How to Zest a Lemon

And Other Citrus Fruits

Citrus fruits with tools for zesting on a cutting board

The Spruce / Laurel Randolph

Lemon and other citrus zest pops up on the ingredient list for all sorts of recipes—baked goods, cold desserts, sauces, soups, drinks, and more. At its flashiest, lemon zest adorns the rims of cocktail glasses, sometimes shaped into a pretty curl. It adds fresh citrus flavor and aroma without any of the tartness, and because it's not a wet ingredient (like lemon juice), you can add it to just about any recipe without noticeably affecting texture and consistency.

Lemons, limes, and oranges are equally good for zesting, as well as grapefruit and other citrus. The process for zesting any citrus fruit is basically the same, and it can be done with or without special equipment.

Zest Yield Per Fruit

On average, a medium-sized whole fruit will yield the following amount of finely grated zest:

  • Lemon: 1 tablespoon
  • Lime: 2 teaspoons
  • Orange: 2 tablespoons
  • Grapefruit: 3 tablespoons

Before You Zest

Look for quality lemons, limes, oranges, or any other citrus fruit you plan to zest. The fruit should be plump, bright in color, and without blemishes. For the very best results, buy locally at a farmers market since the fruit is typically unwaxed, yielding better zest. Organic fruit is often still waxed, but organic, natural wax is used. All wax used on fruit is safe to consume, but some understandably prefer to limit their consumption.

If you'd like to remove the wax before zesting, add the lemons to a colander and pour over about a quart of boiling hot water. Use a cleaning brush (like a vegetable or potato brush) to scrub each one under running water. Let dry, then zest as planned. Even if you're not removing the wax, make sure to wash your fruit and dry it before beginning.

If your recipe calls for zest and juice, make sure to zest before you juice. It's much, much easier to zest a whole fruit than the squeezed pieces.

How to Zest Using a Grater

If your recipe calls for grated zest, the simplest method is to use a grater. Typically, you will want very small pieces of lemon zest, so a Microplane grater works incredibly well. Many box graters include a side with very small holes which can also be used.

Run the fruit along the grater (away from you on a Microplane grater, downward on a box grater) and rotate it slightly each time to avoid the white pith and to capture more zest.

Lemon Zest
Emilie Duchesne / Getty Images

How to Zest Using a Zester

Zesters are a small, handheld kitchen tool that features a metal head with a row of small circular holes at the end. They are designed so that if you run the holes along a lemon they will produce long, thin pieces of zest.

Grip the zester in your dominant hand and hold the lemon in the other. Position the zester so that the metal head is bending towards the fruit with the holes running parallel. Press slightly into the peel with the zester and pull towards you so that the zest pushes through the holes, leaving the pith behind.

How to Zest Using a Peeler or Knife

If you don't have a grater or a zester, you can also use a vegetable peeler or paring knife to zest fruit. Any kind of peeler works, including a Y peeler. This is the best option if your recipe calls for strips of peel, such as for garnishing cocktails or infusing liquids and later discarding.

Hold the peeler in your dominant hand and the lemon in your other hand. Press the peeler blade into the skin so that it catches, but not so deep it captures the pith. Peel away from you, avoiding your knuckles or fingers, producing a strip of peel. The same method can be used with a small, sharp paring knife—just be extra careful not to knick yourself. Use a knife to scrape off any pith.

If your recipe calls for grated zest and you are using this method, just finely chop the zest with a knife.

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.

Lemon Zest
annick vanderschelden photography / Getty Images

How to Store and Freeze Zest

Lemon zest and other citrus zest has a short lifespan. It's best to just zest what you need as you need it for the brightest flavor.

The next best option is to freeze grated citrus zest. It will last a few weeks before the quality beings to fade. Note that while it will still have the flavor you're looking for it won't have the bright color.

Citrus zest can also be dried for longer storage. Spread it out on a lined baking sheet and let dry at room temperature until all of the moisture has evaporated and it feels completely dry and brittle (the timing will vary depending on the size of the zest). Store in an airtight container. Dried zest can be used in baked goods or to make flavored sugar.

How to Use Zest

Zest can be used as a garnish for drinks and desserts, to add lemon flavor to baked goods, sauces, and more. These recipes call for zest: