The Best Way to Zest an Orange

Orange zest packs huge flavor into little tiny bright and bursting citrus flakes that alight on your tastebuds. Almost any dish can benefit from a sprinkling of acid. It boosts the umami flavor profile that will make your taste buds sing. 

In this article, you’ll learn a few basic ways to make orange zest and some tips for using it in your cooking, baking, and cocktails. 

Let’s get into it!

3 Simple Ways To Zest an Orange

What You’ll Need:

  • Clean, organic, and unwaxed oranges
  • Zesting tool of choice
  • Cutting Board
  • Where specified: a sharp knife

With a Zester / Microplane

how to zest an orange

A zester, otherwise known as a microplane, is the perfect tool to achieve very fine flakes of orange zest to garnish dishes or incorporate into baking without compromising consistency. 

It’s a great tool to have on hand since you can use it for zesting, finely grating hard cheeses like parmesan or Locatelli, or achieving a dusting of cinnamon or ginger.  

  1. Wash, and dry your orange. 
  2. Holding the handle of the microplane in your non-dominant hand, with the sharp bulbous gratings upward, stabilize the other end of the tool against a flat surface (like a cutting board), holding the zester at a comfortable angle.
  3. Take the orange in your dominant hand, and brace it against the zester.
  4. Firmly drag the orange down across the microplane, only grating the bright orange zest, leaving behind the bitter white pith.
  5. Rotate the orange as necessary until all zest is removed, and the orange is left only with the pith.

Pro-Tip: Don’t toss the leftover orange. Use it for juice instead! I love to have citrus zest on hand to brighten my dishes, so if I ever have an orange that I will discard the peel, I will zest it and store the zest to use over time!

With a Grater

Woman Rubbing Orange Zest

A grater is a suitable replacement if you do not have a microplane on hand, but inevitably, the zest will be larger in size. In addition, you will have to take more care to avoid digging too deep into the pith with each stroke. 

  1. Wash, and dry your orange.
  2. Brace the grater against a flat surface, and use the side with the smallest holes
  3. With the orange in your dominant hand, drag it down the grater, pushing hard enough to retrieve the zest but not hard enough to peel the pith. 
  4. Rotate the orange as necessary until all zest is removed, and only the white bitter pith is left behind.

With a Peeler

using a peeler to zest

Using a peeler is the perfect solution for achieving long, ribbon-like strands of zest for garnish or cocktails!

  1. Wash, and dry your orange.
  2. Hold the orange in your non-dominant hand.
  3. Brace your dominant thumb against the bottom of the orange, and drag the peeler down the orange rind from top to bottom; make sure to push hard enough to collect the zest and none of the white pith.
  4. Continue zesting the orange in continuous strokes from top to bottom around the entirety of the fruit until only the pith is left behind. 

With a Knife

with the knife

I was taught to zest citrus in culinary school with a paring knife because it requires the least amount of tools on hand. 

For home cooking, most folks only need three knives to get any job done: a chef knife, a serrated bread knife, and a paring knife

While the other tools I’ve mentioned are nice to have, if you own a paring knife, then you don’t really “need” anything else to get the job done. To be honest, this is excellent practice to hone your knife skills as well.

Here’s the method:

  1. Wash, and dry your orange.
  2. Hold the orange in your non-dominant hand.
  3. Similar to using a peeler, you will brace your dominant thumb against the bottom of the orange, and using a sharp paring knife, cut into the peel from top to bottom, trying only to slice away the zest of the citrus.
  4. Continue zesting the orange in continuous strokes from top to bottom around the entirety of the fruit until only the pith is left.
  5. Now, examine the long ribbon-like peels, and scrape away any white pith that may have come away with the zest.
  6. Stack the strips of zest on top of each other and swap to a chefs knife
  7. Slice the strips as thin as you can lengthwise to achieve string-like strands of zest
  8. Finally, mince those orange zest strands horizontally, creating minuscule cuts of zest

How To Decide Which Procedure to Follow

For a Cocktail

red drink with orange zest

Most cocktails will call for strips or curls of orange zest, like in this Citrus Paloma. Using a peeler or a pairing knife will help you achieve those zest strips with a bite!

For Baking

summer cake with zest on top

Since baking is more of a science than other cooking procedures, most recipes will detail precisely the size of zest that you should be going for. 

This Fennel and Orange Upside Cornmeal Cake specifies grated orange zest. 

To err on the side of caution, the smaller the zest, the less likely it is to interfere with the consistency of whatever you are creating. Opt for using a microplane, fine grater, or mincing strips of zest.

For a Specific Recipe

Game Hen with Orange Marsala Sauce

Almost all recipes can benefit from a sprinkling of finely grated citrus zest. The flakes are so small that they will not change the overall texture much. 

However, some recipes can handle more heft when it comes to larger pieces of the tangy orange zest. For example, this Spicy Orange Zest and Beef recipe calls for ribbons of zest. 

