by Mike McGeary
What Are Preserved Lemons?
They are lemons packed in salt and lemon juice, a process that preserves them for many months without refrigeration.
The standard lemons in grocery stores have skins that are hard and have a strong flavor. The best lemons for preserving that are widely available in the United States are Meyer lemons, because their skin is soft and has very little of the bitter white pith found in standard lemons. Also, they are nicely mellow rather than tart in flavor.
I have found Meyer lemons at the Montañita Co-op and Whole Foods, and they probably are available at other grocery stores. The problem is that they are not always available, so you have to keep a lookout for them and get them when you see them. It is also necessary to use them within days of purchase, because the thin pithless skin does not protect them as well as the thick skins and pith of regular lemons. The short shelf life also makes them more expensive, but you won’t need that many to last your needs for months.
You can buy preserved lemons in jars from specialty stores and perhaps supermarkets, but I found that they do not compare in flavor with ones I make myself.
You can learn more about the origin of Meyer lemons, how they are used, and how they have become more popular from a National Public Radio story here: The Meyer Lemon: More Than A Pretty Face
Why Preserve Lemons?
I began to preserve lemons because I like to make Moroccan tagines and couscous, and preserved lemons are a basic ingredient. As Paula Wolfert put it in her 1973 cookbook, Couscous and Other Good Food from Moroco (which is still in print): “There is, and I cannot emphasize this enough, no substitute for preserved lemons in Moroccan food.”
In other words, preserved lemons have a unique flavor.
Preserved lemons are also used across the middle east, not just in Morocco. For example, Yotam Ottolenghi of Jerusalem has recipes using preserved lemons in his cookbooks, including Jerusalem and Ottolenghi: The Cookbook.
I also chop the skin into vinaigrettes and marinades. Recently, I chopped up half a lemon skin and some of the pulp with chopped garlic, olive oil, and salt and stuffed the mixture under the skin of two large bone-in organic chicken breasts, before roasting them in the oven. Yum!
Many people, apparently inspired by Martha Stewart (see NPR story above), are using fresh Meyer lemons in baking, such as Stewart’s lemon and pine nut tart, but that’s an article for another day.
How to Preserve Lemons
Mise en place:
- One-quart canning jar, preferably wide mouth for easier retrieval of the lemons.
- Cup of non-iodized salt in a bowl, with a tablespoon to stuff the lemons (I use kosher but sea salt is fine).
- About 12 Meyer lemons (about 8 for the jar, 4 to provide juice to top off the jar after it is filled with lemons).
- Sharp knife.
- Sterilize the canning jar by filling with boiling water or running through the dishwasher.
- Put a tablespoon of salt on the bottom of the jar.
- Scrub the lemons, and cut the tips off the ends of each lemon.
- Cut the lemons into quarters without separating the wedges. That is, (1) put the lemon on end, and cut down most but not all the way through the lemon. (2) Rotate one quarter. (3) Repeat Step 1. See the lemon on the left in the photo, above.
I learned a slightly different method: (1) Putting the lemon on end, cut down most but not all the way through the lemon. (2) Rotate one-quarter. (3) Invert the lemon. (4) Repeat step 1. See the lemon on the right in the photo, above.
TIP: I hold the knife at about a 20 degree angle so that I can’t accidentally cut all the way through the lemon.
- Put a tablespoon of salt inside each lemon, reshape, and place in the jar.
- Pack the lemons as tightly as you can. If necessary to fill holes, separate a lemon into halves. Put another tablespoon of salt between each layer (there will be about 2) and on top.
- Fill the jar with lemon juice from the remaining lemons.
- Place the rind from a lemon squeezed for juice on top.
- Seal the jar and leave for a month or more before using any lemons, shaking daily for a week to thoroughly dissolve the salt.
After the lemons are ready, they do not have to be refrigerated, but refrigeration reduces the chance that a white mold will form on surfaces exposed to air. The mold is harmless and washes off when you use the lemon. (The purpose of laying the skin of a squeezed lemon on top is to provide a surface for any mold that might form, and which can be easily removed and discarded.) The best way to prevent mold is to keep the lemons always completely covered by juice.
To use, rinse thoroughly to remove the salt. Most Moroccan recipes will have you slice the skin into narrow strips and discard the pulp. It is possible to use some or all of the pulp—I usually do—but it will remain very salty, so be sure to reduce the amount of salt you would normally add. You can find many Moroccan and other recipes that use preserved lemons online.