Kitchen tips: zesting citrus

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Just so it’s clear from the start, this is a rant.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been watching “The Taste” on ABC. I’ve been enjoying the idea of applying the concept behind “The Voice” to cooking. The judges’ voting has nothing to do with popularity or the perceived mass appeal of the contestants. It’s all about the taste of their food. The judges do a blind tasting at the end of every episode, so if your food sucks, you’re cut.

The contestants are divided into four teams, each mentored by one of the show’s judges (Ludo Lefebvre, Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain and Brian Malarkey), and consist of a mix of professional and home cooks.

I can forgive the lack of technique in the home cooks because they don’t know any better. However, I believe that opposite applies to the professionals. They have the training, ergo, they should know better.

So what does any of this have to do with zesting citrus?

While watching Tuesday’s episode, I became agitated when one of the professional cooks on Lefebvre’s team committed one of my biggest cooking pet peeves, which is something I’ve seen in far too many kitchens — he held a microplane upside down while zesting an orange.

You may be wondering why I would find this so appalling, so I shall explain.

Don’t make the same mistake

The outer rind of citrus fruits (the colored part) contains flavorful and aromatic oils. The oils in the zest is what imparts the citrus flavor into whatever you add it to.

When you use a microplane or grater to remove the zest from citrus, it releases these oils. By holding a microplane upside down, you waste these oils by releasing them into the air.

Zesting citrus in this way also causes the zest to dry out. The oils are no longer in the zest, but floating around in the room, giving the air a pleasant citrus smell instead of adding a pleasant citrus flavor to whatever you are making.

While I am on the topic of zesting citrus, microplaning citrus onto a cutting board is just as wasteful (although it does look good in a photograph). Instead of floating around in the air, the oils are now all over your cutting board. It may look good to have all the ingredients perfectly portioned into tiny dishes on cooking shows, but this is not practical in any kitchen that isn’t in front of a camera or studio audience.

The right way to do it

The most efficient way of zesting citrus is to microplane it directly into the cooking implement (mixing bowl, pot, skillet, etc.) that you are using. This way the zest doesn’t have time to dry out, and the oils from the rind are released directly into whatever you are making.

In addition, even if it doesn’t call for it, zest can be added to any recipe that uses citrus juice. If your recipe calls for lemon juice, then include the lemon zest to add another dimension of flavor. There is no point in wasting perfectly good zest.

So now you know. Hopefully this tip will help infuse more citrus flavor into your cooking.

Bonus tip: Only use the colored part of the rind. The white part (called the pith) is bitter and will add an unpleasant flavor to your food.


Chef Ed:  I once called Microplane people to find out if their model for kitchen use was different from that for carving and shaping wood...according to them it is different based on the type of stainless steel used.  Frankly, there are different formulations of stainless steel but I do not believe it makes a difference except the stitching may be more aggressive for the carving types.  But a light touch may mitigate that.  It may be that the kitchen type is more expensive.

edmorita moderator

 @Annoddah_Dave It also depends on the brand. Some kitchen microplanes use softer metal than others. I've seen ones that can easily be bent by hand, but really, how much force would you really need? I've used microplanes to shave vegetables, chocolate and hard cheeses. Theoretically, you could use it on ice if you so desired. Ingredients in the kitchen don't get much harder than that.