When I first started cooking, if I saw lemon juice or zest in a recipe, I almost always left it out. Unless it was a main component, I never thought it made much of a difference in the overall flavor of the dish, but I couldn't have been more wrong.
Citrus fruits can make a world of difference in some dishes. The acid brightens up and balances out the flavors. If it tastes like it's missing something, a few teaspoons of juice or zest from a lemon or lime can often fix it.
If you don't have a zester or microplane grater, you're probably tempted to skip the zest most of the time. But it's not that hard to do it without one, as long as you've got a knife and a peeler.
There is one method where you take leftover lemon peels, scrape out the white pith with a spoon, then slice and mince up the zest, but that's entirely too much work for me.
The easiest way to get zest without a special tool is to use a vegetable peeler to take off wide strips. Be careful not to cut past the colored part of the peel—the white pithy layer between the peel and the fruit is bitter. You could do this with a knife as well, but you have to use a very light hand.
Use a knife to cut them into long, thin strips.
You can leave them long, mince them up if you want smaller pieces.
Leftover zest won't last long in the fridge, but it does freeze well in a plastic bag. You can also store it in a container with salt or sugar, depending on whether you plan to use it in sweet or savory dishes. To keep whole lemons fresh as long as possible in the fridge, store them in a plastic bag, as well.
Do you have a zesting tool, or do you use the vegetable peeler method?