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What is Lemon Zest?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Lemon zest is the oil-rich outer skin of a lemon. The volatile oils in the zest make it extremely flavorful, which is why some recipes call for it in addition to lemon juice or lemon essence. The process of removing lemon zest is known as “zesting,” and many kitchen supply stores sell tools which are specifically designed to remove zest. Other citrus fruits can be zested as well for an infusion of intense flavor in a wide range of dishes.

The peel of a citrus fruit contains two top layers; the zest, and the pith. The zest is shiny, brightly colored, and textured; it is the outer surface of the fruit which consumers can directly see. The pith is a white, fibrous membrane directly below the zest which helps to protect the fruit inside. While the pith of a citrus fruit is often edible, it is not very exciting, so when a fruit is zested, the zest is gently separated from the pith to isolate the flavor.

There are a number of ways to zest a lemon. Some zesters work like graters, delicately shredding the zest so that tiny flakes are removed. Others take the zest off in long strips; strips of zest make great decorations for desserts, and they can also be candied, fried, or suspended in custards by adventurous cooks. Deft cooks can remove lemon zest with a paring knife or vegetable peeler, although this requires a light hand to take the zest without the pith.

In baked goods, this ingredient can be used to add a lemony flavor to the finished food product. The natural oils in the zest will slowly leach out through the cooking process, infusing the food with flavor. Individual pieces of zest will also crack open in the teeth of consumers, producing a sudden burst of lemon flavor. Lemon zest can also be used as a food seasoning, or it can be added to various mixed drinks and beverages.

Most recipes call for fresh lemon zest, although a candied version is acceptable in some recipes. Candied zest typically includes the pith as well; the candying process softens the pith and makes it more flavorful, so this inclusion is usually not objectionable. This ingredient is also sometimes mixed with spices like lemon pepper, in which case it may be dried after the oils have been released through crushing. If you have a particularly good batch of lemons, you can zest them and freeze the zest for future use.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By ysmina — On Feb 18, 2013

I love lemon and orange zest in cookies. It smells so good! I also put it in my rice pudding. I think lemon zest works in most desserts. It's also good in salads, especially potato salad.

By fBoyle — On Feb 17, 2013

I make lemon zest at home with the small side of the grater because I don't have a lemon zest tool.

The first couple of times I made lemon zest, I grated too much and ended up grating some of the pith as well and the food ended up bitter. It's much harder to make lemon zest than people realize.

I've learned my lesson though. Now I only grate a tiny bit and then move to a new spot on the lemon to make sure I don't go beyond the zest.

By bear78 — On Feb 17, 2013

@anon149963-- I've never used lemon zest on my skin but I'm assuming that it is used to brighten skin and treat hyper-pigmentation. Lemon zest contains vitamin C which can fade blemishes. Lemon juice is often used for this purpose. Lemon zest is probably easier to use since it's in dry form. I'm guessing that you can mix it with water or something like plain yogurt to make a paste of it and use as a mask.

Has anyone used lemon zest for skin?

By amypollick — On Nov 26, 2012

@anon305557: When a citrus fruit is zested, the skin is thinner, so air can get to the flesh and thus, dries it out.

By anon305557 — On Nov 26, 2012

We've been wondering for a while and we've looked everywhere but we can't find an answer to this question: why do citrus fruits (i.e. lemon, orange or lime) dry up when the zest is removed?

Does anyone know?

By anon149963 — On Feb 06, 2011

I was given a small bag of dried lemon zest which I thought would be used in cooking but the pack tells me that it is to make treatments for the skin. does it have a dual purpose?

By christym — On Jun 30, 2010

@elfi64: The walnut roll sounds delicious! I also have left lemon zest in the freezer for a short period of time. I have even dried it out and then ground it up and put it in one of my empty spice bottles! There are a few Mexican dishes that I make that lemon zest is outstanding in!

By cmsmith10 — On Jun 30, 2010

Lemon zest is the outer rind of a lemon. Many people value it for the strong citrus flavor that it contributes to some of our favorite dishes! It contains oils in the rind which also give off a very citrus, aromatic scent. The zest is shiny and brightly colored, which also makes it appealing. As long as you stay with the zest and not the white pith underneath, the taste will be one of intense lemon and not intense bitterness! When you zest your lemon, be careful not to go too deep into the pith. Many chefs refer to zest as citrus peel. There are many different ways to use lemon zest. One of my personal favorites is lemon meringue pie!

By elfi64 — On Jul 15, 2008

Lemon zest is such a versatile ingredient used in cooking and baking. I use lemon zest when I make walnut roll.

Lemon zest is best when used fresh, but it can also be frozen. It will last in the freezer up to three month.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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