Lemon zest is an essential ingredient in both sweet and savory cooking. The easiest way to zest a lemon is using a dedicated microplane or zester, but it is absolutely possible to get that lemon zest even without any special tools!
What is lemon zest?
The zest is the yellow skin of a lemon, or the outer layer of any citrus fruit It is loaded with citrus oil, where a lot of the aroma and flavor of the lemon is concentrated. If you pierce the skin of a lemon, you'll probably see a small spray of what looks like lemon juice coming from the peel. This is actually the oil!
The white part underneath the colorful skin is called the pith. The pith is somewhat bitter and does not contain much lemon flavor, so you don't want to mix any of that in with your zest.
How to zest a lemon
Option 1: Use a microplane or zester
A microplane or a zester is designed to make very shallow cuts in the skin of a lemon, peeling off the oil-filled skin without removing any pith. Simply hold the zester steady and slide the lemon down over the shape textured side.
Option 2: If you don't have a zester...
There are two common tools you can use to get the skin off of your lemon without one of these specialty tools: a paring knife or a vegetable peeler.
A cheese grater might seem like a good option, but often the grates are either too deep or too shallow to efficiently get the zest off of the citrus.
Take your vegetable peeler or paring knife and cut a strip of yellow skin off of the lemon. The peeler should easily grab just the zest, but you'll need to be a little more precise with the knife.
If needed, you can use a knife to scrape off any pith on the strip of lemon.
Place the strip of lemon skin flat on a cutting surface and cut it lengthwise into very thin strips, julienning the peel.
Gather the strips together and cut them crosswise into very fine dice. You want the pieces to be as small as possible to replicate the zest that's produced by a microplane. The dice may be a bit larger, but all the essential lemon oils are in there and you won't have any of the bitterness of the pith.
This ultra-fine dice is packed with lemon flavor and can be used in any recipe that calls for lemon zest. You can use the same process for zesting oranges, limes and other citrus fruits, as well. The rest of your lemon can be saved for other uses, even after it has been zested, too.