Recipe Off-Roading

Yes, You Can Substitute Lemon Zest in a Recipe. Here’s How.

So you’re out of lemons—no problem. Here are a few ways to get that lemony zip sans lemon.

by:
March 30, 2020
Photo by Bobbi Lin

The rind, or peel, of a lemon consists of two layers—the yellow zest (or the flavedo), and the white pith (albedo). The zest—where you’ll find all of the fruit’s aromatic oils—lends lemony fragrance to anything it graces, without the pucker.

Finding a suitable substitute for lemon zest in recipes can be tricky, but not impossible. Lemon oil, made from nothing but cold-pressed lemon rinds, is probably the most accurate substitute, taste-wise; but, if you’re unable to source a lemon, it’s probably also unlikely you have a stash of lemon oil. Here are some tips on how to utilize non-lemon lemon substitutes, to zesty effect.


How to Substitute Lemon Zest

Consider the task at hand.

To pick the most effective substitute, first think about what lemon zest was to bring to your recipe or dish at hand.

Is it Citrus scent you're after?

If you can’t get your hands on some lemons, instead sub in lime, orange, grapefruit, yuzu (!), pomelo (!!) zests instead. Overwhelmed by your now bountiful options? Consider the cultural context: Limes play well with Asian (fish sauce, ginger, turmeric) and Mexican ingredients (chiles, cilantro, tequila), while grapefruits and oranges complement Mediterranean ones (buttery olive oils, anchovies, fennel). Though none will replace lemon zest perfectly, each will add its unique flavor and perfume.

Or, General Freshness?

Sometimes lemon zest is added not for its specific flavor, but for its mere suggestion of freshness—like in a heavy ricotta filling for pasta, or a buttery shortbread. If this is also true of your recipe at hand, sub in finely chopped cooling herbs (especially lemony ones like sorrel, lemongrass, basil), a tiny splash of a young or fruit-based vinegar (aged wine vinegars can feel musty), or even a spirit or extract (I like Grand Marnier in oil-based cakes).

Consider how it’s to be incorporated.

Finely grated

The substitutes above are great for lemon zest’s usual state—finely grated (with a Microplane or box grater) and stirred in.

Infused

But, if you’re looking to infuse lemon flavor (like in pie fillings, spirits, vinegars) without having tiny, fresh things to chomp on—and again, don’t have any lemon oil on hand—try subbing in cracked coriander seeds, dried chamomile, lemon balm, or lemon verbena leaves. Once the flavor’s been imparted, strain them out.


some lemony recipes

What’s your smartest non-lemon lemon substitute? Brag about it in the comments!

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Comment
Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.

8 Comments

Posie (. April 13, 2020
SUMAC!
 
Amy B. March 31, 2020
What is the dish in the main photo for this article? It looks amazing!
 
Shawn S. March 31, 2020
I picked up a bag of "sour salt," aka citric acid, from my local Mexican market. I used it in desperation one day -- very sparingly- and found it gave me the freshness I needed. No flavor though,so it's not a perfect substitute by any means, but it's shelf-stable.
 
Fran M. March 31, 2020
I don’t like lemon flavor so I always use lime or orange zest instead. I one time made a orange meringue pie. I put whipped cream on top of the meringue after it was cooled. Fabulous pie.
 
Smaug March 30, 2020
There's also a lemon thyme that's popular in seafood dishes, especially- it's fairly common as a garden plant, so if you know someone who gardens it's at least a possibility.
 
Smaug March 30, 2020
ps lemon zest dries fairly successfully; you might find it in the spice section.
 
j9 March 30, 2020
Would lemon extract work? And if so, what would the substitution ratio be?
 
Smaug March 30, 2020
Extracts vary as to the amount of lemon oil they contain, but it can be pretty small- If it's not listed on the label, I would guess 20% as about average, but I certainly wouldn't put money on it and usually recipes using these materials can't really be accurately taste tested before cooking- you might check the manufacturer's website.