How to Cut Citrus Fruit Garnishes for Cocktails

Decorate drinks with lemons, limes, and oranges

  • 01 of 07

    A Garnish Is the Perfect Finishing Touch for a Great Cocktail

    Lemon slice on the salted edge of a cocktail glass
    The Spruce / Leah Maroney

    Learning how to cut citrus garnishes is essential to any good bartender's skill set. These can be used in almost every cocktail you will create behind the bar, from fancy twists for martinis to a simple lime wedge for your beer. The best part is that all of these garnishes are easy to cut.

    Even if you are not a professional bartender, cutting basic garnishes is a good skill to have. This is the finishing touch that will set your cocktail presentation apart from others, and it is not all about looks.

    Many times, lemon, lime, and orange garnishes are used to add an extra hint of citrus to a cocktail. For some drinks, the essences of an orange twist are expressed over the drink (you can even flame it). In other instances, such as the gin & tonic, a fruit slice allows the drinker to add a hint of citrus whenever they like.

    Choosing the Right Garnish

    Most cocktail recipes will recommend the type of citrus fruit to use. If it does not, simply choose one that complements the drink.

    • If your drink is a short, martini-style cocktail with lemon juice like the lemon drop martini, you may want to use a delicate lemon twist.
    • If you are garnishing an orange juice highball such as the screwdriver, a large slice of orange would likely be best.
    • For a jungle bird cocktail, you'll use a pineapple wedge and a few leaves along with a cherry to create a "jungle bird" adornment for the glass.

    Think about the drink's ingredients as well as the color of the garnish and how that would complement the visual appeal and taste of the drink.

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  • 02 of 07

    Choosing and Preparing Citrus Fruit for Garnishes

    Three lemons
    The Spruce / Leah Maroney

    Before you cut your first garnish, you will need to select and prepare the fruit.

    At the market, look for the prettiest fruit available, and save those for your garnishes. The skin should have a bright color and be free of blemishes. Use fruit with imperfections for fresh-squeezed juice, and reserve the best-looking fruit for garnishes.

    When you are ready to cut garnishes, be sure to remove any stickers and rinse the fruit under cold water.

    Tools Needed for Cutting Garnishes

    • Cutting board
    • Paring​ knife
    • Canelle knife, zester, or vegetable peeler for twists
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  • 03 of 07

    How to Cut a Citrus Slice for a Cocktail Garnish

    Cutting lemons
    The Spruce / Leah Maroney

    The slice, or wheel, is the easiest garnish to create. It requires only one cut per garnish and you can get many slices out of a single piece of fruit.

    Tip: A full slice of orange can be quite big depending on the variety of orange you use, so it is best to use the full slice on larger or bulkier glassware or choose a smaller orange. If a slice dominates the cocktail and glass, cut it in half to create a half-moon.

    To Create Citrus Slices

    1. Cut 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick slices with a paring knife.
    2. On each slice, cut a slit going from the middle through to the peel so that it will easily slide onto the rim of the glass.
    3. Carefully remove seeds from each slice.

    Tip: Do not make your slices too thin or too thick. Thin slices will be flimsy and thick slices are too large for most glassware.

    Make a Fruit 'Boat' From Your Slice

    The basic citrus wheel can be folded into various shapes to make it more interesting. One example is to make a boat, which complements drinks like the tequila sunrise.

    To Make a Boat

    Twist the wheel to make a small funnel, then place a cherry in the middle, and skewer the fruits together. The fruit boat should rest nicely on top of the ice in your drink or float in an ice-less cocktail glass.

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  • 04 of 07

    How to Cut a Citrus Wedge for a Cocktail Garnish

    Lemon wedges and a lemon half on a cutting board with a knife
    The Spruce / Leah Maroney

    Citrus wedges are a great garnish for tall cocktails like the popular vodka tonic and other mixed drinks that are served in a highball or margarita glass. It is a popular cut for limes in particular.

    The thicker pulp of the wedge gives a drinker the option to squeeze more juice into the drink while they drink. It also adds a consistent flavor from the first sip to the last when the wedge is dropped into the glass.