Take a look at the ingredients in each dish you are approaching. Does it lead with other punchy flavors: salty, spicy, or sweet? Then it can probably stand up against more zest (acid) or more significant bits of zest!

What Oranges Are Best for Zesting?

orange

All oranges from Navel to Cara Cara, Valencia, etc., are great for zesting. What you want to look for when choosing an orange to zest is that it is organic and unwaxed

Standard oranges are often waxed after picking to preserve their appearance and freshness. Similarly, commercial growing operations will spray their fruit with pesticides and other chemicals to produce their product with the least amount of blemishes in the least amount of time to maximize profit. 

When you are using orange for its zest, if you choose a standard grown, waxed version, you are just incorporating the chemicals and wax into your dish instead of the natural citrusy flavor you are after. 

When possible, always buy organic. If unwaxed citrus is not available where you are shopping, place the waxed orange in a bowl of hot water for about five minutes. You will see most of the wax float to the top of the water, and you can gently rub the fruit to release any bits that may be hanging on. 

How To Make Your Zest Last Longer

Citrus zest stores well in an airtight container in the fridge for up to two weeks or in the freezer for three months! So feel free to keep these flavor-burst crystals handy to brighten any dish. 

Easy Substitutes For Orange Zest

Ripe lemons with zest and grater on table

Other citrus zests are great substitutions for orange zest. Consider lemons, limes, mandarins, tangerines, grapefruits, etc. 

Extracts are highly concentrated oils and are a powerful substitute for zests! As a guide, for each teaspoon of zest in a recipe, you can substitute ½ teaspoon of citrus extract. 

Citrus juice, orange or not, can also be used in place of zest, as long as the quantity of zest called for is not a copious amount. 

If you try to replace a large amount of zest in a recipe for juice, you will be changing the wet and dry proportions, which will alter the dish’s consistency. When a recipe calls for small amounts of zest, you can substitute two tablespoons of citrus juice per teaspoon of zest.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I zest an orange without a zester?

Once you decide whether your recipe is best paired with tiny flakes of zest, or long curly peels of zest, you can qualify which method to follow. For small bits of zest to incorporate, opt for a fine grater. For longer strips, opt for a peeler. In both cases, a sharp pairing knife will do the trick.

Is orange zest the same as orange peel?

The zest of orange constitutes only the colored outer portion of the peel and has a bright, citrusy flavor, whereas the peel or rind includes the bitter white pith. 

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how to zest an orange

How to Zest an Orange


  • Author: Jasmine Mattey
  • Total Time: 5 minutes
  • Yield: 23 tablespoons of zest per 1 medium orange 1x

Description

Learn how to zest an orange for multiple uses in the kitchen, with various tools, depending on what is at your disposal.


Ingredients

Scale
  • 1 Orange

Instructions

With a Zester / Microplane

  1. Holding the handle of the microplane in your non-dominant hand, with the sharp bulbous gratings upward, stabilize the other end of the tool against a flat surface, holding the zester at a comfortable angle.
  2. Take the cleaned and dried orange in your dominant hand, and brace it against the zester.
  3. Firmly drag the orange down across the microplane
  4. Rotate the orange as necessary until all zest is removed, and the orange is left only with the pith.

 

With a Grater

  1. Brace the grater against a flat surface, and use the side with the smallest holes
  2. With the cleaned and dried orange in your dominant hand, drag it down the grater, pushing hard enough to retrieve the zest but not hard enough to peel the pith.
  3. Rotate the orange as necessary until all zest is removed, and only the white bitter pith is left behind.
  4. With a Peeler
  5. Hold the cleaned and dried orange in your non-dominant hand
  6. Brace your dominant thumb against the bottom of the orange, and drag the peeler down the orange rind from top to bottom; make sure only to push hard enough to collect the zest and none of the white pith
  7. Continue zesting the orange in continuous strokes from top to bottom around the entirety of the fruit until only the pith is left behind.

 

With a Knife

  1. Hold the cleaned and dried orange in your non-dominant hand
  2. Brace your dominant thumb against the bottom of the orange, and using a sharp paring knife, cut into the peel from top to bottom, trying only to slice away the zest of the citrus
  3. Continue zesting the orange in continuous strokes from top to bottom around the entirety of the fruit until only the pith is left.
  4. Scrape away any white pith that may have come away with the zest
  5. Stack the strips of zest on top of each other and swap to a chefs knife
  6. Slice the strips as thin as you can lengthwise to achieve string-like strands of zest
  7. Finally, mince those orange zest strands horizontally, creating minuscule cuts of zest

 

  • Prep Time: 5 minutes
  • Category: Knife Skills
  • Cuisine: Any

Keywords: how to zest an orange, how to zest citrus

About the author

Jasmine graduated top of her class from culinary school and has continued cooking and baking ever since. Alongside her passion for food, she is a total bookworm, writer, and editor. You can find her bookish ramblings on her website and bookstagram.