How to Zest a Lemon Two Ways–With a Grater or a Knife

Learn how to make lemon zest so you can brighten all your favorite recipes.

Whether you're baking a cake or cooking dinner, knowing how to zest a lemon is important. Adding a little lemon zest is one of the best ways to wake up a dish that still needs a little extra something. But what exactly is lemon zest and how do you make it? Lemon zest is the flavorful, colorful portion of the rind of any citrus fruit. Scratch a lemon with your fingernail and you'll smell an intensely citrusy aroma. That's because the fruit's essential oils reside in its rind. Zesting is one of the best ways to harness all of that flavor. Freshly zest lemon adds brightness to dishes like fettuccine with asparagus, leek, and mint to a one-skillet roasted chicken—both easy Easter dinner ideas.

To zest a lemon, always start by washing the fruit under running water and patting it dry before using. Even if you're just using the zest, it's important to remove all the wax coating or anything else that might be on the outside before zesting. If you are planning to juice the lemon too, zesting should always come first. Trust us, trying to grate tiny quarters of a lemon is a challenge.

The easiest way to make ultra-fine, delicate lemon zest is with a grater or zester. We like a Microplane ($15; best, but if you don't have one, a sharp knife will do the trick. A Y-peeler or box grater are also great alternatives.

How to Zest a Lemon With a Grater

If you don't have lemons, some common lemon zest substitutes include the zest of another citrus (use the same amount the recipe called for), dried lemon peel (use the equal amount), or lemon extract (use half the amount of lemon zest the original recipe calls for).

Follow these easy steps to learn how to zest a lemon with a grater or a knife efficiently and properly.

What You Need

  • Lemons
  • Cutting board
  • Grater
  • Chef's knife

How to Zest a Lemon With a Grater

Hold the Microplane in your dominant hand away from you and use your other hand to hold a lemon over a cutting board or plate. (Note: Graters, especially Microplanes, are extremely sharp and should be used with caution.)

Using moderate pressure, drag the lemon in a downward motion against the blades of the grater to remove the colorful portion of the skin. Continue this step until the pith (the white part) is fully exposed and you have removed all or most of the peel. (You will know when you have reached the pith when the lemon becomes harder to grate and the resulting zest is a lighter color yellow.) If the zest is stuck under the Microplane, tap it against the plate or cutting board to release the finely grated zest.

How to Zest a Lemon With a Knife

Making a pie filling or a cocktail? A sharp chef's knife is the easiest alternative to zesting a lemon without resorting to fancy gadgets. Hold the lemon firmly in one hand on a cutting board and a knife in your dominant hand. Starting from the top of the fruit, cut into the skin and slowly remove the peel in strips working your way around the lemon with the knife. Watch out for the pith here; it can be easy to break into the lemon itself. After the lemon is fully peeled, slice or mince the lemon peel pieces into the desired size.

Practice your new skills by making one of our favorite lemon bars recipes.

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