Preserved lemons are probably as old as lemons & salt themselves. The version I’m giving you is the most popular on the internet these days: Moroccan preserved lemons. But there are other versions as well; Russian and Indian to name a few. The “Moroccan” version is pretty common, and there are sources that say that there can be references to it found in a British cookbook from the early 1800’s. But it’s been a Moroccan secret ingredient long before that. The Greeks, the Chinese, Indians, Africans and Cambodians all preserve lemons and have for centuries. Some preserve them whole, some slice them into small pieces and other just into quarters. Some add vinegar, some add more lemon juice, some just use salt and others still add spices or chiles. Or even some sugar.
When added to a dish, even subtly, they add a certain “je ne sais quoi”; a certain something you can’t quite put your finger on.
I have no Moroccan ancestry, no mediterranean or Eastern ancestry at all actually. I’m from Western European/Eastern European stock, but the absolute furthest East I mean is the border of Poland and Russia (or whatever countries they became after). I’ve never eaten a preserved lemon before, nor have I seen one in person. As much of a food lover that I am, I don’t much care for East Indian fare. I’ve got pedestrian and almost child-like tastes when it comes to food; pub food, fresh salads, well-made pastries, bacon. Another confession? I don’t like lamb; a dish that preserved lemons are frequently paired with. But regardless of all that, this intrigued me. And when things intrigue me, I want to make them. I want to figure them out and get to the bottom of what the deal is with them. Why are they popular now? Why has there been a resurgence in the creation of these things? What are they good for?
Because I genuinely didn’t know. I never ate one.
But if it’s one thing I do know, it’s this: at this time of year, citrus is aplenty. Every other post on every other blog is about citrus something-or-other. Blood oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits… they’re all over the place. But there’s only so much marmalade and curd one can make. There are only so many cocktails you can make with an orange slice or a lemon wedge. The lemons in the bowl on the table stare you in the face every morning, to the point where they start to look possessed after a while, and you need something new & different to make with them before they become a total waste (or, before you decorate your entire house in dehydrated citrus slices).
(The above photos were taken on day two. By day four, my lemons weren’t quite entirely submerged in juice, so I poured a little more in.)
- Clean, sterilized jar, pint or quart
- Meyer or regular lemons, scrubbed clean (preferably organic), 3-4 for pint jar, 8-10 for quart
- Kosher salt or all natural sea salt
- Lemon juice (optional)
- Bay leaf, peppercorns, cinnamon stick, or other spices (optional- I added none for my first batch)
- The concept is very simple: cut the lemons into quarters, but not all the way through (leave a part attached so that the four pieces aren’t completely separated). If there are little nubbins on the ends, specifically if using regular lemons not Meyer, cut those off first.
- Then open the lemon, and add a tablespoon of Kosher salt to it. Add a layer of Kosher salt to the bottom of your clean jar, and add the first lemon. You can lay it sideways or stand it up, depending on how much room you have, how big your jar is and how many lemons you’ve got to use. Add another sprinkling of salt on top. Repeat until all the lemons are used & your jar is full. If you want, add your spices along with two tablespoons lemon juice (both optional), then add a layer of Kosher salt on top before closing the jar (not optional).
- Give the jar a shake every day for three to four days, and every other day open it and press down on the lemons to expel more juice. After the fifth day, they should be submerged in their own juices. If they are not, at this point you’ll have to top them off with extra lemon juice. Any “exposed” lemons can turn nasty.
- Now this is the part where people have a difference of opinion; some say at this point you should refrigerate them for 3-4 weeks and then they’re ready for use. Others say you can now process them in a waterbath for 10 minutes and they’ll be shelf stable until you’re ready to use them. And others still say they can be kept out of the fridge on the counter for use right away. I suppose it’s all a matter of opinion & taste, so do as you like.
You can use any kind of jar you want for this, providing you won’t be processing them. A parfait jar works fine, as does an old spaghetti sauce jar (thoroughly cleaned out of course). This recipe works for all varieties of lemons and also for limes! I used two Meyer lemons and two Eurekas myself, and I think I’m going to give it a whirl with some limes.
Then, around day three or four of sittin’ in that ol’ jar, this is how they look:
Alright, so now that you’ve made them, what do you do with them? After some initial internet browsing, I discovered these little gems are pretty versatile. The general rule is to separate the rind from the flesh and pith and use the rind, but some folks do in fact use the pulp as well. The flavor is supposedly amazingly bright yet delicate, bold but not as bitter as a fresh lemon. The skin actually becomes so soft and tasty, you can eat it straight out of the jar (just give them a rinse first, to get all that salt off).
And let’s not even talk about how amazing the SMELL is when you open the jar.
Seriously. The smell is like, pure lemon. You think a fresh cut lemon smells good? This smells a million times better. Cleaner, less bitter smelling, if that makes sense.
But it doesn’t matter how they look or smell if you can’t figure out how the hell to eat them. Thanks to a great article at SeriousEats, I discovered you can use them with ice cream or semifreddo as well as on savory dishes. Perfect. Here are some other ideas:
- With fish- the preserved lemons can be used however a regular lemon would be with fish, both raw fish (sushi) and cooked fish
- With poultry- same idea as above; lemon pepper chicken, etc.
- In salads- separate the rind from the flesh, slice it thinly and top a salad with it
- In salsa- adds a tangy brightness to tomato or mango salsas
- With lamb & vegetable tagines
- In a couscous, quinoa, bulgur or pearl barley dish
- With a curry
- On top of vanilla ice cream or mixed into a lemon ice cream
- The juice can be added to a bloody mary
Of course, mine aren’t quite ready yet. So when they are, I’ll be sure to give you all an update and maybe even a recipe for how to use them.