Cooking with Zest

In sweet dishes, zest may be added to give floral and tangy tones

San Antonian - Cooking with Zest

What is zest?

The zest of a citrus fruit is the thin, brightly colored skin of the citrus peel. Under the peel is the bitter-tasting white pith and under the pith is the pulp of the fruit. Zest contains the flavorful and aromatic oils of the fruit’s skin which has intense flavor and is used to season food.

The zest of citrus fruit yields a more complex flavor than the juice and pulp of the fruit. Whether grated or cut into strips, the zest of a lemon, orange, lime, or grapefruit may be used to brighten and enhance the flavor of all kinds of dishes — sweet and savory — such as cakes, muffins, salad dressings, vegetable and rice dishes, marinades and sauces.

In sweet dishes, zest may be added to give floral and tangy tones to fresh berry fillings, fruit compotes, custards, and creamy frostings. Zest mellows when baked, making it an excellent addition to cakes, muffins and cookies. In savory dishes, a sprinkle of grated zest can brighten soups and stews, perk up a salad, and add zip to stir-fried dishes and sauteed vegetable.

Health Benefits Related to Consuming Citrus Peel or Zest

<> Citrus peel provides protection against a variety of cancers…

Citrus peel provides cancer-protecting activity against a variety of cancers. Lemon, orange, and grapefruit peel are loaded with d-limonene. d-Limonene comprises more than 90% of the oil found in citrus peel and studies have demonstrated that it not only reduces the incidence and size of tumors at several sites, but also the growth of various tumor cells.

A recent study concluded that consuming citrus peel can reduce the risk of skin cancer by 30%. When citrus peel is consumed with hot black tea (by sprinkling 1 teaspoon of zest into a cup of tea), the risk of skin cancer is reduced by more than 70%.

As little as 1 tablespoon of citrus peel per week is enough to make a significant difference in protecting against skin cancer. This may easily be accomplished by adding zest to beverages, soups, salads, salsas or sprinkled over chicken or fish dishes.

<> Citrus peel lowers incidence rate of cardiovascular diseases… 

It has been shown that people living in the Mediterranean, where large amounts of citrus fruits are consumed, have the lowest incidence rates for cardiovascular diseases and most tumors associated with diet. A common beverage of the region is Mediterranean-style lemonade which is prepared by simply adding grated lemon zest into a glass of lemonade. In addition to adding the health benefits of d-limonene, the citrus peel adds a burst of extra lemon flavor.

<> Portions of citrus fruit differ in health boosting substances…

The two main differences between the health boosting content of citrus peel and the content of citrus juice with pulp are that:
(1) the peel contains a higher concentration of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and
2) the peel also contains higher concentrations of d-limonene.


How to Zest Citrus Fruit
There are several ways to remove the outer layer of citrus.

<> Using a Box Grater

One way of zesting is to grate the citrus peel with a standard box grater or flat grater. This method is probably the quickest way to zest, but is also the most wasteful. It is a less desirable method, too, because the grating motion will cause a large amount of juice to be forced out of the zest, thereby lessening the zest’s aromatic taste.

1. When using a box grater to zest, hold the citrus firmly in one hand and grate the zest off as you would grate cheese, using the side with the largest holes.

2. Grate the peel off the fruit over a bowl or a piece of waxed paper to catch it.

3. To avoid losing much of your zest in the box grater, first cover the fine grate side with a piece of plastic wrap, then grate.

4. Use a dry pastry brush or fingertips to remove any zest that clings to the grater.

5. When grating the zest, be sure to grate only the colored part of the peel; avoid grating into the bitter white pith underneath.

<> Using a Paring Knife or Vegetable Peeler

You may also use a paring knife or vegetable peeler to remove strips of peel.

1. Remove the peel from fruit with a knife or vegetable peeler. When using a vegetable peeler, do not press hard into the fruit to avoid removing any pith with the peel.

