How to Use Lemon Zest

All about zest

Lemon zest is the yellow outside portion of its peel. It’s often used with or without lemon juice to add tangy flavor to recipes. The zest can taste even stronger than the juice; it’s often used in lemon-flavored baked or cooked recipes like lemon poppy seed pancakes. Zest can also be used as a substitute for lemon juice.

Here’s the most important part of zesting a lemon! When you’re grating, make sure grate away the yellow part of the peel only, not the white pith! The pith has a bitter flavor and should be avoided.



How to Zest a Lemon

The easiest way to zest a lemon isn't the best way. Learn how to zest a lemon for maximum flavor! Course Condiments

Cuisine American

Active Time 2 minutes

Total Time 2 minutes

Yield 1 tablespoon Author Stefani Cost $1.50


Use a paring knife to slice both ends off of the lemon. Use a paring knife to slice off the rind right where it meets the white pith. If you cut off some of the pith along with the rind, use a horizontal cut to remove as much of the pith as you can. Use a chef's knife to julienne the pieces of rind.(Julienne means to cut into small strips.) Finely dice the strips. The size and shape of the cubes should be consistent.


The easiest way to zest a lemon is to use a microplane grater. Slide the lemon back and forth along the steel shaft, shaving off tiny bits at a time. The zest will collect in the microplane and you can measure it and add it to your recipes. The reason to use this knife method is: When you zest with a microplane, many of the lemon oils are released into the air – that flavor is not going into your dish. With a microplane, you are ripping the skin off of the fruit instead of slicing it. This means the cuts aren’t clean. The zest is more likely to stick together in clumps, and this yields an uneven distribution in your food.

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Vegetable Peeler

  1. Carefully position your vegetable peeler on a lemon and apply enough pressure to cut into the lemon peel, avoiding the pith.
  2. Slide the peeler across the fruit, removing large strips of lemon zest.
  3. For smaller pieces of zest, cut the zest into strips or smaller pieces.

How to Use Dried Lemon Zest

Dried lemon zest is best used for decoration. Although it will add a great flavor to a dish, it will be chewy or crunchy.

Depending on the dish, this might not be quite the texture you’re looking for. Although fresh lemon zest can also be chewy, it will break down better than dried zest. 

How to Zest a Lemon with a Zester

So, now you know what lemon zest can be used for, how exactly do you get that lemon zest? As mentioned before, lemon zest is at its best when fresh. This means that you have to do it yourself with a fresh lemon.

The tool you use will depend on what you have. There is a specific zesting tool. It is a very unique looking tool. A zester usually has a plastic handle and a metal top with three or four hoops at the end.

The metal top will be slightly curved. This tool might look a little strange. But it is easy to use. 

Step one:

Begin by holding the zester in your dominant hand. You want most of it to be inside your fist.

Your forefinger should be pressed against the metal top.

Step two:

Now, holding the lemon lengthwise in your other hand, hold the metal top against the top of the lemon. Press the metal top firmly against the lemon and pull down. This action should scrape off the zest.

Don’t worry if you can’t quite do it or if you puncture the peel. Zesting can take a few tries to get right and the waxy texture of the peel can make the zester slide around.

Tips for zesting lemons

  • Whatever technique used for zesting, never dig in so deep that you cut out the pith or flesh.
  • Zested lemons don’t need to be discarded, instead, they can be juiced immediately or wrapped in cling wrap and refrigerated or frozen until required.
  • If you decide to use a grater then cover the holes with plastic wrap before grating to stop the lemon from getting stuck in the holes.
  • If you have a lot of lemons, then zest a bulk load and stir it into sugar for adding to frostings and drinks. Alternatively, add the zest to softened butter and use for topping salmon, steak, or roasted vegetables.

How much zest is in 1 lemon?

Here’s a tip that’s helpful when cooking with lemons. How much juice and zest is in 1 lemon? We’ve got the magic formula. Keep in mind that this quantity varies slightly if you have very large or very small lemons.

Here’s the formula: One regular lemon yields about 1 tablespoon zest and 2 to 3 tablespoons juice.

Avoiding the Pith

The peel of citrus fruit has two main parts: the rind, which is the colorful exterior where the zest comes from, and the pith. The pith is the white, cottony substance just below the rind that clings to the fruit. Pith has a bitter flavor, so it's best to avoid it as much as possible when you are zesting fruit.

To avoid the pith, rotate the lemon often when zesting. Your goal is to remove just the colorful outer layer which is relatively thin compared to the pith. Some citrus fruit, like key limes, have an especially thin rind and should be zested gently.

If you removed the rind using a knife or peeler, there's a good chance you ended up with some pith attached. Use a paring knife to scrape off as much pith as you can.

Can You Buy Lemon Zest?

In a pinch, you can buy lemon zest. Unfortunately, it’s not something that is typically sold at regular supermarkets in the United States. You will probably have to buy lemon zest online.

How to Store Lemon Zest

Lemon zest can be stored in the freezer in an airtight container. If you only zest a fruit partway, store it in the fridge in a sealed bag so it doesn’t dry out.

