Lemon zest is one of the best ways to add the flavor of lemon to dishes. Use it to flavor everything from lemon chicken to lemon meringue pie. While it is a versatile fruit, it is also perishable; as a result, you may not always have lemons on hand. If you run out of lemons and need to add lemon flavor in an emergency, consider one of the options from our list of lemon zest substitutes.
Your best bet: Dried lemon peel
Zest is the outer layer of peel from the fresh fruit. Cooks prefer it for some applications because it can provide the full flavor of lemon without the bitterness that can come from the white pith. Drying the whole peel seems to eliminate much of that bitterness while still providing you with the lemon flavor and fragrance from the oils that still remain in the peel. Use dried lemon peel in any of the dishes that call for lemon zest. It can be used as a spice for fish, roasted vegetables or to infuse rice. You can use a blender or coffee grinder to chop the peel as finely as possible in order to better replicate zest.
Note that drying concentrates the flavors in the lemon peel, so you will want to use about a 1/3 of the amount that your recipe requires for fresh lemon zest.
A decent second choice: Lime zest
Like lemons, limes are citrus fruits known for their tartness and strong citrus flavor. Both can be used in almost all of the same applications despite having slightly different flavors. The distinctive fragrance of lemon is fruitier and sweeter, while lime has a distinctive and pungent citrus note with a hint of bitterness. The big difference will not be one of flavor, but one of appearance. While lemons are typically a bright yellow, most of the limes available in the grocery store will be green. This can affect the appearance of some dishes, but may not be a problem in others.
Ripe limes are yellow and may be more of a closer match, but you will have to use them quickly as they are only yellow for a short time before spoiling.
Use exactly the same amount of lime zest that your recipe requires for lemon zest.
In a pinch: Lemon oil or extract
Lemon oil is extracted from lemon peel and is what gives lemon zest its flavor; it is very strong. Lemon extract is that same oil dissolved in alcohol or propylene glycol. An extract may include other ingredients like food coloring or water. Lemon extract will not be as potent as the undiluted oil. Both lemon oil and lemon extract can both provide the lemon flavor to dishes.
Because of the pungency of lemon oil, you will have to be careful when using it. Use only 2 drops for every 1 teaspoon of zest that your recipe requires. With lemon extract, use half the amount that your recipe requires for zest.
Lemonade concentrate may be a viable option for dessert recipes that require lemon zest. It is especially effective in recipes that require both juice and zest and can be used to replace both. Note that you will be adding both liquid and sweetness to your dish, which means that you will need to make adjustments to the other liquids and sweeteners in the recipe.
Lemongrass has a lemon lime taste due to the fact that it contains limonene, which is the same compound that gives lemon zest its flavor and fragrance. You can use lemongrass to provide the same flavor in many dishes. Note that lemongrass is best used in savory dishes.