2. Scrape away any pith that might have been removed with the peel.

3. Slice peel into thin strips and/or chop into small pieces.

<> Using a Zester or Stripper

Zester – Traditional zesters are small handheld tools with a metal end that has 4 or 5 small, sharp edged holes in it, perfectly angled to work the proper depth of a citrus peel.

Stripper – A citrus stripper has a notched, stainless steel edge. It cuts 1/4-inch-wide strips of peel.

1. Press firmly and draw the zester or stripper down along the skin of the fruit.

2. Use short strokes for small pieces or draw it all around the fruit to make long strands.

<> Using a Microplane

The microplane zester shreds tiny, uniform pieces of peel faster and with less pressure than a regular grater or citrus zester. It may also be used for grating nutmeg and garlic, as well as creating fine shreds of chocolate or ginger. The microplane may be used to grate zest by either of the following techniques:

(1) Turn the microplane upside down so the teeth face down with the fruit underneath. Holding the fruit still, move the microplane back and forth so it shaves the peel. The shavings will collect in the trough.

(2) Hold the microplane over a piece of waxed paper with the fruit on top, grater side up beneath it, and let the peels fall below.


Approximate Zest Yield Per Fruit… (Not all citrus is created equal.)

Lemon – One average lemon will yield approximately 1 tablespoon of zest. Lemons are the most popular citrus fruit used for zesting.

Orange – One large orange will yield approximately 2 tablespoons of zest. The zest from tangerines and blood oranges offers exquisitely flowery aromas.

Lime – The yield of a lime is hard to predict because the thickness of the skin varies considerably. Key limes, because of their thin skins, do not zest well — use a regular lime, instead. Lime zest loses some of its ‘zestfulness’ when cooked.

Grapefruit – One grapefruit may yield 2 to 4 tablespoons of zest depending on size. Grapefruit yields a wonderfully complex and flavorful zest.


Zesting Tips

<> Look for firm fruit with skin that is clear of soft spots. A vividly colored peel usually (but not always) indicates a flavorful zest.

<> The more fragrant a fruit – the more flavorful the zest. When selecting fruit, scratch the peel to release some of the volatile oils in the skin. It should yield a wonderful bouquet. Avoid any fruit that has dull aroma.

<> The most desirable fruit for zesting is one that is thick skinned and pebbly-textured (not smooth).

<> Always wash and dry citrus fruit carefully before zesting.

<> If the zester skims the fruit without grabbing the skin, it has probably been coated with wax. (Citrus is often coated with an edible wax to maintain freshness.) To remove the wax, scrub the citrus briefly under warm water.

<> The volatile oils are strongest immediately after zesting; always zest just prior to use if possible.

<> It is much easier to zest a whole fruit than one that has been cut. If using both the zest and juice of a fruit in a recipe, zest before juicing.

<> Zest any citrus fruit that you are using in a recipe — even if you will not be using the zest right away. The zest may be frozen for up to 6 months for later use.

<> Consider adding a bit of zest when preparing any recipe that calls for citrus juice only. The zest’s visual and textural presence will enhance the dish.

Add a little zest to your cooking…

Good quality citrus zesters, strippers and microplanes are valuable kitchen tools and certainly worth the price of purchase — usually costing around ten dollars each. They may be found in local kitchenware stores or can be ordered from numerous online sources.

Now that you have a clear understanding of what zest is, how to harvest it, and how to season foods with this fabulous flavoring, begin experimenting with freshly prepared zest to discover your own uses and preferences for this amazingly versatile seasoning.

Copyright ©2005 Janice Faulk Duplantis

About the author: Janice Faulk Duplantis, author and publisher, currently maintains a website that focuses on both Easy Gourmet and French/Cajun Cuisine. Visit Bedrock Press at: to see all it has to offer. In addition to writing syndicated culinary articles, Janice publishes 4 free monthly ezines: Gourmet Bytes, Lagniappe Recipe, Favorite Recipes and Cooking 101. Visit to subscribe.