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How To Zest Lemons (The Easy Way!)

Some recipes call for some extra citrus zing, (such as my Lemon Drizzle Cake) – the good news is, learning how to zest a lemon is very straightforward, and you don’t really need any extra special equipment.  

The skins of citrus fruits like lemons, limes and oranges are not just to add some colour – these bright coloured skins are full of concentrated fruity flavour.

When removed from the fruit, this rind is known as zest and can be used to flavour both sweet and savoury dishes.

If you have a bunch of fresh lemons on hand, make sure to use the whole fruit and zest them properly before extracting the juice.

On average, a single medium-sized lemon will give you around a tablespoon of zest. For the best flavour, aim for quality and not quantity – zesting too much may leave you with the bitter taste of the white pith.

How to Zest a Lemon

You can use a number of different kitchen tools, ranging from a basic knife, to a zester/microplane to zest a lemon.

The key is to get only the colourful, yellow part of the rind since the white layer underneath can be quite bitter and spoil the taste in your mouth.

Before you start zesting, make sure to wash your lemons thoroughly to get rid of any grit and pesticide remnants.

Using A Knife

In order to get the rind without any of the white peel, you’ll need a well-sharpened knife. Hold the knife in one hand and the lemon in the other. Start from one end of the lemon and start removing the peel in small strips – be careful not to peel very long strips since you run the risk of getting the white peel.

Keep rotating the lemon as you peel to keep the knife from piercing into the fruit. Once the entire lemon has been peeled, you can either use or store the strips as they are, or chop them up to create a fine powder.

Strips may be added to savoury dishes that are still cooking, or if you’re making a lemon syrup. They can also be used to make candied lemon peels. By chopping them into a powder, you can add them as a garnish to your food for a little extra lemon flavour.

Using A Zester/Microplane

Using a zester or microplane is probably the best way to zest lemons, but it’s a very sharp tool and should be used with caution.

Using a chopping board or a flat plate on your countertop, hold the lemon in one hand, and the zester in the other, and start grating. Keep rotating the lemon as you zest to avoid grating any of the white pith. After each lemon, tap the zester against the plate/chopping board to release any zest that has got stuck to it.

Using A Box Grater

If you don’t have a small zester, you can use a box/cheese grater to zest lemons. Use the smallest side of the grater – it’s the one with the smaller holes.

Again, place the grater on a chopping board or a flat plate. Hold on tight to the grater and grate the lemon against it, rotating the fruit as you work. Once you’re done, tap the grater against the plate to release any zest that may have gotten stuck to the inside.

Using A Peeler

Using a peeler can work just as well as a zester or grater – the trick is to be very gentle so as to only get the colourful rind without piercing the fruit. Peel in short strokes to get thin strips of just the colourful zest. You can slice the strips up more afterwards.

Making Lemon Spirals With A Peeler

Moving the peeler in a circular motion will help you get swirls of lemon peel. Wrap these peels around a straw or a similar object and secure them in place with a toothpick. When you’re ready to add them to your dish, remove the toothpicks and lift the lemon spirals off the straw. These can be used to make your dishes look fancier, or they can be added to your favourite drinks to add an extra lemon kick. They look particularly good on top of a lemon cheesecake!

Things to Remember When Zesting Lemons

When you’re zesting lemons, keep a few things in mind. This will ensure you get the most amount of zest, without any of the white pith, and without injuring yourself.

  • No matter what kitchen tool you use to zest the lemons, press gently to make sure you only get the colourful rind rather than the pith.
  • If you have excess zest, you can freeze it for later use. Check out How To Freeze Lemons for more tips on freezing lemon zest.
  • Lemon zest can be added to a jar of sugar or salt to add a nice lemony fragrance and tang. It can also be added to butter to jazz up your morning toast, etc.
  • If you’ve already juiced and used the lemons, you can still zest them, but it will be much harder since the skin is looser and you’ll have to be more careful about not getting any of the white pith. One trick is to cut the lemon into flat pieces, lay them flat against the countertop and gently peel off the rind.

Final Thoughts

You can use these same techniques to zest limes, but they’ll have a less concentrated and tangy flavour than lemons.

Whilst you can zest lemons with basic kitchen tools like a sharp knife, the best way to do it is with a zester (mircoplane) which will get all the zest without any of the white pith. It’s worth investing in one if you zest lemons frequently.

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