Preserved Lemons

Preserved lemons are a classic Moroccan condiment. This indispensable ingredient is used in many ways, mostly in fragrant tagines or in salads. The unique pickled taste, aroma and special silken texture cannot be duplicated with fresh lemon or lime juice, so don’t go looking for shortcuts.

It is helpful to select fragrant-skinned lemons. In Europe, that means lemons from Sorrento Italy, which are highly sought after and delicious. Other quality lemons would include Greek, Sicilian or North American lemons from Florida or California. Of course if you find yourself in Morocco, then be sure to look for the special fragrant-skinned doqq or tart boussera lemons found near the northern town of Meknes on the way to Fez.

I think it is important when preserving lemons to be certain they are completely covered in salted lemon juice. Try to avoid diluting the juice with too much water as this will weaken the preserving ability of the salty and acidic environment. The preserving liquid can be re-used, so be sure to keep it on hand. I also like to use small amounts of the juice as a seasoning in some dishes, salad dressings or even in some drinks like Bloody Marys.

Yield: one-liter jar with 3 whole lemons

  • 3 lemons, washed well
  • 4 large tablespoons sea salt, more if desired
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 cloves
  1. Slice the lemons into quarters from the top to within 1-cm (1/2-inch) of the bottom. I like to keep the lemons intact, but you can also work with half lemons if your jar’s mouth is too small. Sprinkle salt on the exposed flesh, then reshape the fruit if left whole.
  2. Place a large tablespoon of salt on the bottom of the jar. Pack in the lemons and push them down, adding more salt and the spices between lemon layers or along the jar’s edge. Press the lemons down to release their juices and to make room for the remaining lemons. If the juice released from the pressed lemons does not cover them completely, then add fresh lemon juice to top them off. Leave a small amount of air space at the top before sealing the jars.
  3. Let the lemons ripen in a warm place – ideally about 21°C (72°F), turning the jar upside down every couple of days to allow the equal distribution of the salt and juice. Ripen this way for at least 30 days – I prefer 60 days.
  4. To use, rinse the lemons under running water briefly. Remove the pulp (either save or discard if not using right away) and chop as desired.
  5. Preserved lemon will keep up to a year. There is no need to refrigerate them after opening, as long as the lemons remain completely submerged. However, I usually refrigerate the opened jar just to be sure nothing harmful forms.

Jack’s Fresh Tip

You can extract more lemon juice from the lemons by boiling them for a couple of minutes first or placing them in a microwave for no more than 60 seconds. Be sure to gently roll the lemons on a firm surface before cutting them. This rolling procedure will break the interior pulp from the skin and allow more juice to be released (it will also make your hands smell good).

You can add other types of spices to the mixture. Sometimes I like to add a whole dried chili pepper, which lends a certain sharpness to the lemons.

I like to insure the lemons stay below the lemon juice by placing a couple of large toothpicks on top of the lemons. This will make sure they don’t float above the juice and get exposed to air.

If a lacy, white substance begins to form on the skin of the lemons, don’t worry – it is perfectly harmless but it should be rinsed off before using.

Preserved lemons are rinsed before using to eliminate some of the salty taste. You can use the pulp and rinds. The pulp is generally used in soups or stews. Be sure to eliminate any seeds from the pulp if you are using it…unless of course, you are planning to strain whatever you are using it in before eating it.

You can preserve limes in the same way, but I was never totally overwhelmed by their flavor and consistency. I’ve not tried this method with other citrus fruits.

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