How to Zest Lemons

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Woman zesting lemon with Microplane over wood cutting board.

Lemons are one of the most useful and versatile ingredients in any cook’s repertoire, and I use them almost daily. I love the juice, and use it constantly, but the zest brings another level of perfumy, citrusy flavor to dishes. And what’s amazing about the zest (and all parts of citrus!) is that it is equally wonderful in savory and sweet dishes. In fact, zest can be used in countless ways.

Zesting lemon with Microplane

See here for everything you need to know about buying, storing and using lemons. But you are in the right place to figure out how to get the zest from a lemon. There are a few ways to do this, depending on what tool you have and how you are going to use the zest. And yes, these methods also work for lime zest, orange zest, or the zest of any other citrus fruit!

Before we get to the zesting options, a word about what exactly the zest is. The zest is the brightly colored outer skin of the citrus fruit. Underneath is the white pith, which is quite bitter and doesn’t have any citrus flavor, just bitterness. Stop zesting the citrus when you get to the white part, then rotate the fruit and keep zesting. You really just want to remove the thin outer layer of yellow and then stop.

Fresh lemons and limes

Lemon juice is tart and acidic, but in baking and cooking, that flavor will mellow. Lemon zest contains the natural floral lemony oils of the fruit, and it stands up a little better when exposed to heat. It doesn’t have the same level of sourness or acidity, though. According to The Flavor Thesaurus (one of my favorite books about ingredients and how they work together), lemon zest contains a compound called “citral” that is immediately recognized as lemony. The juice of the lemon has a clean fresh flavor dominated by citric acid.


This is my favorite and most utilized way of getting the zest from citrus. A Microplane, which is actually the brand name for a rasp or rasp grater, is usually a long thin or rectangular piece of metal with tiny little holes punched in it. When you drag it over the brightly colored exterior of the lemon, it will scrape the zest off in skinny, fluffy little curly strips. This is the easiest way to add zest to most recipes, and you can also sprinkle this over the top of finished dishes. There are Microplanes with different-sized holes, so pick the one that you like best.

How to Zest Lemons: Lemon zest has a wonderful citrus flavor and aroma, and can be used in so many ways, from savory to sweet. Here’s how to get lemony (not bitter!) zest every time.

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Zesting a fresh lemon with a Microplane


There are also citrus zesters that have a line of little holes, and these are good for creating longer, more distinct thin strips of zest. They won’t be as fine or fluffy as those you get with a Microplane, but this is another good tool option.

Vegetable Peeler

Sometimes recipes call for strips of citrus zest, which are easy to get with a plain old vegetable peeler. Such recipes might be drinks (like the Basil Ginger Lemon Saketini or a French 75) or soups, stews, and marinades. Zest strips also can be added to brines and poaching liquids. You can also then cut these strips into thin slivers, or mince them, which is handy if you don’t have a Microplane or a zester.

Using a Box Grater 

Find the side of the box grater with the finest holes and use that. I don’t love this method because I find much of the zest gets stuck in the grater. You can also use the second smaller-sized holes, which will give you slightly bigger pieces of zest, but they will be less likely to get clogged in the grater holes.


Finally, you can use a sharp paring knife to remove the zest. It’s a little harder to avoid slicing down into the white pith, but with a careful hand, it’s another option! Then you can slice, sliver, or mince the zest as needed.

Also see How to Make Gremolata.

Mixing fresh lemon zest into gremolata

Recipes with Lemon Zest

Green Beans with Gremolata

About Katie Workman

Katie Workman is a cook, a writer, a mother of two, an activist in hunger issues, and an enthusiastic advocate for family meals, which is the inspiration behind her two beloved cookbooks, Dinner Solved! and The Mom 100 Cookbook.

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