    To Create a Citrus Wedge

    1. Cut off both ends of the fruit, leaving a flat top and bottom.
    2. Set the fruit upright on the cutting board.
    3. Slice the fruit completely in half lengthwise.
    4. Cut halfway into the pulp lengthwise, but not down to the rind. This cut will create a slit in all of the wedges you are cutting next so each garnish can quickly slip onto the rim of your glass.
    5. Working with one half of the fruit at a time, turn it over so that it lays flat on your cutting board.
    6. Slice wedges into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces, working at an angle.

    Depending on the size of the fruit, you can usually get three or four wedges from each half.

    Caramelize Your Wedges

    Are you ready for a fun and easy trick to give your citrus wedges a bit more pizzazz? You can coat it with a caramelized sugar, popular with cocktails like the Grand Manhattan.

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  • 05 of 07

    Cut a Slit in Slices and Wedges

    A wheel of lemon on the salted edge of a cocktail glass
    The Spruce / Leah Maroney

    You may have noticed that in both the slice and wedge cuts, there is a step that creates a slit in each garnish. You will quickly find that this is an essential cut when it is time to garnish your drink.

    • If your cut is too deep, the garnish can easily fall apart or flop around on the glass.
    • If the cut is too shallow, the garnish will have to balance and may fall off the rim.

    After a few drinks, you will learn the right size of cut needed for each garnish and glass combination.

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  • 06 of 07

    How to Cut a Citrus Peel Spiral

    A lemon with an orange peel and a lemon peel
    The Spruce / Leah Maroney

    The twist or spiral is an elegant, more delicate garnish that creates a twist from a strip of citrus peel. It is used most often with lemons and oranges, but a lime twist is not unheard of and can be a nice finishing touch as well.

    This garnish is one of the trickiest to perfect, and the best advice is to practice, practice, practice (use the leftover fruit for juicing to avoid waste). Eventually, you will get the feel for it.

    Some people like to use a paring knife, though we find that a canelle (or channel) knife is the easiest tool to use and makes a more uniform, crisper twist. Many citrus zesters include the canelle knife in the middle of their blade, and if you like to create twists, this is a worthy investment.

    To Create a Citrus Twist

    1. Hold a whole fruit in the palm of your hand with a firm grip.
    2. Cut a canelle or pairing knife into the orange peel, digging just deep enough so you do not grab too much of the white pith.
    3. With a smooth, even motion, roll the orange around in your hand, continuing to cut a strip of the peel with the knife as you go. Stop when you have the desired length or until the peel naturally cuts off.
    4. Roll the strip of peel into a spiral. Form as tight of a spiral as you can without breaking the peel and give it a gentle squeeze. Remember that it will loosen up when you let go.

    To keep your twists tighter, drop them into a glass of ice water immediately after creating the spiral.

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  • 07 of 07

    How to Flame an Orange Peel

    Orange peel on a cutting board with a paring knife and lighter
    The Spruce / Leah Maroney

    The orange peel is used as a garnish for the subtle oils in the peel, which acts as an accent for the flavors of a cocktail. If you like, you can also make a little show out of it by expressing the oils over a flame.

    1. Using a paring knife, cut a coin of at least 1 inch wide and no more than 2 inches long into the orange peel. Cut into the fruit's pith just a bit.
    2. Rub the peel around the rim of the glass, and drop it into the drink.

    To Flame an Orange Peel

    This is another technique that will require practice, but with patience, it will come to you. Remember, fire and alcohol can be a volatile combination, so take care when flaming the peel.

    1. Hold the orange peel between your thumb and forefinger, with the peel facing away from you.
    2. Light a match or lighter, holding it about 2 inches from the peel and over the top of the cocktail glass (filled with your finished drink).
    3. Squeeze the peel sharply, and watch as the oils spurt out, catch the flame, and create a small fireball over your cocktail.
    4. Rub the peel around the rim of the glass, and drop it into the drink.

    A Few Safety Tips

    • Do not play with fire if you've had too much to drink.
    • Make sure that flammable materials, including shirt sleeves and long hair, are clear of the flame (or potential flame).
    • Take extra care if your cocktail is topped with a high-proof liquor, especially 151-proof rum, which is often used for its ability to burn.