Sometimes, it’s what’s on the outside that really counts. That’s certainly the case with citrus zest, a part of the fruit that often ends up in the compost bin. It packs a wallop of flavor in just a few judiciously applied flecks, balancing the fat in many dishes and adding eye-opening flavor.
“Zest carries some of the oil that comes off the peel, and that can really intensify the flavor,” says Rebecca Katz, MS; Founder, The Healing Kitchens Institute and author of Clean Soups: Simple, Nourishing Recipes for Health and Vitality (Ten Speed Press, 2016). “Using zest in a dish will give it a dynamic flavor that’s more animated than what you would taste with juice.”
Even better, she adds, zest offers a wide array of health benefits. “It’s rich in polyphenols, the plant chemicals that are high in antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties,” she says. Katz’s favorite uses for zest (she confesses to a fondness for lemon in particular) includes using it in marinades. “It will add great flavor without adding the acid that will ‘cook’ a food,” she says. “It’s always great with vegetables, and it adds a distinct flavor to baked goods.”
Zest can add “pow” to just about any dish, but there are several classics where it often plays an important role. One go-to is gremolata, an herb condiment associated with the sunny Italian city of Milan. Made of lemon zest, garlic and parsley, the sauce is ladled over the ossobuco alla Milanese, a classic preparation of veal shanks.
While Katz swears by her kitchen’s rasp grater (also known as a Microplane), there are many other ways to skin a lemon (or a grapefruit, tangerine or even yuzu). Use a paring knife to create long strips, then create thin ribbons or a fine chop. Just be sure to avoid the white layer of pith directly beneath the peel, because it adds bitterness. Wait to prepare your zest until just before you’re ready to use it, so it stays as moist and flavorful as possible.
Bon Appetit’s test kitchen says “Zest is Best.” Here are their kitchen tips.