Have you ever tasted a dish for seasoning and thought it needed a little something, but wasn’t sure what? Sometimes the missing ingredient is salt, and sometimes it's spices, but frequently it is a flavor many home cooks ignore: acid. Though we equate it with tartness, a small bit of acidity doesn’t make a dish sour, but rather it brings it to life. It’s a bright pop of vivid flavor that makes all the flavors around it shine a bit brighter, turning the middling into magnificent. If you’re looking for that magical “something” to bring your dish together, look no further than lemon zest.
What is Lemon Zest?
Lemon zest is the outermost skin of the fruit (a.k.a. “the yellow part”), which sits atop a white skin called the pith. The zest is full of delicious, aromatic oils that taste like the purest essence of lemon, and can be used in foods and beverages both sweet and savory. The pith does not contain these oils and is extremely bitter; when zesting your lemons, do your best to avoid it.
How to Zest a Lemon
The easiest way to add lemon zest to your food is by using a microplane — an essential cooking tool that should be in every kitchen. Carefully scrape the surface of the lemon down the microplane, then move to another section of the skin. You don’t need to do this vigorously, as a perfectly sharp microplane will do all the work needed to remove the zest from the bitter pith.
If you don’t own a microplane you can use the smallest holes on a box grater, but it’s likely you will end up with pith mixed in with your zest, so go slowly and gently.
If you want long strips of lemon zest—perhaps for a cocktail or tea—use a Y-shape vegetable peeler. Without exerting too much pressure, simply run the peeler down the lemon and the zest will come straight off. It’s okay to take a little bit of pith off with the zest, but if you worry it’s a bit too much, put the strip on a cutting board, lay the side of a sharp paring knife on top of it, and carefully slice it straight off.
Even if your recipe calls for a small amount of lemon zest, microplane the entire lemon anyway — this way, when you taste your dish for seasoning, you’ll have more zest on hand in case you want to brighten things up.
If you have extra zest left over, put it in a small plastic bag and store it in the freezer, where it can stay good for up to six months.
If you really love using lemon zest in your cooking (it is a bit of a culinary miracle worker), make a point to zest every lemon you use, whether your recipe calls for it or not, and store it in the freezer. It’s a shame to throw it away.
When to Use Lemon Zest
There are so many things that can be made better with lemon zest, it’s impossible to list all of them. Try using it to give your baked goods bright lemony flavor; in baking zest doesn’t need to be measured, so add as much or as little as you like. Toss it with hot pasta or cold salads; use it as a garnish on top of chicken or fish; stir a bit into pan sauces. Try mixing it with mayonnaise for sandwiches, or whipping it with butter and coarse salt to smear on good bread. Try it in... well, everything. It's the secret ingredient you've been waiting for.