It’s recently come to our attention that some people don’t know how to easily zest a lemon, orange, or other citrus. This article will show you how!
There’s way more citrus to zest than just lemons…
We grow about a dozen varieties of citrus in containers, which means we get to enjoy loads of citrus from late fall through early spring.
Two of our favorite and most productive citrus varieties are Moro blood oranges and Meyer lemons. Both of these citrus varieties are known for their wonderful fruit, but they also have an added bonus: they make an amazing zest.
What is citrus zest?
In case you don’t know, citrus zest is the finely grated flavoring made from the colored outer surface of citrus skin that sits above the white spongy pith layer.
Zest has high citrus oil content and imparts a strong citrusy flavor (with slightly bitter notes) when used in foods and beverages.
While lemon zest is probably the most commonly used type of citrus zest, other types of citrus also make an excellent zest: oranges, limes, citron, etc.
Should you use organic citrus to make citrus zest?
One quick warning: we highly recommend you only make zest using certified organic or home grown citrus. Conventionally grown citrus receives quite a bit of pre- and post-harvest synthetic pesticide applications.
Thus, conventional citrus fruits’ skin/zest is likely to contain high concentrations of pesticide residue. (In the case of certain systemic pesticides, these can’t be washed off.)
Making matters worse, the US citrus industry is in the midst of battling citrus greening, a bacterial disease carried tree-to-tree by Asian citrus psyllids, a tiny flying insect. Among other symptoms, citrus greening causes citrus fruit deformations, making the fruit unmarketable. The disease often kills infected trees within a few years.
In Florida alone, 90% of the citrus trees are infected and crop losses have surpassed $10 billion annually. That means conventional citrus farmers can either switch to a different crop or engage in chemical warfare with the pest insects. This is one of the reasons we grow our own citrus (using organic methods) in Greenville, SC – far north of the psyllids’ range.
Long story short: we recommend only making zest from citrus you grow yourself without pesticides or certified organic citrus wherein farmers are not allowed to use synthetic pesticides.
Zest: another small step to reduce food waste
When you grow your own food, you appreciate how much time, effort, and energy goes into the process. That relationship means you tend to waste a lot less of your food. And food waste goes into the compost which then grows more food.
At our house, citrus like kumquats and calamondin oranges get eaten whole, skin and all. Zero waste.
However, the skins on citrus fruit like oranges and lemons that aren’t great to eat as-is, still have colorful and flavorful zest to offer. Before eating the tasty fruit inside, we zest these types of citrus — and we encourage you to do the same!
What’s the easiest way to zest lemons, oranges, and other citrus?
Nope, a cheese grater is NOT our preferred tool for zesting citrus. This device is too large and cumbersome and makes it all-to-easy to zest your own fingers in the process.
Nope, not a carrot peeler either. These tools are easy to handle and don’t tend to cause hand injury, but they make large, thick pieces of citrus skin rather than finely grated zest. (These are good for dressing up the side of a cocktail glass though.)
The single best tool we’ve found for quickly and easily zesting citrus to an ideal consistency is a microplaner. Cost? $10.
How to zest citrus with a microplane
Once you have a microplane, you’ll never have to waste your lemon or orange zest again. Here’s how to zest your citrus:
- Zest the fruit BEFORE you eat or juice it. Once the pulp is gone, it’s very hard to zest the loose, saggy skin of the fruit.
- Over a plate or cutting board, work your way around the outside of the fruit with the microplane, removing the colorful outer layer of skin as you go.
- The zest will build up on the underside of the microplane, and you’ll have to tap it off into a pile on the plate/cutting board. Keep going until there’s no more outer skin left on your citrus.
It’s that simple!
Drying, storing, and using citrus zest
Even if you don’t use your citrus zest immediately, no problem. Spread it flat on a plate, cookie sheet, or wax paper, and it will dry in about 4-5 days.
You’ll know the zest is dry when it’s crunchy to the touch. At that point, you can smash it in your fingers to form it into a more loose powder-like texture and store it either in a ziploc, a jar, or a spice bottle until you’re ready to use it. From there, it can be stored for a year or more.
Top 10 ways to use citrus zest
Citrus zest offers a unique taste that’s great for flavoring a wide variety of foods and beverages.
What are the best ways to use citrus zest?
Here are out top-10 recommendations for using your citrus zest:
- “cellos” such as limoncello and orangecello (or as a flavoring in other adult beverages),
- flavoring in homemade vinegar and other ferments,
- added to a salad dressing,
- curd (which is like a tart citrus pudding),
- citrus sugar,
- added to baked goods (like our summer breakfast bread),
- added to sauces and dips like our garlic aoioli,
- as a colorful finishing garnish on pretty much any dish,
- flavoring in brine,
- as a flavoring in pretty much any seafood or pasta dish.
We hope this article helps you use more parts of your citrus while enjoying all the delicious flavors and beautiful colors of citrus zest!
Other articles citrus-lovers will enjoy:
- Recipe: Meyer lemon bars with rosemary browned butter shortbread crust
- How to grow citrus in pots in any climate zone
- Recipe: fresh guava and Meyer lemon ice cream
- Recipe: calamondin marmalade with baby ginger
- Buddha’s hand citron: make tea, candy, and simple syrup from the same recipe
- How to grow and make lemon blossom tea
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NateMay 5, 2022 at 5:27 pm
Organic does not at all mean pesticide-free. As an organic gardener, it seems like you would know this.
In organic farming, they often use more pesticides and some of them are arguably worse. Just Google “organic farming does not mean pesticide free” and take your pick of any number of articles from any source you like. It’s a well-known fact.
Therefore, buying organic lemons to zest is not likely to save you from harmful pesticides.
NateMay 5, 2022 at 5:31 pm
Btw, I should point out that I stumbled on in here looking for a way to zest without pesticides. Sadly, I don’t think there is a way. Too bad because lemon zest is great on yerba mate.
I was thinking maybe peel off the color layer of the peel and throw that away and then peel the white stuff and use that as the zest. Won’t be as pretty, but it’s got to have at least a bit less pesticide, right?
Aaron von FrankMay 7, 2022 at 7:24 am
The colorful outer skin on citrus fruit is also where the most intense, nuanced flavors are. The white part below that is the pith, which has a spongy texture making it difficult to grate. Depending on the type of citrus, the pith may range from nearly flavorless to intensely bitter. While the pith of any citrus fruit is technically edible, it’s not a good substitute for zest. And if a citrus tree has been treated with a systemic synthetic pesticide, those pesticides will be contained within the cells of the entire plant, including the pith, since the pesticide is absorbed and distributed throughout the plant’s tissue.
Aaron von FrankMay 7, 2022 at 7:24 am
Hi Nate! We don’t make the claim anywhere in this article that organic farmers don’t use pesticides. What we say is: “we recommend only making zest from citrus you grow yourself without pesticides or certified organic citrus wherein farmers are not allowed to use synthetic pesticides.” Synthetic pesticide is the key term here. Synthetic pesticides can not be used by organic farms, only OMRI approved pesticides. You can read more about why we recommend buying organic vs conventionally grown produce here if you’re interested: https://www.tyrantfarms.com/5-organic-farming-facts-you-should-know/.
Mary BialoglowJuly 30, 2021 at 11:48 am
Thank you for the information concerning pesticides on citrus fruit. I watch cooking shows where the host zests a lemon, and I am always wondering why they don’t advise viewers to be concerned about the pesticides. I have been just washing my lemons before zesting but now I will not do that, unless the citrus fruit is organic. Again, many thanks.
Aaron von FrankJuly 30, 2021 at 12:22 pm
You’re very welcome, Mary. Happy zesting!