In many kitchens, lemon zest is an essential cooking ingredient, right up there with olive oil or salt. It perks up everything it touches, from sweets like muffins and cakes to savory dishes of all sorts. What's the best way to remove the zest from a lemon? Much depends on how you will be using the zest and how finely you need it grated.
When good cooks give advice on cooking, they often mention balance and the importance of adding brightness and acidity to dishes. There's nothing like a lemon to do exactly that, bringing the bite of acid along with its unique citrus flavor. While slicing open a lemon and squeezing out the juice is one way to go, sometimes the zest — or the thin, yellow-colored peel — is all you need, especially when you want an intense, concentrated lemon flavor without adding liquid. The zest contains the essential oils that really make the lemon scent pop.
There are two important rules to ensure a happy zesting experience. The first is to seek out unwaxed organic lemons. The reason for this is simple: you do not want to scrape wax and chemicals into your food. If unwaxed or organic lemons are not to be found in your area, be sure to very thoroughly wash your fruit before using.
The send rule is to take off just the thin yellow zest, leaving behind the more bitter white pith underneath. How successful you will be with this depends on your zesting tool and how much pressure you apply. The pressure is a little tricky at first for it depends on the sharpness of the tool and your own strength, but this can be easily picked up with practice.
Most recipes call for very finely grated lemon zest, which will melt into a sauce or perk up homemade ice cream without leaving any big, chewy pieces. A rasp (or microplane) is my favorite tool for this, though a citrus zester can also be used. If you need larger pieces of lemon peel — for, say, a marinade or a cocktail garnish — use a vegetable peeler or paring knife.
Let's take a closer look a look at each of these tools and how to use them:
1. The Rasp (or Microplane)
Somewhat of a newcomer, the rasp (also known as the microplane) has pretty much taken over the world of citrus zesting. The reason for this is easy to see: it's a light, inexpensive tool that works really, really well.
The rasp has dozens of extraordinarily sharp teeth that easily scrape off the zest with very little pressure — and leaving the bitter white pith behind. Additionally, you can usually zest the entire surface of the lemon, giving you a superfine almost fluffy zest that will melt into your dishes.
For years, I held my rasp in my left hand with the sharp surface up and scraped the lemon across the top, as pictured in the top photo just above. This isn't a bad way to do it, except for the fact that the lemon zest will fall away and have to be scraped up and gathered, usually leaving behind some of its lovely, scented oil on the cutting board.
I found that the method pictured in the second photo, where the fruit is held in my left hand and the rasp is drawn toward me in short strokes while the lemon is rotated, is a better way to go. The zest gathers in the groove of the rasp and can be scooped or pushed out (or the rasp turned over and lightly thwacked) as needed.
2. The Citrus Zester
Before there was the rasp, there was the zester. This tool has several sharp(ish) holes that are dragged across the surface of the lemon, creating long, thin strips of zest. While this tool works fine enough, it does have its problems.
Often the little loops aren't that sharp, so extra pressure is needed, which can lead to scraping up more pith than desired as well as the possibility of slippage. Also, the zester creates grooves of zested and unzested areas, in a corduroy-like pattern, which leads to waste unless you can manage a second pass exactly over those unzested grooves. With the availability of the rasp, I use the zester very rarely these days.
3. The Vegetable Peeler
It's very possible that you will find yourself in a situation where there are no rasps or zesters to be had (certain summer rentals come to mind). But most kitchens harbor at least one or two vegetable peelers, which can be used to zest a lemon in a pinch. Additionally, sometimes you actually want a large piece of zest (for marinades, cocktail garnishes, and so on) as opposed to the thinner shreds that come from a zester or rasp.
The method here quite basic: simply drag the peeler across the lemon, avoiding the pith as much as possible. A very sharp peeler shouldn't require too much pressure. If you do end up taking up a lot of pith, simply lay the peel on a cutting board, pith side up, and scrape it off with the edge of a spoon or paring knife. If you want smaller pieces of zest for your recipe, you can also mince the large pieces just like you would mince garlic or other herbs.
4. The Paring Knife
Speaking of paring knives, if you have a sharp one on hand and the knife skills, you can use it to carefully slice the zest from the lemon. It takes a certain delicate skill to do this without hacking up the lemon and taking up too much of he pith, but it's not impossible with practice.
(Image credits: Dana Velden)