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Are you throwing out the best part of your citrus fruits?

Behold the delicious treasures of the citrus peel; here's how to get the best of the zest.

Most people buy citrus for the fruit or juice and then toss the peels, but there's a lot going on in those peels that would be a shame to waste; namely, the zest.

The zest of lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruits, and all of their cousins is comprised of the colorful part of the peel – it's the place where the fruit's aromatic oils live and it is heaven on Earth. While the white part of the peel – the pith – is bitter, the colorful layer above has all the depth of the citrus flavor. The juice and flesh may have the bright acid and edible fruit, which is of course what they're famous for – but the zest's rich, fruity, and floral flavor is one of the best kitchen ingredients around.

Zest can be used just about anywhere to impart its flavor: Anything from salads, hummus, pastas, and compound butters to cookie dough, pancakes, ice cream, and cake batter. And really, just about anywhere else. It's my go-to ingredient for the best salad dressing and the secret of success for my guacamole and buttercreams. And if you use citrus already, it's free!

The best approach that I have come up with is to zest an entire fruit right before eating it or juicing it, since it's easier to zest a whole fruit. The zest can then be used, or stored using one of the methods below.

The most important part is to remove only the colorful part, and avoid the bitter pith. There are a number of tools you can use for different results. I've made a quick visual. (Note the collapsable box grater (that fits in a drawer), one of the greatest kitchen inventions ever.)

Zesting tools© Melissa Breyer

For times when you want the texture of the zest to disappear, the finest grating is best, like with a microplane. I almost always go with this method because it seems to release the most flavor. For use as a delicious garnish, the little curls from a zester are good – perfect for topping cookies or cupcakes. For cocktails, the vegetable peeler or knife make a more sizable garnish. While I have acquired all of these tools over the years, one could get pretty similar results for all of these with a sharp knife and some knife skills.

Zest types© Melissa Breyer

If you are not going to use your zest right away, it will last until you need it. Zesting right onto the food or into a storage container ensures that all that nice aromatic oil doesn't end up on the cutting board.

Refrigerate: For use in a couple days, just store it in the refrigerator.
Freeze: Freeze zest for up to six months; this makes an excellent source for a sprinkle here and there. No defrosting required.
Dry: Make zest or twists and allow to dry, about three or four days for twists, less for zest. Store in an airtight container.
Make powdered extract: Dry like above, and then pulverize into a powder in a blender or spice grinder. This can be added to spice blends (like lemon pepper) or delicious citrus sugar.
Make citrus olive oil: Pound course zest or strips in a mortar and pestle with some oil added. Place in a jar with more oil and let rest for six hours. Strain into a clean jar.
Candy peels: Sugar and citrus is one of the food world's best partnerships. You can candy orange peel for the French confection known as “orangette,” you can candy lemon strips for sweet garnishes (or just eating straight), and you can even candy whole kumquats. See more here: 8 odd things you can candy.

For more on the many splendors of citrus, see related stories below.

Last updated May 2020

Behold the delicious treasures of the citrus peel; here's how to get the best of the zest.