A little zest goes a long way.
When using citrus juice in recipes, we often introduce zest as well since it provides a deeper, rounder citrus flavor without contributing additional acidity. We’ve also found that steeping the zest in liquid pulls out its flavors; the distracting shreds of zest can then be strained out, leaving behind a liquid with a bolder, better citrus taste. We wondered if this steeping-and-straining technique could deliver a better lemonade.
We made two batches of lemonade, each for four 8-ounce servings. For one batch, we zested and juiced five lemons, let the zest soak in the juice for 5 minutes, and then strained out the zest and combined the juice with 10 tablespoons of sugar, 2 1/2 cups of water, and a pinch of salt. For our second batch (the control), we followed the same procedure but skipped the zest.
Sure enough, soaking the zest delivered lemonade with a deeper, rounder citrus flavor than we got from a control batch made without the soaking step. And more notably, the lemonade actually tasted sweeter—cloyingly sweet, in fact. Reducing the sugar by at least 10 percent and up to 25 percent (depending on personal taste) was a must. (Letting the zest soak for longer periods of time didn’t make any further difference in terms of sweetness.)
￼Though no research has been done on lemon zest and its effect on perceived sweetness, certain plant compounds known as flavanones have been found to enhance the perceived sweetness of food by masking bitterness. Lemon zest contains flavanone compounds that have chemical structures very similar to those of sweetness-enhancing flavanones, so it stands to reason that they’re having the same effect: masking the bitter taste of the lemonade and thereby enhancing the sweetness.
While 32 ounces of lemonade made the classic way can call for upwards of 10 tablespoons of sugar, soaking the zest in the juice for 5 minutes would allow you to cut up to 3 tablespoons of sugar and deliver an equally sweet drink.