The inspiration for this simple lemon-butter pasta dish came from a cake. A lemon-poppy seed cake that’s floral and sweet with lemon — except it didn’t have any lemon juice.

Instead, the Lemon & Poppy Seed Cake in Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh’s “Sweet” (Ten Speed Press, 2017) uses just one tablespoon of lemon zest. But how can such a scant amount ripple across a whole loaf?

The answer, as in so many good things, is butter. Fat carries flavor — whatever is warmed in melted butter (or warm olive oil, or animal fat), unleashes through the fat. Think about when garlic hits a pan of warm olive oil — you know the smell. That’s the garlic’s oil swimming through the olive oil.

Similarly, when the zest of just one lemon sits in a skillet of melted butter, its oils release and permeate through the fat. The butter is now lemony without introducing the pucker of lemon’s juice. When we take a bite of something draped in this now-infused butter, the flavor lingers on our tongue longer that it would in its un-bloomed state.

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Lemon zest, which refers to just the bright yellow peel with none of white pith just below it, is citrusy without being acidic. There’s a bit of pleasant bitterness, which is only tempered by our buddy butter. The easiest way to get the zest off your lemon is with a rasp-style grater, which grates small wisps of the peel. (Microplane is the most common brand.) Grate your lemon zest right over the butter and you’ll be rewarded with a wonderful aroma.

Staring down into that pool of lemony butter, it’s easy to imagine turning it into a sauce for pasta. Even when you’re making a cake, it’s hard not to think about buttered noodles — rich, pure, sustaining.

This lemon-butter pasta recipe is a nod to classic fettuccine Alfredo, which does not contain cream. The richness comes from the simple emulsion of butter, Parmesan and starchy pasta water.

Like a salad dressing or pan sauce, it requires vigorous whisking to get the fat to meld with the water. But once it comes together and al dente noodles are added, stirring and tossing will lead to a silky sauce that clings to the pasta. The umami of the Parmesan plays so well with the sneaky, fruity lemon. Only you will know its freshness comes from that generous scrape of lemon zest.

So, now anytime you melt butter, you know you have created an opportunity to add more flavor to your dish. Grating zest over that butter is such an easy way to add pep to your dish: Think about a pan sauce for your chicken, now perky with lemon zest. Or a tray of roasted vegetables, bread crumbs or shrimp scampi tossed in lemony butter. Heck, even scrambled eggs — or your morning toast. You get the idea.

Lemon-Butter Pasta with Parmesan


  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • Finely grated zest from 2 large lemons (2 tablespoons)
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 pound fettuccine, or another pasta
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for optional garnish
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Step 1

In a Dutch oven or skillet large enough to hold all the pasta, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the lemon zest and swirl to mix. Remove from heat.

Step 2

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, then add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes. Drain the pasta, reserving 1 1/2 cups of the pasta water.

Step 3

Return the butter to medium heat, then whisk in the reserved pasta water until combined, about 2 minutes. Add the Parmesan in a couple of handfuls, whisking until emulsified, 3 to 4 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the pasta to the sauce; toss and stir until the noodles are glossed with sauce, 3 to 5 minutes.

Step 4

Serve with more black pepper and Parmesan.

From recipe developer Ali Slagle.

Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to

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Calories: 291; Total Fat: 21.5 g; Saturated Fat: 14 g; Cholesterol: 71 mg; Sodium: 291 mg; Carbohydrates: 15 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugars: 1 g; Protein: 9 g.