Ancient techniques of food preservation were greatly important before the days of modern refrigeration, particularly in countries with extended periods of hot weather and limited access to fresh produce. For centuries lemons have been preserved with salt, one of the simplest and most ancient preservation ingredients. Salt-preserved lemons originated in the Middle East, though they are now used in cooking all over the world. The process of storing the lemons with salt draws out their juices and causes them to soften over time, removing bitterness from the peel and giving the lemons a wider variety of culinary purposes.
I love cooking with preserved lemons; they have a unique flavor that is distinctly lemon, while their pucker-inducing tartness is greatly reduced. I add them to braises, fish dishes, sauces and tagines. They brighten the flavor of many dishes. My husband, who adores lemons, eats them straight out of the jar! They pair really well with olives. I also sometimes use the salty, lemony liquid from the jar in salad dressings and sauces (the liquid is quite salty and can veer towards bitter– taste first and add with care!).
Preserved lemons are super easy to make. I always have a jar on hand, just in case I want to add a special flavor to a new dish. You can preserve the lemons sliced whole (the peel still attached in one place) or quarter them; it really doesn’t make a difference how they are sliced. I prefer quartering them because it makes handling them easier, allowing me to stuff the jar with more slices. Generally only the peels are used in cooking, as the lemon flesh soaks up a lot of salt from the preserving liquid, rendering it mushy.
For a delish recipe using preserved lemons, try my Moroccan Lemon Chicken with Olives.
- Start by cleaning your quart jar in hot soapy water. Dry with a clean towel. Clean the outsides of the lemons, rinse and pat dry. Slice the ends from the lemons to create a flat top and bottom.
- Stand the lemon on one of the flat ends. To preserve the lemons whole, cut an "x" in the lemon and stop when you are about 1/2 inch from cutting all the way through.
- The quarters of the lemon remain attached at the base.
- Open the lemon and pour in 1/2 tbsp of salt. Don't worry if some of the salt spills out.
- Once you salt the lemons, pack them into the jar as tightly as possible. You can use a pestle or a wooden spoon to push them in.
- Once all of the lemons are in the jar, add an additional 1 tbsp of salt. Press on the lemons one more time to extract as much juice as possible.
- If the lemons are submerged in juice you can secure the lid, if not you may need to add additional fresh lemon juice to top them off.
- Alternatively, after slicing off the ends from the lemons, you can simply quarter them into four separate pieces; the quarters do not need to remain attached at the base. If you use this method, pour 1/2 tbsp salt into the bottom of the jar, place four lemon quarters in the jar, and sprinkle 1/2 tbsp salt evenly on top of the for slices. Repeat with each quartered lemon, alternating layers of 4 slices and 1/2 salt, till the jar is tightly packed with lemon slices. Sprinkle 1 tbsp on top of the final layer of slices.
- Use a pestle to press on the lemons and extract as much juice as possible. Top off the jar with fresh lemon juice if needed.
- Seal the jar and store the lemons in a cool dry place for at least 1 week. Give them a shake every once in a while to disperse the juice and salt.
- After 1 week, move your lemons to refrigerator. When the peels become translucent, you will know they are soft and ready for use.
- When you are ready to use a lemon, remove it from the jar and rinse to remove excess salt.
- Cut all of the remaining lemon flesh and pith away from the rind and discard.
- Chop the preserved lemon peel according to your recipe, or whichever way you prefer.
- You can store the lemons in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.