes, and the V-shaped part is the channel. The zester will give fine, delicate strands of zest that are beautiful garnishes. The channel part will give you zest and a bit of the underlying pith, perfect when you need a twist for a cocktail.

Vegetable Peeler

If you’re using zest to flavor the broth of a stew or making a mulled cider, a long flat strip is what you need so you can find it and remove it before serving. Your basic vegetable peeler is the best tool for that. Another use for a wide, flat strip is making julienne out of the peel. Just cut the strip crosswise. Julienne is good for candying and using as a sweet-tart topper for desserts.

Box Grater

You can always rely on a box grater, but the zest tends to get stuck in and around all the little pokey-up parts. The finest grating hole on a box grater will give the best result, but you will have to scrape all the zest out from the inside of the grater.

What Is a Substitute For Lemon Zest?

You can buy dehydrated lemon zest in the spice section at the store. It won’t be as good, but it's better than nothing. The dehydrated zest is very concentrated, so use 1/3 of the amount of fresh the recipe calls for. The very best substitute is frozen zest, and all you need for that is a bit of forethought. When you need lemon juice for a recipe, zest it before you squeeze the juice. Put it in a tightly sealed little container (such as an empty spice jar) and keep it in the freezer for emergencies. Bear in mind that most of the time this won’t be an issue because the majority of recipes that call for zest also call for juice, so you’ll have a lemon if you planned ahead.

Why Are Lemons Zested?

Lemons are zested to get the absolute best, most concentrated natural lemon flavor possible into whatever you’re making.

Is Lemon Zest the Same As Lemon Peel?

No - the peel of the lemon is the zest and the pith together. Think about it like an orange, when you peel one, both parts come off together.

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fresh lemon peel and lemon zest isolated on white background. healthy food

Photo by: Dmytro/Getty Images

Dmytro/Getty Images

What Is Lemon Zest Used For?

The list of things lemon zest will make better is endless. It adds zip to savory dishes, and often you can’t identify the exact flavor - a chef’s dream - a secret ingredient. Lemon dessert recipes call for it because of the intensity of flavor it adds without watering anything down, which juice would do.

Lemon twists are used for cocktails: the point being to twist the strip over the drink just before serving. The twisting action forces the oils out of the zest and into the drink. Hold a piece of zest up to the light and twist; you’ll see the minute droplets of oil fly out.

And, in one word: GARNISHES. We think lemon zest makes dessert look totally professional: impressing your friends is always a plus.

How Much Zest Do You Get From a Lemon?

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Squares of dessert topped with powdered sugar

A normal lemon will give you about a tablespoon of zest when you use a Microplane. After you zest your lemon, you’ll get two to three tablespoons of juice. That one tablespoon of zest has an extra added attraction: more than twice the amount of vitamin C than you'll get from the juice that's inside.

Recipes With Lemon Zest Zip

The crust, the filling, the perfect confectioners' sugar sprinkle - could anything make these Classic Lemon Bars better? We don’t think so.

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Photo by: Con Poulos

Con Poulos

Love the ease of pre-made ravioli. Be sure to zest the lemon before squeezing: it’s not easy to zest a floppy lemon.

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Photo by: Con Poulos

Con Poulos

These little lemon tarts are as tasty as they are photogenic. Don’t have four 4” tartlet pans? The recipe fits perfectly in one 8” tart pan.

A quick pre-cook of the potatoes makes this yummy side company-ready but weeknight-easy.

Zesty lemon glaze is the perfect topper for these nutty, buttery cookies.

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