Zesting a lemon can be tricky if you don’t have the right tools or the experience. Although you can buy grated lemon peel, this is usually dried and won’t have the right effect on your dish.
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Fresh lemon zest is usually the best option for whatever you’re cooking. (Although dried lemon zest can be great for decorating cakes, so read on or scroll down for our guide to drying fresh lemon zest).
But first, what exactly is lemon zest? Lemon zest is the very outer layer of a lemon's peel.
Sometimes called the lemon rind, it's obviously different from lemon juice. When you zest lemon you're essentially removing that citrus peel or lemon skin. Many times you can use a vegetable peeler as a lemon zester.
It is the waxy layer that gives lemon its bright yellow color. The zest is full of flavor and will give whatever you’re cooking a sharp lemony flavor, just without the sourness or the moisture of the juice and flesh.
What Lemon Zest is Used For
Lemon zest is used for a wide range of dishes. Very few dishes will require more than a few scrapes of zest. But the flavor is so strong that little more is needed.
Lemon zest is used in baking, such as fruit cakes or lemon drizzle cake. It is also used as decoration for cakes or as a final addition to some savory dishes, such as salads.
Lemon zest is also great for marinades, pickling, and sauces. It is a lot more versatile than you might think!
Is Lemon Zest Safe to Eat?
We don’t usually eat the peel of citrus fruits. But this is only because it doesn’t taste very nice. Especially the bitter white pith.
But the zest is full of flavor and completely safe. A lot of non-organic lemons that you would find in the grocery store will be covered with wax or pesticides.
So it’s a good idea to give the lemon a wash before zesting it.
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.
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.
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.
How to Zest a Lemon if You Don’t Have a Zester
When you first get into cooking and baking, it can seem that every ingredient needs preparing with a special tool. And that every step requires another tool to mix it all together.
While this is sometimes the case, there are lots of ways that you can avoid splashing out on a new gadget or utensil.
(Especially if you only need it for one or two dishes and it will spend most of its life stuck away in that drawer in your kitchen full of random stuff).
So, how do you zest a lemon without a proper zester? You do it with a cheese grater. (Stick with us…). The kind of cheese grater you have will make a difference on the shape, length, and thickness of the zest.
But pretty much every cheese grater can be used to zest a lemon.
When using a cheese grater, the zest will usually be thinner and much shorter. If you use the larger hole blades, then you can sometimes grate off long pieces of zest. But, generally, the piece will be smaller.
It’s best to use the smaller, if not the smallest, blade holes as these will be easier to use. To zest the lemon, simply grate it against the blades as you would with a piece of cheese. Be careful to only grate it once or twice.
If you grate more, you risk getting down to the pith (the thick white part of the peel).
How to Dry Lemon Zest
If you want to use lemon zest for decoration (or have just grated off too much) then you can always dry it. Lemon zest is best dried when it is in long pieces.
So a zester is the best option if you’re planning to dry the zest. This is simply because small grated zest is usually moister and difficult to separate. But, it’s still possible to dry it out.
The best way to dry lemon zest is in the oven. This is the quickest way but it is also the way that will retain the most flavor.
If you simply leave the lemon zest to dry out by itself, it will take quite a while. It will also potentially become moldy before it is fully dry.
As drying lemon zest in the oven is the quickest way, it will retain all of the flavor it has when it’s fresh.
To dry the lemon zest, simply spread it out in a thin layer on a baking tray lined with parchment. The time the zest will take to dry out depends on its thickness. But, the best option is to set your oven to its lowest temperature and just leave it until it is dry.
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 Freeze Lemon Zest
Freezing is another great way of preserving lemon zest. Freezing foods can be difficult as you can’t always be sure how it will come out afterward. But lemon zest is usually fine.
To freeze lemon zest, simply lay out a fine layer on a baking tray lined with parchment (just as you would dry it in the oven).
Then, leave it until they are frozen. Once it is completely frozen, remove it from the tray and place it in an airtight container. Frozen lemon zest should last for around 6 months.
How to Use Frozen Lemon Zest
Frozen lemon zest can be easily defrosted. Simply lay it out on a plate lined with paper towels (this will soak up the extra water it took on in the freezer) and leave it.
The zest will likely still be quite damp. But this won’t matter if you’re using it in a dish.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can lemon zest be purchased?
Lemon zest is a great addition to many baked goods or meals that require a little punch of flavor. The best way to get lemon zest is directly from the citrus fruit. However, you can buy it already zested.
If you choose to buy lemon zest, there are two main ways that it can be purchased. If you are in a rush, using frozen lemon zest could be ideal for you. It is super easy to use and requires little to no work.
On the other hand, you can also buy dried lemon zest which works equally as well. This type of lemon zest is again, really convenient to use like the frozen version. However, this type of lemon zest won’t last as long in your pantry as the frozen lemon zest.
That being said, if you do choose to purchase lemon zest, you need to be made aware that it won’t be the same as when you freshly zest a lemon. Store-bought lemon zest is not as fresh and flavorful as from the fresh rind.
Does lemon zest go bad?
The shelf life of your lemon zest all depends on where you got it. If you bought lemon zest from the store, then it will last longer. Typically, store-bought dried lemon zest doesn’t spoil. However, you will get the best flavors if you use it within 2 years.
If you decide to make and store your own lemon zest from a fresh rind, then the shelf life is a lot shorter. To keep it good for a maximum of 2 weeks, store your lemon zest in a small airtight container and place it into the refrigerator.
Whatever type of lemon zest you have, make sure to store it properly so you get the best results when added to your bakes and meals.