Preserved lemons are a precious ingredient. They are created by pickling lemons in a heavy brine made from salt and lemon juice. The product has a unique flavor that is a bit difficult to describe, but when used as an ingredient, contributes a bright, citrus flavor with deep, refined floral overtones. You see them used in stews, tagines, marinades, soups, and to a lesser extent, in vegetable dishes. I have never seen preserved lemons served as a side or a garnish; I think the flavor is simply too intense to be considered a reasonable candidate for solo eating.
While not a tremendously common ingredient in other cuisines, preserved lemons are called for in quite a number of Moroccan and Mediterranean recipes. This created a little bit of a dilemma for us at first, as there are no local stores that carried them. We initially tried to substitute lemon zest, but the flavor of preserved lemons really is unique and the dishes we made this way were pretty lackluster. I have found that, fortunately, anything that is consumed in large quantities or is a foundational element of a cuisine is not hard typically to make. You just need to unearth how to do it; so we did some research and were delighted with the results.
We typically make preserved lemons in batches of four. Although it is more efficient to make them in larger batches, we have found that we simply don’t go through them fast enough and they end up getting too oxidized. In order to lay down your own preserved lemons, you will need 1) lemons, 2) kosher salt, 3) lemon juice, 4) a jar, 5) about one month of patience.
It is a good idea to use medium to small lemons, since the tend to fit in the jar a bit better. Also, the more thin-skinned varieties turn out a little less bitter since there is less pith. I prefer kosher salt, since it is neutral in flavor and easy to work with; don’t use iodized salt. Bail-top jars are a great choice and we typically use one with a fairly wide mouth, since it makes it easier to dig the lemons out. I have heard (and believe) that a narrow mouth will help protect the finished lemons from degrading through oxidation and they will last longer. Life is all about making choices that you can live with, and based on the rate at which we consume our small jars of these, ease of access was the choice we made. We also use bottled lemon juice (rather than squeezing fresh juice) as a time-saving measure.
To preserve your lemons, start by sanitizing the jar. You can do this by immersing it in boiling water, bleaching it, or using the sanitize setting on your dishwasher. All of these methods work, just make sure that it is clean, sanitized and dry before you start. Next, rinse your lemons under cold water and dry them thoroughly. From one end of the lemon, cut it lengthwise, as if you were going to quarter it; stop about 3/4 to 1 inch from the end, so that the lemon stays in one piece.
After your lemons are cut, pack salt in between the wedges. This helps speed the curing process, as the salt is in intimate contact with the fruit, instead of simply dosing the peel from the outside with the brine. It is simple to just place the desired quantity of salt in a bowl and pack your lemon there. In this way, you can simply add lemon juice to the remaining salt to make your brine.
Once your lemons are packed with salt, stuff them in the jar, mix the remaining salt with lemon juice and pour this brine into the jar to cover. Leave room to float about an about 1/4 inch thick layer of oil over the top. This oil will act to provide some measure of protection against oxidation while the lemons cure. After you have sealed your jars, place them in a cool, dark place for about a month. After this point, they will be ready to use. Note that, where the lemons are exposed above the brine surface, they will brown. This oxidation does not affect the flavor as long it is not extreme. After you open your jar, refrigerate them so they last longer.
If you are interested in Mediterranean cooking or simply love bold, fresh flavors, I think you will really love working with preserved lemons. There is also a great amount of satisfaction to be gained from making the base ingredients for your food from scratch. If you are on the fence and need more information, the most complete discussion that I have seen on preserved lemons is Mourad Iahlou’s book Mourad: New Moroccan. Enjoy!
- 4 to 6 small lemons
- ½ to 1 cup lemon juice, washed and thoroughly dried
- ½ to ¾ cup kosher salt
- Olive oil to seal
- Clean, sanitize, and dry a ½ to 1 quart, bail-top jar.
- Partially slice lemons; slice lemons from the end so that the lemon is divided into four quarters, but stop your cut about ½ inch from the end. That way the fruit holds together, but the segments are easy to get to.
- Pack the salt into the segmented lemons, thoroughly coating the interior surfaces. This works well if you put the salt in a large bowl and pack the lemons there.
- Stuff the packed lemons into the jar.
- Make a brine by pouring the lemon juice into the bowl where you packed the lemons and pour this brine into the jar, covering the lemons. Top with an about ¼ inch thick layer of olive oil.
- Seal jar and place in a cool, dark location. Your lemons will be done in about 3 to 4 weeks. Once opened, refrigerate to retain quality.