What Is Lemon Zest?

By: Alia Hoyt & Sharise Cunningham  | 
zesting lemon
Lemon zest can add a bright punch of flavor to both sweet and savory foods. 4kodiak/Getty Images

Lemon — or any citrus — can be zested. But what does that even mean? What is lemon zest and where do you get it? How is it used and why would one want to add citrus zest to a recipe in the first place? All of these are logical questions you might want to know if you're not so well-versed in the ways of lemon zest. Well good news. We have the answers.

Simply put, lemon zest is the finely shredded rind — or skin — of a citrus fruit, most commonly lemons, but you might also see recipes call for lime or orange zest, too. You can buy dried versions, but as with most things in cooking, nothing beats that punch of fresh ingredients. And it's super easy to scrape up (and dry) a pile of your own citrus zest.


Since many recipes — whether savory or sweet — call for a small amount of lemon zest, you can usually just use the rind of the fruit that's called for in your recipe. If there's no actual lemon in the recipe, then go ahead and zest one and save the fruit for another use.

Lemon zest is a common ingredient in lots of culinary creations, including desserts, drinks, salads and more. It contains essential oils that lend a bit of "zing" to the food or drink, but it can quickly become overpowering, so most chefs use the ingredient judiciously and sparingly.


How to Zest a Lemon

The easiest way to zest a lemon is using a lemon zester, also known as a microplane. Here's how to best zest a lemon:

  1. First wash and dry a few fresh lemons.
  2. Hold the lemon and your zesting tool over a bowl or cutting board.
  3. Lightly drag the yellow outer layer of the lemon, also known as the rind, across the blades in short, even strokes.
  4. Be sure to turn the fruit constantly in all directions and use a light hand. You only want the zest, not the pith, which is the white membrane portion of the fruit. It's bitter and isn't the flavor you want.

You'll know you've overshot the margin if lemon juice starts to squeeze out. Be very careful not to catch your fingers in the microplane, or any other lemon zest tool for that matter. One medium sized lemon should produce about a tablespoon's worth of finely grated lemon zest.


lemon zest
You can zest a lemon with a microplane or use another zesting tool or even a chef's knife.
Boontoom Sae-Kor/Shutterstock


How to Zest a Lemon Without a Zester

Don't fret too much if you don't have a microplane lying around. Here are some other kitchen tool options that'll get the job done just fine:

Cheese grater: Most people have some type of cheese grater in their home, whether it's the boxed or flat variety. Simply use the smallest side of the cheese grater and zest the lemon in the same way you would using the microplane.


Vegetable peeler: A standard vegetable peeler can also zest a lemon. To zest with a vegetable peeler, press it into one end of the fruit, then guide it all the way down to the other end of the lemon peel. Be careful not to dig too deep into the fruit's pith or juicy core. Do this for the entire lemon. Then, using a chef's knife, chop the lemon peel finely into usable zest.

Paring knife: Using a paring knife to zest a lemon is pretty similar to using a vegetable peeler. Simply — and carefully — use the knife to cut the yellow outer layer at an angle off the lemon. Again, make sure not to cut too deep and wind up with a bunch of pith! Once you've cut off the lemon peel, place it on the cutting board and finely chop it. If any pith sneaks in there, pick it out. A chef's knife will also work well, in a pinch.

lemon zest
If you don't have a microplane to zest a lemon, a cheese grater will work well, too. How much zest you need will depend on the recipe.


Lemon Zest Substitutes

If you don't have fresh lemons on hand, it's possible to use other ingredients as a lemon zest substitute.

Lemon extract: A bottle of lemon extract will do the trick nicely as a lemon zest substitute. Lemon extract is manufactured by soaking lemon peels in either oil or alcohol. It's then bottled and sold in the baking aisle at the grocery store.


Lemon juice: This zest alternative will produce a lighter lemony flavor than traditional zest. This is a good option for people who don't feel like going to the trouble of messing with the lemon peel, or those who have a bottle of packaged lemon juice handy. Just be careful not to add too much lemon juice, as it can be sourer in nature than lemon zest.

Lime juice: The same idea is true for lime juice, which many people have in a ready-to-use refrigerator container. Lime juice can be used in the same way as lemon juice, but with the same concerns, so don't dump too much in there.

Lime zest or orange zest: If you don't have a lemon on hand, but you do have a lime or orange, either of these citrus fruits can be zested in place of a lemon, no problem. Both can be zested in the same way as a lemon. However, orange zest doesn't pack the same punch as lemon or lime zest, so a little more might be necessary to achieve the desired flavor.


How Do You Use Lemon Zest?

If you're zesting a lemon, you probably already have a recipe in mind, but if for some reason you decided to just zest up some fruit, you can use it to add or enhance the citrusy flavor of most any dish. Here are some excellent uses for lemon zest:

  • Add a sweet, citrusy zing that can be more intense than juice alone. Lemon zest can be sprinkled onto just about anything for extra oomph, including oatmeal, pasta, yogurt, iced beverages, hot tea and so on. There are very few limits where zest is concerned, plus it's a nutritional superstar, which is always welcome!
  • Punch up the lemony bite of muffins, cake or bread. This can be done even if the recipe doesn't call for lemon zest. Just add a pinch to the batter and enjoy the added flavor.
  • Infuse some tang into salad dressings or marinades. Lemon zest is particularly amazing when stirred into homemade vinaigrette.
  • Add a layer of complexity to seafood like salmon or shrimp.
  • Yum-up your tartar sauce with dried lemon zest. Mayonnaise and aioli sauce can also benefit from a little bit of the good stuff.
  • Add extra punch to any pasta sauce. Just be sure to add it at the end of the cooking session, so that the flavors are still vivid. Some people even serve lemon zest grated over pasta, much like Parmesan cheese!

Citrus zest can be easily made and stored for future use. In fact, drying your own zest is surprisingly simple. Just place the zest onto a sheet pan lined with parchment and place it into a 170-degrees Fahrenheit (76-degrees Celsius) oven. Let it dry out in the oven for about 30 minutes. When it's completely dry, you can store lemon zest in an airtight container in the freezer for best results.


You can also store your fresh zest in a jar in the fridge for up to about two weeks, but you can use it safely beyond that — it just may lack that extra punch of flavor as the natural oils will eventually dry up.


Lemon Zest FAQ

How do you make lemon zest?
All you have to do to make lemon zest is grate the exterior skin of a lemon. Just make sure to only use the colorful part of the skin. Once you hit the white pith, you've gone beyond the zest.
Can you zest a lemon with a cheese grater?
You can use a regular cheese grater to zest a lemon. However, you may want to choose the smallest grate size.
Can you zest without a zester?
You can use a normal cheese grater, a vegetable peeler, or even a sharp paring knife to zest citrus fruit.
Can you buy dried lemon zest?
You can buy dried lemon zest at your local grocery store. It's sold alongside other spices and dried herbs or seasonings.
How much lemon zest do you get from one lemon?
The average medium-sized lemon will yield about one tablespoon of zest.