Preserved lemons are a popular addition to south Asian and north African cuisine, especially common in Morocco. They’re salty, sour, vibrant – everything good to add depth to or finish a dish. They are both less and more lemony, deeper in flavour, but losing some of the fresh brightness that’s replaced with salt. You may have seen them in the shops, but they’re often quite expensive.
To make your own is extraordinarily simple, and you can do as small or large a batch as you like. This recipe makes one large (1-litre) jars. Pictured are three, but it’s easier to make more than reduce a recipe. Since they store well for up to a full year, you can easily use them up before they spoil, or separate into smaller jars and gift once they’re ready.
This is a particularly good time of year to make them in time to give away around the holidays and a small jar of homemade preserved lemons makes a very nice gift on its own, or with other ingredients to make a recipe. Think couscous, dried fruit, chickpeas, etc. – or go all out and add a tagine to the mix.
The first time I tried them, I stopped in my tracks for a solid minute. For someone who has a lifelong love affair with both acid and salt in food, they are the absolute best. I’ve replaced pickle juice with preserved lemons, and let’s be honest, it’s a real step up.
How to make preserved lemons
The process is simple, if a bit messy. Wash your lemons in warm water. Cut both knobbly ends off the lemon, to make a flat surface on both sides, but don’t cut so far that you go into the flesh.
Set the lemons cut-side down onto a work surface. Quarter the lemons lengthwise, but don’t cut all the way through. There should be about a centimetre (1/4 inch) left at the base of the lemon, so you have an X cut into the fruit instead of four wedges.
Stuff each lemon with a good quantity of salt. I use coarse sea salt, but you can use kosher salt, pink salt, whatever. Just don’t use crappy table salt.
Press the lemons into a sealable flip top or canning jar, leaving at least a couple centimetres (1/2 inch) at the top below the lid. They should be X side up in the jar. If you’re making a larger batch, keep going until all of your lemons are jarred.
Place the jar into a cool, dark place for 24 hours. After that time, open the jar and top off with fresh lemon juice to fill it to, again, about 2cm / ½ in. from the top. Then leave the jar in the dark spot for another week.
After they’ve rested for a week, your preserved lemons are ready to use. Refrigerate in a sealed container for at least six months. I’ve kept them for longer, up to a year, but I don’t want you to sue me for botulism or something so we’re going with six months. Use your judgement.
So there you are, your very own Moroccan preserved lemon. To use them, remove excess salt by rinsing, and only use the rind.
What kind of lemons to use
Many recipes call for Meyer lemons. I always use plain old regular lemons, no special variety. Just make sure they’re unwaxed, as you’re only eating the rind, and go for organic.
I recently got a huge box from crowdfarming and made a big batch from them. Best lemons I’ve ever had.
If you’re lucky enough to have your own lemon tree, well, you’ve probably already found plenty of ways to use them. If you live in a warm place that supports citrus growth, maybe you have a neighbour who’s willing to share, or a local tree that’s gone wild.
Lemons are best in winter in the northern hemisphere, like all citrus fruits, so trying to make this in the summer probably won’t end up as well as you’d like. It is, however, a very nice project in the dark winter, with vivid colours and flavours to get through the cold months.
Many people add various elements to their recipes, with bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and peppercorns being the most popular. I usually go for straight lemon and salt.
If you want to experiment, try making a few smaller jars and adding dried herbs and spices to the individual jars in different variations to see what you like best. I love the pure flavour of preserved lemons without anything else, but you do you.
What can I use as a preserved lemons substitute?
Tricky. It is only lemons and salt, so you can simply add some zest and juice to the recipe to make up for it, and make sure it’s well seasoned over all. There isn’t a straightforward replacement.
Alternatively, try grilled lemon or orange slices, or even pickled red onions, depending on what you’re looking to make. Preserved lemons have a very unique flavour and I encourage you to try them before looking to substitute something else.
How to use preserved lemons
They are a sublime addition to salad dressings, adding just the right amount of oomph. I especially like it in a quinoa salad – this Moroccan quinoa salad is a good one to mix a bit of preserved lemon into.
My Moroccan roasted cauliflower steaks already include strips of preserved lemon in place of a dressing. Or, pop some into just about any kind of stew with complementary flavours. A tajine, or any soup or stew that uses cinnamon and cumin will be a good fit. (I have a lot of north African inspired recipes if you’re into that.)
Try a bit of the rind blended into a vinaigrette, or chopped up and added to homemade hummus (especially with herbs blended in). I often mix both lemon zest and preserved lemon into my simple lemony pasta, with just a little olive oil and garlic for an easy weeknight dinner.
Add it to yogurt or vegan labneh for an easy dip, especially mixed with chopped herbs. Or, stir through some chopped rind with rice or another grain to serve as a side.
A bit more outside the box, add some to a drink that benefits from a bit of salt and acidity – gin and tonic, martinis, and margaritas. Preserved lemon gin and tonic is excellent.
Great recipes using preserved lemon:
Moroccan Roasted Cauliflower Steaks
Israeli Couscous with Butternut Squash and Preserved Lemon
Cumin Spiced Beet Salad
Smashed New Potatoes with Peas – and many recipes from the many Ottolenghi books
Green Salad with Preserved Lemon
I’ll be sharing more recipes with preserved lemon in future, so keep an eye open for them if you make these.
Let’s connect! If you liked this recipe, make sure to leave a comment below, I love hearing from you! Tag me on instagram @occasionallyeggs and #occasionallyeggs so I can see what you’re making, and stay in touch via email, facebook, and pinterest.
- 5-6 large lemons
- 6 tablespoons coarse sea salt
- Lemon juice, to cover
- Sterilize a 1 litre / 2 pint flip-top or canning jar and set aside.
- Wash the lemons well. Cut both ends off the lemon to make a flat surface on both ends. Avoid cutting so far that you go into the flesh.
- Set the lemons vertically onto a flat working surface. Quarter the lemons lengthwise, cutting an X, but don't go all the way through. Leave about 1 cm / 1/4 in. at the base of each lemon so that the wedges remain attached.
- Add a tablespoon of salt into the middle of each lemon. Don't worry if some falls out the sides.
- Press the lemons, cut side up, into the prepared jar. Leave some space (about 2cm / 1/2 in.) below the lid. Place the jar into a cool, dark place for 24 hours.
- After 24 hours, most or all of the salt should be dissolved and there should be a good amount of liquid in the bottom of the jar. Top the jar off with fresh lemon juice to about 2cm / 1/2 in. below the lid.
- Place the jar back into a cool, dark place for another seven days. Once the week is up, store the preserved lemons in the refrigerator for up to six months.
To use the lemons, take a quarter off and only use the rind. Rinse with fresh water to remove excess salt.
Serving Size:1 tablespoon
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 5
This data is provided by a calculator and is a rough estimation of the nutritional information in this recipe.