Lemons and other citrus fruits offer cooks and bakers two ways to take advantage of their bright, aromatic character. One is their juice, which can be used as-is or in concentrated form to enliven sauces, marinades and baked goods. The other is their zest, the brightly colored outer layer of peel. The zest has an especially strong and fresh flavor, but it doesn't keep well. If you'd like to have long-lasting lemon flavor at your fingertips, dried lemon peel is a pantry-friendly alternative.
A Zesty Ingredient
The peel of a lemon consists of two separate and very distinct layers. The thick inner portion is made up of a firm, spongy white substance called the pith. This has little or no lemon flavor and it's very bitter. Outside this is the waxy outer peel, or zest. Aside from its bright color, it contains a number of oils and volatile flavor compounds that provide much of the lemon's flavor and fragrance. It can be shaved off in broad pieces with a knife, taken in long strips with a zesting tool or reduced to delicate shreds with a fine strainer. Whatever the method, a medium lemon yields about 1 tablespoon of finely shredded zest.
Once the zest is shredded, it tends to lose flavor pretty rapidly. The volatility of its flavor compounds make the lemon agreeably fragrant, but volatility and long life don't go together. If you refrigerate your zest for more than a day, its flavor will quickly dissipate. Spice manufacturers, recognizing an opportunity, offer commercially freeze-dried lemon peel as an alternative. The fast drying process retains much of the flavor of fresh lemon zest, while the dried product is shelf-stable and can last for months in your pantry without any appreciable loss of quality.
Aside from its value as a preservation method, drying foods has a secondary benefit. Removing moisture from the food tends to concentrate its taste, simply because the food itself contains less water to dilute the flavors. Freeze-dried lemon peel is approximately three times as potent as fresh zest and correspondingly less should be used. It's an easy conversion for the home cook or baker. Each lemon provides roughly a tablespoon of zest and there are 3 teaspoons in each tablespoon. So, if your recipe calls for the zest of 2 lemons, you'd substitute 2 teaspoons of the dried peel.
Storing Your Own
If you regularly use lemons for their juice and would like to preserve the zest for later, you can dry your own. Use a paring knife or vegetable peeler to take the peel off in thin strips and dry it in your oven or food dehydrator. Package the dried peel in airtight bags or jars, ideally in one-lemon portions for easy use. Alternatively, you can freeze the zest. This provides a direct substitution for fresh zest, needing only a few minutes on the counter to thaw. Freeze it in one-lemon portions in small zipper-seal bags for later use.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- The Kitchn: All About Zest -- How to Measure and Store Lemon Zest?
- Photo Credit Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images