There are obviously many benefits gained from using the freshest of ingredients possible when cooking, and using the zest from citrus fruits is no exception. Whether you are using limes, lemons, oranges, or grapefruit, the zest from these fruits will not only add an abundance of flavour as an ingredient, but also create a decorative garnish if you choose.
I will always remember eating peeled oranges as a child and they still had large pieces of the white part of the peel attached to them and tasted very bitter. This is normal. The pale underside of the peel of any citrus is called the pith. It is always more bitter tasting than the flesh of the fruit or the outer coloured part of the peel, called the zest.
There are many ways to include zest as an ingredient. A seafood dish, for example, will always benefit from the addition of lemon zest. Lemon and seafood are a classic combination. Limes are often used in salsas and Mexican cooking so their zest will also enhance many of these types of recipes.
Basically, a rule of thumb would be to use zest in any recipe that already has citrus juice as an ingredient. This being said, the flavour of an orange chicken stir-fry will taste more complete with addition of orange zest added as an ingredient in the recipe or as a garnish on top of the finished dish.
Also, zest will compliment many desserts as well. Imagine a piece of spiced pumpkin cake topped with a dollop of whipped cream, delicate curls of bright yellow lemon zest, a vibrant green mint leaf and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
As a garnish, zest will brighten up the appearance of the final plating of your recipe, but should almost always be married up with other contrasting colours. In the cake example above, we paired the yellow lemon zest with a green mint leaf and the warm rusty colour of cinnamon. For the orange chicken stir-fry I mentioned, use the orange zest, but maybe some thin diagonal slices of green onion as well. Your imagination is your playground in the kitchen and you should experiment as much as possible to bring enjoyment and attractiveness to the table.
How to get the zest
There are basically three ways to remove zest from citrus fruits. Using a knife is one of them but it is not the most effective way, as you always run more of a risk of removing the bitter white pith as well. You are better off using a micro-plane grater or a zester.
Micro-plane graters are the ones being used most on TV cooking shows lately. They are small, long graters with very fine teeth. When placed across the top of a bowl and the citrus fruit is rubbed on it, the bowl will capture the fine gratings of the zest. The downside of using one of these graters is that one always runs the risk of grating too far and getting the white bitter pith as well.
I find zesters are a much better tool. A zester is a small handheld tool that has five little circular blades at one end. When it is dragged across a citrus fruit from top to bottom, it produces beautiful curls of zest while leaving the bitter pith behind. The obvious benefit of using a zester is for the long curls that are perfect for garnishing.
The downside however, would be that if using zest as an ingredient you would then have a second step of chopping. If you currently do not own either tool, I would recommend buying a zester instead of a grater. The zester is less expensive, gives you garnishing versatility and chances are if you are cooking, you already have a knife and cutting board out, so chopping the zest for an ingredient is not as much of a chore as you may first think.
Whichever tool you choose, please remember that you usually get what you pay for. Don’t expect a zester purchased for one dollar to work very well. Buying premium kitchen tools are an investment into the health and enjoyment of home cooked meals. When taken care of properly they will last you a lifetime and thus be well worth the money you paid.
Dear Chef Dez:
What is finely chopped lemon zest? Is it grated lemon rind?
Marvin M. Lomond, AB
As explained above, zest is the outer-part of the peel of any citrus fruit – so not the white bitter pith of the peel but the outer coloured part of the peel. This holds a ton of essential oils of the citrus fruit and is screaming with flavour and aroma. In fact it smells more like the fruit than the fruit itself. Use a zester or a fine grater to remove it without removing any of the white bitter part of the peel underneath (the pith).
Chef Dez is a food columnist, culinary instructor and cookbook author. Visit him at www.chefdez.com