My three most favorite types of citrus zest: curly, sliced, and fine grated.
I’m sure most of you have already run into “citrus zest” as an ingredient in a recipe. I can think of several mixed drinks that call for it as a garnish. You will find it in everything from appetizers to desserts.
The zest of citrus fruit (mostly oranges, limes, and lemons) is the outermost colored part of the rind. This is what contains the oils that give the flavor. When preparing zest, you want to stay away from the bitter pith or white inner layer.
What does zesting do for dishes? The best way I can describe it is that it adds a wonderful flavor dimension to just about any recipe. Citrus is one of the acid flavors in the four fundamental elements of good cooking- Salt/Fat/Acid/Heat – by Samin Nosrat chef and James Beard Award winning author. Some people try to increase the flavor by adding more juice but, if you do that, you’ll end up with too much liquid and not the consistency needed for the recipe.
A friend of mine makes lemon bars that are incredibly tasty. Without fine zesting from lemons, she’d never get the great lemon flavor and still keep them crispy. Another friend discovered a new dimension of character when he added orange zest to his grandmother’s crunchy orange chicken recipe. I’ve added curly lemon zest to salads and dips without the ‘lemon juice’ taste – which is very different flavors.
Mixed drinks are the same way. More citrus juice just adds more liquid to the mix. Most of the time you don’t want that, especially with an active ingredient like citrus juice. Zesting eliminates that problem completely.
But, keep in mind that not all zest is equal:
Curly zest is perfect as a garnish for cocktails, main courses (like lemon pasta), or just to add a bit of color to your candied citrus decorations.
Sliced zest is a bit trickier but you can easily manage it with a “Y” peeler or very carefully with a sharp paring knife. This wide strip is fabulous for rimming cocktail glasses or for infusing oils and syrups.
Finely grated zest is the stuff you’ll add as an ingredient for sauces, batters, and anything else where you want the added citrus flavor to melt into the dish. For this you need to use a microplane. Be very careful – they are VERY sharp!
Zesting isn’t all about the taste either. It’s the easiest way to include the aroma of the fruit without actually adding the fruit. It’s a bit of a trick you learn as part of your training in culinary technique.
There are some practical tips for zesting. Always scrub the outside of the fruit with warm soapy water, rinse thoroughly and dry completely before using. This removes all of the “stuff” that growers may spray on the fruit. Don’t scrub so hard that you actually break the skin, but enough to make the peel shiny and clean.
If you’re not juicing the citrus right away, then wrap the zested fruit in plastic wrap and refrigerate. And, if you don’t need everything you’ve zested, freeze it in a freezer bag. When need just let it defrost for a minute or two on the counter. A little secret – zest from a lime is about 1 teaspoon and the zest from a medium lemon is about 1 tablespoon!
Watch my video to see the best tools for zesting in action.