Find more culinary uses for lemon zest in Chef Dominique Ansel’s MasterClass.

More Uses For Lemon Zest

There’s so many great uses for lemon zest, you’ll regret ever tossing it before. Add it to the breadcrumb coating for your meat, like we do in this Rack of Lamb. Stir some into your homemade salad dressing or vinaigrette for a burst of freshness. Finish your favorite roasted or steamed veggies with a sprinkling of zest. Yum!

Now that you’ve read all my lemon zest ideas I bet your mouth is watering. Well, I have some more inspiration for you. Try this simple Lemon Zest Pasta. It’s amazing! And yes, the zest from your freezer will work beautifully here!

This post originally appeared in August 2012 and was revised and republished in July 2020.

See COOK the STORY's nutrition and recipe discla

See COOK the STORY’s nutrition and recipe disclaimers.

Channeling Knife

  1. Hold your lemon in one hand and a channeling knife in the other.
  2. Gently dig the knife into the peel and rotate the lemon while continuously applying pressure to make a thin strip of peel. 
  3. This method creates long strips of zest. 

The two-in-one channeling knife and zester comes in handy again!

Step 1: Weapons of Choice

There are three good ways to zest any citrus fruit:
  • a paring knife
  • a zester
  • a microplane or grater
I’ve also heard of people using vegetable peelers, but I’m guessing you need a very fancy and very sharp peeler. I have tried several times and been less than impressed. So I’m gonna say those people are fibbers. Each will give you entirely different results. Using a paring knife is great for candied lemon or orange peels, using a grater or microplane is great for getting zest into baked goods, salad dressing or other cooking that requires tiny bits of zest, and using a zester is great for decorative zest. Also, a note about which fruit to buy – your best bet when using zest it to get organic produce! Nearly all conventional produce is coated with wax. The wax can make the zest taste funny sometimes, and it’s pretty hard to remove. Can’t find organic produce? Scrub the fruit under hot water and that’s a start. I’ve used conventional lemons, limes and oranges for zest quite a few times and I’m not dead yet and everything still tasted good. 😀

4 Ways to Zest a Lemon

  1. Microplane. By far the easiest way to zest citrus fruit is with a microplane. Carefully scrape the surface of the skin with the microplane, rotating the lemon as you go.
  2. Box grater. If there’s no microplane in sight, one of the smaller grades on a box grater will get the job done. Because the blades are not as fine, you might wind up with a wetter zest that looks more like pulp, but carry on.
  3. Zester/Vegetable peeler. For cocktails and garnishes, use a designated citrus zester (which produces little thin curls carved from the skin) or a Y-peeler for broad ovals.
  4. Paring knife. This one’s the trickiest, only because you’ll need to apply just the right amount of pressure to avoid the bitter pith as you peel the zest. After you’ve peeled as much as you need, finely dice the zest with a chef's knife or slice into strips to suit your needs.

Summing up

Zesting a lemon is quick and easy but well worth the effort. The best tool for the job will depend on what you are using the zest for. A microplane, grater, or zester are excellent for producing finely grated skin which you can add to baked goods, desserts, and food where you don’t want too much texture.

A paring knife is useful for quickly slicing larger pieces that you can easily remove at the end of cooking. For fancy cocktails and decorative garnishes, we recommend investing in a zester with a channel knife; this will make quick work of creating impressive lemon spirals.

What is your favorite recipe that uses lemon zest? Please let us know in the comments below.

5. Lemon pepper

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Lemon pepper is a seasoning that’s widely available on most supermarket shelves, and you may have a jar of it in your own pantry. In its commercial version, it’s akin to a seasoned salt, as it contains a significant amount of that ingredient. Another main ingredient is black pepper, of course, and store-bought seasoning may get its lemon flavor from lemon oil. Additional flavorings may include onion, garlic, and sugar. Foodtasia says you can also make your own lemon pepper, providing a simple DIY recipe that just uses dried lemon zest, pepper, and salt.

Whether you are using a homemade version or store-bought lemon pepper, there are certain circumstances under which you can swap it out for lemon zest. Taste Essence suggests you can use it anywhere lemon zest is used strictly for garnishing purposes, presumably on savory dishes. Reddit suggests you can also use it when seasoning those same savory dishes. As one person put it when asked whether lemon pepper could work in place of zest, “In a chicken dish, sure. In a lemon meringue pie, prolly not.” There is no set proportion that is recommended for such a substitution, but we suggest starting on a 1:1 basis and reducing the amount of salt and pepper accordingly.

Step 4: Microplane or Grater

This one is the easiest! Lightly graze the skin of the fruit, moving either in stripes or in a circular motion to take as much zest off as possible. If you go crazy and disorderly, you’ll be left with lots of good patches of skin surrounded by white pith. Make sure to avoid already zested areas – you’ll take off the pith instead and it can be bitter. 🙂 If you’re wanting to add the zest to cooking or baking, do the zesting right over the bowl or pot it’ll be going in to! It’s easier and you’ll get more yummy oils that way.


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