How To Easily Zest Lemons, Limes, and Oranges

Cooking Lessons from The Kitchn

When you want to add a zingy, sweet citrus flavor to food, the juice is good, but the zest is even better. It has natural oils that will impart way more flavor than you'll get from juicing. Plus, sometimes all you need is a little bit.

So whether you're working with lemons, limes, oranges, or any other citrus fruit, there are four easy ways to get your hands on some zest.

Four Ways to Zest Citrus

There are four different kitchen tools that can be used to zest citrus fruits: a microplane, citrus zester, vegetable peeler, or paring knife. The choice about which tool to use is entirely up to you. It all depends on how you plan to use the zest and your personal preference.

For finely grated zest that melts into a pound cake or batch of cookies, a microplane produces the best results. If you'd like a pretty garnish for your cocktail glass, then a citrus zester will give you a little curlicue. On the other hand, if appearance and size don't matter, a simple paring knife or peeler will get the job done just fine.

The Most Important Rule of Zesting

No matter which type of citrus you're working with or method you use, there is one universal rule that will always apply: Remove just the thin, colored skin, or zest, of the fruit. Always leave behind the soft, white pith that lies underneath. The pith has a bitter, unappealing taste that you simply don't want to include.

Removing just the right amount of zest without picking up any of the pith can be tricky, but it gets easier the more times you do it. It depends on the type of tool you're using, as well as the amount of pressure you apply.

Ways to Use Citrus Zest

  • Finely grated zest from a microplane: Use in batters and doughs, and other times you want the zest to melt into the dish.
  • Curly zest from a citrus zester: Use for cocktail garnishes and for candied citrus decorations.
  • Large pieces of zest from a peeler or knife: Use for rimming cocktail glasses and cocktail garnishes, and also for infusing things like oils or sugar syrups.

How To Easily Zest Lemons, Limes, and Oranges

What You Need

Ingredients
Lemons
Limes
Oranges

Equipment
Citrus zester
Vegetable peeler
Paring knife
Microplane
Cutting board

Instructions

  1. Wash the fruit: Wash and thoroughly dry the fruit before zesting.
  2. Using a citrus zester: Use moderate pressure to drag the sharp-edged side of the tool down the fruit. This tool produces long, thin, curly strips of zest that are ideal for garnishes.
  3. Using a Microplane: Over a cutting board or plate, hold the Microplane in one hand, and use a downward motion and moderate pressure to drag the citrus against the blades of the Microplane. Turn the fruit as you go, removing just the colored portion of the skin. The zest will gather in the groove underneath the Microplane. This tool produces finely grated zest for mixing into batters and doughs.
  4. Using a vegetable peeler: Using moderate pressure, so as not to remove any pith, drag the peeler down the citrus fruit, from top to bottom, or around the fruit. This makes large pieces of zest, perfect for infusing oils or sugar syrup. For smaller pieces of zest, slice into thin strips or mince into pieces with a knife.
  5. Using a paring knife: Be sure the knife you're using is sharp. Carefully cut into the skin and slide the knife around the fruit, between the zest and the pith. Like the peeler, a paring knife gives you large pieces of zest. For smaller pieces of zest, slice into thin strips or mince into pieces with a paring knife.

(Image credits: Kelli Dunn)