Preserved Lemons, Two Ways

If Picky Tina picked a peck of pickled lemons, how many lemons would Picky Tina have picked?  Difficult question, that.  Thankfully, there are other less difficult questions, however, such as “What in god’s name is a preserved lemon?” Oh yes, this is the kind of question that we get all the time at the CB headquarters, and it’s also the type of question that I struggle to answer in 500 words of less.  That said, here goes: Preserved lemons are both a condiment and a flavor additive which is common in North African (particularly Moroccan) cuisine.  The lemons are cured with salt and acid (lemon juice) before being rinsed and used in a variety of both sweet and savory comestibles.  Hey, that actually wasn’t too bad…..

I just get really excited when I talk about preserved lemons and their remarkable versatility.  For a traditional twang you could use them in Tagine Bil Hut, a Moroccan fish stew with olives and preserved lemon.  Then again, they also add a remarkable rich citrus punch to a fresh and herbal vinaigrette.  Sometimes I get a bit carried away when talking about how great they are,but I speak nothing but the truth.  But now that I’m feeling chatty, let me start again from the beginning.

The most common use for preserved lemon is to rinse and remove the pulp before finely chopping and adding the pieces to a Moroccan stew or tagines (which is just a name for a braised dish of meat, vegetables or legumes, so called after the container that it is cooked in – a tagine – which has the shape of a small chiminea).  The rind is the money shot when it comes to preserved lemon and many people scoop out the pulpy insides and just use the rind. I hate to waste things, and frankly I like the salty, goopy pulp, so I use the whole shabang – although not always in the same dish.

You might be wondering why in God’s name you would possibly want to make a whole quart of preserved lemons, but I can actually answer that question for you.   Preserved lemons can be used in many of the savory dishes that you would normally add lemon zest to, except that the flavor is even more intense, pungent, and lemony than the mere rind that you would normally use.  You can finely chop the rind and add it to oil, thyme and minced garlic for a killer roast chicken rub.  You can also stir it into a mixture of mayonnaise  and sour cream with a dollop of pesto for a vegetable dip that people can’t stop eating but don’t know why.  Preserved lemon adds punch to a chunky salsa served on top of fish or chicken, it adds gusto to a previously pedestrian gremolata sprinkled on top of Osso Bucco, and a fine mince into Hollandaise elevates your eggs benny from ho-hum to OH MY GOD, YES.   Preserved lemon has an equal affinity for fish and seafood as it does for chicken, pork or lamb, but you would be surprised how a sprinkle of the finely minced and a drizzle of olive oil can elevate a lowly vegetable side dish into the realm of the exotic and sublime.  Buttered carrots with preserved lemon?  Yes please!  Green beans with preserved lemon and roasted almonds?  Well, okay, if I must.

And now I’m about to push the envelope, but I know that you’ll forgive me because that’s just what I do sometimes.  Hopefully you are now less skeptical of the joys that can be found in preserved lemons when it comes to savoury applications, which means that I need to talk about the sweet.  Yes, these are salt cured lemons.  I get that.  But if you rinse off the salt and soak the lemon rinds in cool water for five minutes, you would not believe the flavor punch that a tablespoon or so can add to fresh lemon ice cream, glazed lemon poppy seed cake, or citrus pots de crème.  Seriously, picture everything that’s awesome about salted caramel, and then apply it to tangy, sweet and sour citrus. Simply divine.

Simple Preserved Lemons

Makes 1 quart

  • 8-10 Meyer lemons *
  • 3-4 additional lemons for juice
  • 2 tbsp + 8-10 tsp salt

* Meyer lemons are a smaller, slightly sweet, floral, thin skinned lemon which is less acidic and far more lemony than your regularly available supermarket lemon.  Meyer lemons are not as common in the stores because they are not widely grown commercially, they require quite a bit of care to ship them without damaging or bruising the delicate citrus fruit, and they also have a slightly shorter shelf life.  If you can’t find Meyer lemons, Eureka lemons are far more common and can be used as a substitute.  Worst case scenario, use whatever lemons you can find but really search through to find the smallest lemons with the thinnest, delicate rinds.  I like to use organic Meyer lemons for preserving, and whatever my local has to offer for the juice.  You will see both in the picture below, and they are easily distinguished.

