What Is Lemon Zest?

This citrus zest packs a powerful punch. 

So many recipes call for lemon zest for the purpose of infusing intense, lemony flavor into a dish. But what is lemon zest, exactly? And what's the best way to zest a lemon? Are there any substitutes for lemon zest? Refer to this guide on lemon zest the next time you're looking to add some zing to any recipe.

What Is Lemon Zest?

Lemon zest, or the zest of any citrus fruit, simply refers to the outermost layer of the peel known as the flavedo. This layer contains loads of natural oils that are full or flavor and not as acidic as the tart juice. For this reason, lemon zest is used to infuse concentrated amounts of sweet, citrus flavor into a variety of dishes.

What's the Difference Between Lemon Zest and Lemon Peel?

lemon zest, thick lemon peel, and thin lemon peel side by side
Kathryn Gamble Lozier/Meredith

Lemon zest comes from the peel of a lemon, but it does not include the inner layer of the peel known as the albedo. This inner layer contains the "pith," or the soft, white, substance that has a naturally bitter taste.

Zest is most commonly grated, but so long as you're only removing the outermost layer of the peel, you can also use zest in large pieces, thin strips, or even curled pieces for garnish.

What Is Lemon Zest Used For?

Many recipes — both sweet and savory — will call for lemon zest when a dish just needs that extra zing. Grated lemon zest is commonly used in baking, sauces, marinades, and salad dressings. Larger zest pieces work well for garnish on cakes, pies, and most famously on cocktails like a classic lemon drop martini.

What Is a Substitute for Lemon Zest?

If you don't have fresh lemons on hand, you can use a number of pantry staples for similar flavor. Each substitute has varying levels of intensity, so be sure to substitute the proper ratio:

  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest = 1 teaspoon dried lemon peel
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest = 1 ½ teaspoons lemon extract
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest = 6 tablespoons lemon juice (adjust you recipe accordingly for excess liquid)

If you're just using the lemon zest as a garnish, other citrus zests like orange or lime will substitute in just fine.

How Much Lemon Zest Is In One Lemon?

pile of lemon zest next to cup with lemon juice and whole lemon
Jacob Fox/Meredith

It varies from lemon to lemon, but one medium-sized lemon equals about two to three tablespoons juice and about one tablespoon lemon zest.

How to Zest a Lemon

While certain kitchen gadgets can certainly make zesting a lemon a lot easier, you can still do it with items you already have in your kitchen.

person chopping lemon peel on wooden cutting board
Andy Lyons/Meredith

Both a microplane and a cheese grater are great for achieving finely grated lemon zest. Simply run the side of the lemon back and forth over the grates, rotating as you go.

A citrus zester or channel knife will give you slightly longer, curled strands that can be used either to infuse flavor or to garnish overtop a dish.

If you don't have any of these gadgets in your kitchen arsenal, never fear! A vegetable peeler or paring knife will work, it will just take a little more effort on your end.

To zest using a vegetable peeler or paring knife, simply peel the outermost layer of the rind with the peeler, using extra caution not to cut too deep and hit the pith. Once you've removed as much of the zest as you need, you can either leave it in large chunks, or use a knife to finely chop until it reaches more of a grated texture. For more, check out our guide to zesting lemons, limes, and oranges.


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