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Just a tiny pinch of lemon zest adds tangy zip to recipes like lemon bars or lemon custard pie. But what is zest, exactly? It’s the small shavings from the brightly colored and intensely flavored outer skin of lemons (or other citrus fruit), often called lemon peel. When you have lemons on hand, use a zester or Microplane grater to scrape off tiny bits of peel, but beware! The spongy white layer underneath the peel, also known as pith, is very bitter, so avoid grating down too far. One medium-sized lemon will yield about 1 tablespoon of zest.
Luckily, if you’re out of lemons and need a lemon zest substitute, there are a few options.
1. Use Another Citrus
Use an equal amount of either orange or lime zest for your recipe. (Find more recipes using citrus fruit here.) You’ll get the same texture and look of lemon zest, but of course the flavor and color will be different.
2. Use Lemon Extract
The formula is about as easy as it comes:
1 teaspoon of lemon zest = 1/2 teaspoon of lemon extract
3. Use Lemon Juice
Another formula to have handy:
1 teaspoon of lemon zest = 2 tablespoons of lemon juice
Ideally, you’d want to use fresh lemon juice instead of bottled, but if you have fresh lemons to squeeze for juice, you’d have them for zest, right?
4. Use Dried Lemon Peel
Dried lemon peel also works as a lemon zest substitute, but the flavor is much more intense, so use two-thirds less dried lemon peel than the zest called for in a recipe. In other words, if you need 1 tablespoon of lemon zest, use 1/3 tablespoon of dried lemon peel.
When You Shouldn’t Substitute Lemon Zest
If the recipe calls for a large amount of lemon zest (read: more than a couple tablespoons) you should consider making a trip to the store. If you replace a large quantity of zest with lemon juice or extract, you’re adding much more liquid to the recipe, which can change the consistency. And because the juice is acidic, it can react with baking soda and baking powder, creating more air bubbles and changing the overall texture.
While you can skip a small amount of lemon zest altogether, the bright boost of flavor it brings to a dish is unmatched. And there’s no reason to go without it because lemons store so well. Just pop them into a sealed plastic bag (not the flimsy plastic bag from the grocery store) and place in the fridge where they’ll keep for at least a month. (See more food storage tips here.)