What Is Lemon Zest?

Should you be zesting the white part of the peel too?

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March 13, 2024

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lemon zest

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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.

Perhaps you know that lemon zest comes from, well, a lemon, but don't know exactly what it is. Read on to learn more.

What Is Lemon Zest?

Lemon skin is composed of two components: lemon zest and lemon pith.

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.

Immediately underneath the zest you'll find a thicker fibrous white layer known as the pith. It's different than zest and it has a bitter, unpleasant flavor.

Close up of lemon cake with lemon glaze on marble surface

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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

How Do I Get Lemon Zest?

There are many ways to zest. 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.

Method #1: Use a Zester

There are a few specialized tools that will make zesting a lemon easier. One of them is a zester, or perforated tool that scrapes off just the yellow part of the lemon peel. It will make for fluffy lemon zest. Alternatively, many people simply use 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. Holding the grater upside down catches 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.

Method #2: Vegetable Peeler

If you’re using zest to flavor the broth of a stew or making a mulled cider, you need long flat strips of zest, which your vegetable peeler can provide. If you need finer zest, just cut the wide strip into thin strips.

Method #3: 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.

Method #4: Use the Edge of a Paring Knife

You can use the sharp edge of a paring knife to scrap the zest off the lemon. It won’t be pretty or fluffy, but it will be loaded with flavor.

What Is a Substitute For Lemon Zest?

Dehydrated Lemon Zest

You can buy dehydrated lemon zest in the spice section at the store. It won’t be as flavorful, but it's better than nothing and lasts for a long time. The dehydrated zest is very concentrated, so use 1/3 of the amount of fresh the recipe calls for.

Frozen Lemon Zest

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.

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

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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.

Adds brightness to savory dishes such as pastas and tomato 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 added to cocktails right 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.

As a dessert garnish, lemon zest makes your baked creations look totally professional.

How Much Zest Do You Get From a Lemon?

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.

Recipes With Lemon Zest Zip

Squares of dessert topped with powdered sugar

LemonBars_01.tif

Squares of dessert topped with powdered sugar

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

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.

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Photo by: Con Poulos

Con Poulos

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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