Scrub each lemon well in warm water, using a vegetable brush to lightly slough each one.  If your lemons are organic you can stand to be a little bit more lax here, but you want to remove any chemicals or impurities from the outsides of the skin.

Slice just the stem end off the lemons, being careful to cut as shallow with the knife as you can.  You just want to remove the tough little nubbin. Cut each lemon vertically in an “X” shape (quarters), stopping about one half inch (1/2″) from the bottom for each incision.  You want the base of the lemon to stay intact.  Also be sure to cut the lemons over a clean bowl, because any lemon juice which is released can be re-purposed in just a moment.

Carefully part the lemon quarters and pack the center with one (1) teaspoon of salt, making sure that the salt is also sprinkled on each cut side of the lemon.

Sprinkle one (1) tablespoon of salt into the bottom of a clean, sterilized quart sized Mason jar.  Pack the lemons in, standing upright whenever possible, and really pushing them down and into one another with the butt end of a clean wooden spoon.  Pressing firmly will also encourage the lemons to release their juice, therefore mitigating the amount of additional lemon juice that you will need to “top-up” at the end.  Stuff as many lemons into the jar as you can possibly get, and then sprinkle a second tablespoon of salt on top.

Extract the juice of the remaining lemons.   You may only need 2 lemons, but depending on the size and how many lemons you packed into the jar, it is possible that you could even need up to five.

Pour into the jar the lemon juice which collected in the “cut” bowl.  Pour the freshly squeezed lemon juice into the jar as well, nudging and shaking it occasionally to release any air pockets.  When the jar is completely full and the lemons are submerged, screw on the jar’s sterilized lid.

Leave the lemons in a cool dark place where they can cure, undisturbed, for at least 10 days or up to one month.  Shake the jar occasionally to ensure that the lemons are completely covered.

Moroccan Spiced Preserved Lemons

Makes 1 quart

  • 8-10 Meyer lemons
  • 3-4 additional lemons for juice
  • 2 tbsp + 8-10 tsp salt
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 star anise
  • 1/2 cinnamon stick (or 5-6 pieces cassia bark) *
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1/4 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 dried red chili **

* Cassia bark, although cheaper and less pungent than cinnamon, is significantly easier to slip inside the jar between the lemons.  Small pieces of cassia bark (about 5-6) can be easily dispersed.

** Opt for a flaming hot but really flavorful red finger chili, like a chili de arbol or cayenne.

Follow the instructions to make preserved lemons, however when the jar is half full of lemons you should pause to sprinkle on half the spices, one bay leaf, the star anise and chili.  Continue packing lemons into the jar until it is almost full and the sprinkle the remaining spices and bay leaf on top.

Add the freshly squeezed lemon juice to the jar until the lemons are completely covered and give the jar a quick shake to dissolve the salt before  Pour the freshly squeezed lemon juice into the jar, nudging and shaking it occasionally to release any air pockets.  When the jar is completely full and the lemons are submerged, screw on the jar’s sterilized lid.

After the lemons have cured they will keep, sealed in a cool and dark place, for up to 6 months.  After you open the jar it’s a good idea to refrigerate the preserved lemons if you aren’t going to use them right away, and they will keep in the fridge for a phenomenal length of time.

Always be sure to avoid contamination by removing the lemons from the brine with a clean spoon or fork rather than your fingers, and wipe the rim clean before resealing the jar of fruit in their briny, delicious juices.

To use the lemons, remove as much as you need from the liquid and keep the rest submerged.  You may wish to rinse the lemons to remove some of the saltiness, although I only do that sporadically, depending on what they will be mixed into.  For example, if the lemons are going to be added to a salty tapenade then they warrant a rinse.  If you’re going to finely mince them and use to marinate chicken? Maybe not so much.

Remove the pulp if you feel the yen, and if you want a milder flavor.  Slice the peel into thin strips or finely mince.

Although the lemon is the star of the show, don’t forget about that fabulous juice.  A teaspoon or two of the brine can be used in vinaigrette, to add a bright punch and flavor burst to a soup, increase indulgence in a Bloody Mary, or lend that je ne c’est quoi to the best potato salad that you’ve ever made.

So go forth and make a batch of preserved lemons.  It is well worth the twenty minutes of effort and few weeks of wait.  What really cinches the deal though, is a few dishes in when you find yourself creatively using the preserved lemons for everything from a spring like orzo side dish with luscious asparagus and sweet peas, to a tart and vibrant lemon and lavender granita.  Preserved lemons: They’re where the party may be at.

