Citrus twists are the most indispensable cocktail garnish. In addition to adding an attractive splash of color to the glass, the oils held in the peel can be expressed and sprinkled onto a drink to give it a vibrant aromatic lift.
In that way, a citrus peel is more of an ingredient than a garnish. Some garnishes can be skipped without affecting the cocktail too much. For example, if I don’t have any cherries I’ll still make a Manhattan. But if I don’t have any lemons, I certainly won’t be having a Martini.
I, along with most bartenders, prefer to cut twists with a vegetable peeler because they cut wide and shallow swaths of peel. This means more oil and less bitter pith. Lemon and orange twists are the most common peels used, though grapefruit twists are also fantastic, they seem to make everything better. Lime twists are tougher because of their thin skin, but possible with a sharp blade and ripe lime. Speaking of sharp...
Important: Be Careful!
Above all, use caution when cutting a peel with a vegetable peeler. These blades are no joke. Here are a few tips for accident free peeling.
When making the cut, move the fruit, not the peeler, especially if this is new to you. You should always feel in control of the peeler, and never be worried about it slipping.
Use ripe, plump fruit. It peels much easier. Older fruit will be drier and have leathery skin. This is much more difficult to peel and it won’t have as much oil.
Keep fruit for peeling refrigerated. This will keep it from drying out. (For fruit that will be juiced refrigeration isn’t as much of an issue.)
Cutting the Peel
Hold Fruit in Your Non-Dominant Hand
There are different ways to hold and cut citrus. Some prefer to pull the peeler towards them, others are more comfortable pulling it away. I do both, but I prefer to pull/push away (I had some unfortunate run-ins with the blade in my barbacking years). Regardless, always hold the fruit in your non-dominant hand and the peeler in your dominant hand. I'm left handed, which is why the fruit in in my right hand, which I know looks confusing.
Types of Peeler
There are two basic types of peelers; the traditional vegetable or "vertical" peeler with a vertical blade and the horizontal bladed "Y" peeler. Below I've outlined my approach to peeling with each. The main difference for me is how you grip them, cutting is similar, though not identical. Note, in both examples below, the peeler is moving down, not up.
Whatever peeler you're using, hold the fruit in the center of your palm - not at the bottom - and apply direct pressure on either side with the heel of your hand and finger tips. You’re also going to want a third source of support from the hand that's holding the peeler - your dominant hand - to stabilize the peeler and ensure you won't lose control.
I push the vertical peeler blade away from me using my thumb, so I press my index finger into the opposite side of the fruit, where the peeler will be moving towards, as a counter balance.
When the peel is as long as you’d like, hold the front end of it in place with your thumb and tilt the blade upward and pull it out to cut off the bottom. The standard peel size is generally around 3 inches long by 1 inch thick, perhaps a bit larger for grapefruits and smaller for lemons. Don’t worry too much about peels being a uniform size and shape. If that makes a difference to you, you can always trim the sides to make it look neat and tidy - see the manicured twist below.
When you’re ready to cut, tilt the blade down into the fruit and apply pressure. Either move the fruit, or push/pull the peeler to slice into the skin. You should only be cutting into the rind, not the flesh itself. Ideally, there should be some white pith on the peel to make it sturdy enough to express the oils. If there's too little pith, the peel becomes flimsy, but if there's too much it can become bitter.
Expressing the Oils
From here on out, everything is pretty much the same.
Position - Hold the peel sideways - thumbs on the bottom, fingers on top - with the pith side facing you and the outer skin side facing the cocktail. The pores of the outer skin are where the oils will be released.
Express Oils - Pinch the peel so that it curves outwards toward the drink, convexly. You're essentially folding it in half. This will release the oils. In the right light, you can clearly see them spray out and sprinkle over the surface of the cocktail.
Add, Rub or Discard - After expressing the oils some bartenders like to rub the peel along the rim of the glass for added flavor. I usually just drop it right into the glass, somehow that feels more graceful to me. But you do you.
Some recipes call for a citrus twist to be “expressed and discarded”, meaning you extract the oils and then throw the peel away, instead of putting it in the glass. The Sazerac is a prime example.
This is one of the iconic tricks of the modern cocktail age. Citrus oil is highly flammable, and when sprayed into a flame it will quickly ignite and extinguish in an impressive flash of pyrotechnics.
Flaming a peel creates the aroma of burnt citrus, orange peel is typically used. It certainly has an impact on a cocktail in some ways, but if I’m being honest, I think most of the time flamed peels are more about theatrics than improving the drink. However, the bar is indeed a stage, so a little showmanship here and there certainly doesn’t hurt. Here's the basic method:
Cut a large thick peel. Deeper and wider than you normally would, it's best to use a knife. Just try not to cut into the fruit's flesh.
Hold it 4-5 inches away from the drink and light the match. Some like to "prime the peel" by waving the flame an inch or so under the peel, claiming that it warms up the oils. I'm not sure if this makes a difference, but it's not essential in my experience.
Quickly squeeze the peel into the flame and enjoy the fireworks. Be sure not to do it too close to the drink. You don't want any residual soot getting on there.
Why Citrus Peels are so Magical
The presence of citrus oil will be evident in a cocktail even before you take a sip. This is because they are densely packed with volatile aromatic compounds like limonene which are extremely light and spring up out of the glass and into your nose before anything else. So it's the first thing you notice.
Grip is Reversed - As you can see, with a vertical peeler I position my hand with the heel up, fingers down. With the Y-Peeler, it's fingers up, heel down. In this case, I pull the peeler down, leading with my index finger. So here my thumb provides counter balance and support on the opposite side of the fruit.
Same as above.
Same as above. Just reversed, with your fingers pinning the front end of the peel down.
Cutting Citrus Discs
Alternative Tools - These two other tools can also be used to peel citrus for use as a cocktail garnish. Both make thinner twists/strands, which don't contain much oil. The most oil is expressed when the tool is pulled across the fruit to cut the peel. So in general, I find these are better suited for making aesthetic garnishes, which can be beautiful, rather than aromatic ones. Of course, if you aim well while cutting you can sometimes manage to get some of the oils onto the drink, but that’s not an ideal scenario.
1. Channel Knife - These are the most common twist alternatives you'll see. They make long thin strands of peel, which are very pretty and you can get creative by twisting them into a spiral or tying them in a bow, for example.
2. Zester - These make a tangle of thin, thready strings. They aren't used as often, but sure do look great when clustered on the right cocktail, such as a julep or another drink with crushed ice. This one in particular also has a channel knife built in.
Cutting Twists with a Knife
You can also use a basic paring knife to mimic a twist from a peeler. It gives you complete control. Even easier is cutting citrus discs rather than peels. They may be less traditional looking, but have plenty of oils and are perhaps the safest and most sure-fire way to cut a twist. Just slice straight across the edge of the fruit, detailed pictures are below.
A knife is also handy for manicuring the edges of a twist to make it took cleaner. A basic look is shown in the photo above, but you can do all sorts of designs.
Purchase Peelers: There are a host of options available, and any can accomplish the job. I've generally always sworn by OXO peelers.
Traditional Vertical Peeler
OXO Swivel Peeler - The swivel blade adapts a little better to the contours of citrus fruits.
OXO Pro Swivel Peeler - Pictured above. It's just a few dollars more, sturdier and offers slightly better control.
Ceramic Peeler - Peelers with ceramic blades are excellent for home use. They will cut with barely any pressure at all, so you feel a lot of control, which is particularly helpful for beginners. The downsides are they are not as durable as metal peelers. They can break if dropped and in a bar, where they’re used hundreds of times a night, they’ll start to degrade after a few weeks or so.