Three Ways to Zest a Lemon (and Other Citrus Fruits) Without a Zester
Lemons are delightful, potent fruit with many culinary applications, and the secret to their incredible flavor often lies within the rind, where the oil is stored. This is why lemon zest can pack such a punch in small quantities. If you'd like to add some to your next recipe but don't have a zester, don't despair: There are actually three methods for zesting citrus that don't require a zester, and each one serves as proof that your everyday kitchen tools can be used for far more than you might first suspect.
Use a Vegetable Peeler
Fred Chang, a pastry chef and finalist on season ten of MasterChef, recommends using a vegetable peeler to zest citrus in a pinch. "Before I had a Microplane, what I would do is peel the lemon," Chang says. "You might get some of that white pith underneath, which is on the bitterer side. You can use a spoon to scrape it off and it'll be perfectly fine."
After you've removed the pith, Chang recommends either chiffonading the peel, or finely chopping it, which is a good technique if you're using it for stock or seasoning. Breaking it down into smaller pieces extracts the flavor more quickly. "With each time you cut it, it does expose more air to the peel, and that air does break down the lemon peel itself," Chang says. "That way, the oil comes out more."
Try a (Serrated) Knife
Another option is to zest your lemon or citrus with a knife. While a chef's knife would do and a paring knife is slightly better, a serrated knife is the most preferable option as it will help to agitate the citrus skin and release the oil. "Abrasion or scratching is very important in the process as you zest, since that's what releases all the oil," says Elias Popa, the executive chef and founder of Oti, a New York City restaurant. "That's why a zester works so well."
However, if you lack a serrated knife, you can still slice off the rind with a paring or chef's knife. When you go to mince the peel, just be careful not to pulverize it. "When you're chopping, you don't want your board to become too wet, meaning you're just smashing the peel and you're losing a lot of flavor onto the board," Popa says. "If your board is wet when you're done, it means that most of the flavor is on the board and not in the peel." In this type of situation, don't worry—no need to scrap and start over. You can still use the zest, just try to scrape the oil that leaks onto your board back into the bowl or pan you're using.
Opt for a Box Grater
For those that keep a few more tools in the kitchen, a cheese grater would do the trick as well, according to Alyssa Johnson, a former pastry cook at Colette Bakery who is now finishing her studies at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. "You could use a box grater and grate the lemons or the citrus," she says. "The zest is not going to be as fine as it would be if you were going to use something like a Microplane ($31.99, amazon.com) or a zester. But it can work in a pinch and it avoids you having to go out and buy something that maybe you won't ever use for anything else."
Some cheese graters will have finer holes for zesting, but if you find that you still need to give the peel a rough chop before using it, make sure your knife is sharp. A good barometer of sharpness is the tomato test, according to Johnson. "If you can't run your knife over it and at least score the tomato, I would say your knife is probably not sharp enough," Johnson says. If you can easily cut a tomato using the back or middle part of the blade you've passed the test.