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The Best Way to Zest a Lemon

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The Best Way to Zest a Lemon 2

I used to take my sweet time zesting lemons. I’d skate the Microplane around the surface, leisurely and randomly, either letting the zest collect in the shoot or watching it rain gently into the bowl of batter. I had all the time in the world.

But then I started spending part of each week in a professional pastry kitchen, where I zest upwards of 20 lemons in a row during every shift. One day, as I was humming along, a more experienced pastry cook asked if I’d like to learn the efficient way to get the job done. Yes!, I shouted, knowing that watching me zest my lemons must have been, to her, as frustrating as walking behind someone moving at a glacial pace through Times Square.

To make a lemon (or lime) completely bald in as few strokes as possible, the key is to shift the angle of the fruit as you drag it—forcefully—from the bottom to the top of the Microplane:

Repeat 20 times.

Photo by James Ransom

Here’s the idea:

  1. Start off with the pointy tip of the lemon face down, so that you’re looking straight into its stem end.
  2. As you move the lemon down the Microplane (I rested the Microplane against a plate for the photos above, but if your Microplane has a handle, you could always hold it over the bowl), rotate the lemon so that its entire curve comes into contact with the blades. You’ll make a flicking motion with your wrist, almost like you’re rolling a bowling ball.
  3. That means that the lemon will make an arc motion, and by the time you’ve reached the other end of the Microplane, its stem end is facing the tool and you’re looking at the pointy tip.
  4. If you’ve done a good job, you should have created a large streak of baldness from tip to tip.
  5. Now continue this motion until you’ve gone all the way around the lemon and shorn it entirely.
  6. Once you get good, it will only take you 8 to 10 motions to zest the entire lemon. Congratulations, you have become a lemon-zesting machine.
We created this pile of zest in approximately 5 minutes.

Photo by James Ransom

The motion was, for me, awkward at first. You need to get a great grip on the lemon and apply a surprising amount of force against the Microplane. You’ll also want to drag the fruit in as fluid a motion as possible—stopping and starting makes the process more difficult (and more risky). Because your fingers are coming in close proximity to the Microplane, I’d recommend wearing kitchen gloves when you’re first learning.

If I only have to zest a couple lemons for a cake or a salad dressing, I’ll still take my time. But if I’m baking or cooking on a large scale—or I want to prove my kitchen chops—you can be sure I’ll challenge anyone in the area to a high-speed Zest-Off. (And, pssst, I’ll win!)

Have you ever seen such bald lemons?

Photo by James Ransom

Here are 7 of our favorite lemony recipes, heavy on the zest.

Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins

The perfect place to start practicing your technique, this recipe calls for a whopping three tablespoons of lemon zest. There’s lemon zest and juice in both the batter and the icing, so you’re guaranteed a zippy hit of citrus in every bite.

Lemony Cheese Blintzes

Another option for breakfast or brunch, these blintzes feature delicate crepes wrapped around a creamy farmer’s cheese filling. Lemon brings much needed acid and helps to lighten up these blintzes, ensuring you won’t have to take a nap right after breakfast.

One-Pot Kale & Quinoa Pilaf

Since it was published over a decade ago, this recipe has stood the test of time, and for good reason. It’s nutrient-dense, vegetarian, fast, and flavorful. The secret weapon? Meyer lemon zest (and juice!) bring acid and balance to this perfect pilaf.

Sautéed Shrimp with Lemon, Garlic, and Parsley

Lemon zest brightens up these garlicky shrimp that are perfect for a weeknight or any night you need dinner on the table in under 30 minutes. Serve alongside some spaghetti or a big chunk of crusty bread to sop up the delectable sauce.

Creamy Asparagus, Lemon, and Walnut Pasta

This super simple pasta is another great weeknight option and even better, it’s vegan! This brilliant recipe makes a cream-free creamy sauce from blending some of the asparagus with starchy pasta water, then tossing with chopped walnuts for texture and lemon zest for a pop of freshness.

Louisa’s Cake

Miss traveling? One bite of this cake and you will be transported to Italian summers. It’s an ethereally light ricotta cake packed with lemony tang. Make it for a special occasion, or make any day feel like a special one.

Meyer Lemon Cheesecake with Biscoff Crust

Meyer lemons shine to their fullest potential in this decadent cheesecake. If you’ve never tried Meyer lemons, this is a great entry point; they’re slightly sweeter than regular lemons, and perfect for dessert. Show off your new zesting skills on two of these gems and bake this gorgeous cake.


Is this the way you’ve always zested lemons? Or do you have an even more efficient technique to share? Lay it on us in the comments below.

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