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Add Zing with Zest

Citrus peel can brighten all kinds of dishes, savory and sweet

Fine Cooking Issue 36
Photo: Scott Phillips
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Though I use citrus zest all year long, I really appreciate its cheerful color and flavor during winter. Whether grated or cut into strips, the colorful outer peel of a lemon, lime, orange, or grapefruit brightens all kinds of dishes, savory and sweet.

A more complex flavor than juice. While citrus juice, especially lemon juice, has an important place in cooking and baking, it’s a bit of a one-note wonder. I get more excited about the volatile and aromatic oils found in the skin of the fruit, which contain floral and tangy tones as well as a slight, sophisticated bitterness. I almost always add a bit of zest even if a recipe calls for juice only; zest underscores the citrus flavor and announces its presence both visually and texturally. In sweets, zest adds a colorful counterpoint to fresh berry fillings, dried fruit compotes, suave custards, and creamy frostings. Mellowed when baked, it insinuates its sunny personality into cakes and cookies. In savory dishes, a sprinkling of grated zest can brighten a rich stew, perk up a salad, and add zing to a stir-fry or vegetable sauté. Experiment with zest to discover your own uses for this versatile flavoring.

All citrus fruits are candidates for zesting. Lemons are the most popular. The zest from tangerines or blood oranges offers exquisitely flowery aromas. Grapefruits yield a wonderfully complex zest. Lime zest loses some of its kick when cooked, but added just before freezing to a sorbet or granita, it can’t be beat.

Experiment with zest

  • Roasted red peppers tossed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar are nothing new—until you add a sprinkling of orange zest.
  • Make gremolata—the classic garnish for osso buco—by mincing together lemon zest (and orange zest, if you like), parsley, and garlic. Use it to boost the flavor of sautéed chicken or fish.
  • Create your own “signature” cured olives by combining kalamata olives with some grated orange zest, rosemary, and crushed hot red or black pepper.
  • Add grapefruit zest to an avocado and tomato salad; it may sound odd, but it complements the flavors perfectly.
  • Make a compound butter by adding citrus zest, freshly cracked black pepper, and dry mustard to softened butter. Chill and use to top off a grilled steak or fish fillet.

First step: scratch and sniff

A vividly colored peel is usually, but not always, an indication of flavorful zest. Look for firm fruit whose skin is clear of soft spots. I also try to buy organic produce when possible, especially citrus, since I’m using the outside of the fruit.

The more fragrant the fruit, the more flavorful the zest. Scratch the peel of the fruit you’re considering to release some of the volatile oils in the skin. It should fill your nose with a wonderful bouquet. If the aroma is dull, skip that fruit and pick another.

Wash citrus before zesting. If you’ve ever tried to zest a lemon and watched the zester skim the fruit without grabbing the skin, the lemon was probably coated with wax. (Many fruit packers coat citrus with an edible wax to maintain freshness.) To get rid of the wax, scrub the citrus briefly under warm water.

Zest with a light hand

The first zesting tool that comes to mind is called, appropriately, a zester. The five-holed tool removes only the top layer of the peel in thin strips—good to festoon desserts and salads. These delicate strips can be chopped and minced with a knife.

A channel knife gives you a single, thicker strip of zest, great for garnishing because you can twist it decoratively. But because the tool cuts deeper, you’ll get more pith.

For really wide strips—great for infusing sugar syrups and marinades—use a small, sharp knife or a vegetable peeler, and then scrape away any pith you might accidentally peel off. Before using the strips, crush or twist them lightly to release some of the fragrant oils. Resist grating or cutting too deeply when removing the zest, since the white pith underneath is unpleasantly bitter.

A new kitchen tool lets you grate zest with ease. Finely grated zest has always been a difficult chore because much of the zest gets clogged up in the small holes and valleys of the grater. Now a woodworking rasp has been adapted for kitchen use. Marketed as the Microplane (www.microplane.com), this tool offers a more efficient way to get zest without pith.

Zest just before using. Zest’s volatile oils are strongest just after zesting, so use the zest right away. It’s much easier to zest a whole fruit than one that’s been cut, so zest before you juice. In fact, make a habit of zesting a little of all the citrus you use so you can add a little if your dish or batter or salad tastes lackluster: zest may just be the pick-me-up it needs.

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