Lemons are so bright and cheerful, with their sunny color and fresh scent, that it’s no wonder they make such a great addition to almost any plate. It has a desirable odor that seems to soothe everyone’s nose and a unique flavor that—while a bit too strong and acidic to drink straight—lends the perfect complement to both sweet and savory dishes.
Lemons are among the oldest fruits known to man that is usually cultivated in subtropical regions around the world. This fruit has been beneficial to the Indian natives who made use of the fruits for sustenance purposes and healing effects; the tree parts such as branches, barks, and roots were all utilized, along with the fruit. Not only is the juice and fleshy inside good for cooking, but so is the yellow outer layer of skin, known as the ‘zest’.
Cooking with lemon
Lemon as a primary fruit juice has a caustic taste because of the presence of an acerbic substance called citric acid. It has a pH value of 2-3 which makes the juice taste acrid, bitter at times, and tangy. While it may be a bit too potent to take it straight, something about lemon just brightens up the flavors in many foods. Sometimes instead of the juice, a chef may opt for the lemon zest because it’s milder and less sharp, but still brings a great flavor to the cooking. The zest is infused with fragrant oils that give an aromatic taste and lemon essence to the recipe.
The citrus aroma and acidity can be a wonderful addition to all sorts of dishes and beverages— teas (both hot and cold), fruit juices, poultry, sauces, all sorts of seafood, vegetables, cakes, pies, puddings, and a host of candy desserts.
Sometimes people try zesting a lemon, only to end up with a bitter, nasty flavor that may make you think the lemon went bad. This is usually because they unintentionally added not just the zest, but the pith. Citrus fruit contains two outermost layers; the top layer which is bright, shiny colored, and the textured surface is termed lemon zest. The inner layer– characterized as a white-colored fibrous membrane that coats the fruit inside — is called the pith. These are the protecting layers that preserve the integrity of the inner, fleshy citrus fruit. The pith is extremely bitter, leaving an unpleasant undertaste.
When using lemon zest, you should avoid the pith. There are tools specifically designed that are the ideal tools to scrape off just the outer layer of zest without getting pith into your food. They’re known as ‘lemon zesters’. You can also use a fine food grater, however, you should be careful not to scrape off too much of the pith as you work the fruit back and forth over the surface.
Lemon zest is also sold in the supermarkets on the spice shelves. These dried lemon zests kept on hand make it easy to sprinkle a bit into any recipe you may be cooking. While dried zest will give some of the desired flavors, though, it’s just no match for having the real fruits on hand to zest freshly. Still, the dried spice is good to have in a pinch; it’s better than omitting it from a recipe.
How to Zest
All you need to do to zest a lemon is to scrub the fruit using a clean sponge in warm and soapy water. Since this is the part exposed to the outdoors, to the handling and traveling, to the insecticides and fertilizers, you’ll want to make sure it’s very clean before you scrape it off and put it in your food. Rinse it well then dry it.
Scrape the tool along the surface to ‘skim’ off the yellow zest. Do not repeatedly go over the same section; once the white fibrous membrane starts to appear, you’ll want to avoid scraping it up.
Don’t waste a lemon once it’s been zested! Squeeze out the juice and refrigerate or freeze it; or if you plan to use it within a day or two, wrap it tightly in plastic food wrap and store it in the fridge.
Getting Zest without a Zester
No zester? No problem… You can still get that zesty goodness into your food if you have a simple potato peeler. After washing your lemon, simply use the peeler to scrape off the outermost layer of yellow. With a peeler, it will come off in wider, flatter chunks.
Lay the chunks on your clean cutting board and use a sharp knife to cut very, very narrow sliced strips, then dice the strips into tiny little dots. This will be a little thicker than with a regular zester and takes a bit longer, but it is a way to make do with the tools you have on hand.