  • Kim W.

    And now, a reader comes in with a recipe!

    A cousin gave me a cookbook for Christmas — one of those “use only 3 or 4 ingredients” things — only some of the recipes were recipes FOR condiments you could use in other recipes. And preserved lemons was one — so they also have recipes calling for preserved lemon.

    I’d already made some, so I tried them out with a simple roast chicken and potato thing — just cut a couple potatoes into chunks, cut a couple pieces of preserved lemon up and tuck them in among the potatoes, and lay cut-up chicken on top. Then roast the pan in the oven for about an hour.

    The lemon permeates the flavor of EVERYTHING. It was great. …And I’m going to be using the leftover potatoes in some kind of fish pie or fish thing, as well — they’ve already got the lemon in, so…

  • Drew

    What an excellent and informative post! I have never made preserved lemons, but I see recipes that use them quite frequently and I usually just skip or substitute. Perhaps I will have to give it a shot.

    I sent this to my parents, who live in Arizona and have a large lemon tree in their backyard. They wind up with more lemons than they know what to do with, so this would be a good way for them to use some. Unfortunately they aren’t Meyer lemons, but they are surprisingly sweet.

    Also, as a side note, there is something slightly unsettling about pickling a fruit in it’s own juice. Ironic that you produce the very means for your own preservation, little lemon…I will cut you and pickle you in your own juices! Muhahahaha!

  • Jacquie

    I just had my mother-in-law ship me a box of meyer lemons to make my very own batch of preserved lemons. I have been patiently waiting for them to be all pickles before I make salmon curry with them. I am so excited.

    She promised more via the AWESOME US postal service flat rate boxes if these are successful. Mine are plain, just salt and lemon. Excited to branch out.

    Isn’t a glass jar full of preserves one of the most hopeful things ever?

  • _ts of [eatingclub] vancouver

    Oh, we still have some preserved lemons here (from who-knows-when) and besides making one version of Chicken Tagine, I have been pretty brain-dead in terms of thinking how else to use them. Great tips!

  • Tina

    Kim – great idea! I love adding lemon juice and zest to roast chicken and potatoes, so the concentrated preserved lemon flavor is right up my alley. I can only imagine how delicious!

    Drew – ooh, relatives with access to home grown citrus, eh? That’s reason enough to pay them a visit. And yes, pickling in one’s own juice does seem rather morbid, like feeding a pig bacon…..

    Jacquie – especially the dazzling sunshine yellow color! If that doesn’t brighten the spirit, I don’t know what will. Considering how fresh your salmon is, that curry must be gladness in a rice bowl.

    TS – USE THEM! USE THEM NOW! Gosh, I love preserved lemons.

  • Colette

    You know, there’s an episode of the Simpsons where Homer becomes a food critic who makes all the food he eats sound delicious.

    In completely unrelated news, I bought lemons today.

    • Mike

      And then later, a consortium attempts his murder using a lethally high-calorie eclair. I am considering suing them for using my life’s story without permission.

  • Martin

    Catherine made tajine this morning. We have been away from Tunisia for 4 months and have really started missing the food. I think preserving our own lemons is going to be the next thing. Speaking of which I REALLY miss having a lemon tree in the front yard.

  • Demetra Lambros

    I don’t want to sound dramatic but I really love you for this post!!! Recently got into preserving lemons (as i am very into morrocan at the moment) and have read a LOT on the subject. This is, BY FAR, my favorite. Your writing + photos are WONDERFUL. Thank you for expanded enlightenment in the preserved-lemon world.

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  • Jacqui Clement

    Can anyone tell me if you can preserve just the lemon rind rather than using whole lemons?
    The reasons I want to do this is it might be easier to use them – especially if you dont need a whole lemon and also the jar I have for them is quite small.

    Would be interested in people’s thoughts.


  • Elizabeth Quinn

    Do you have a recipe for WHOLE preserved lemons using only sugar, Corsican style?
    Thanks, EQ

    • Tina

      Elizabeth – sorry, I wish that I could help! I’ve never had a Corsican style sugar preserved lemon before.

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  • Cherie

    Ah…excuse me.  I have to go stare at my Meyer lemon tree and tell it to fruit already.