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) jar. 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, and so son.
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.
Step by Step
1. Prepare the lemons: 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.
2. Quarter and salt: 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. Stuff each lemon with a good quantity of salt.
3. Add to a jar: 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.
4. Rest: let the lemons rest for 24 hours in a cool, dark place, then fill the rest of the jar with lemon juice. Rest for another week, and then your salted lemons are ready to be used.
Which 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.
Preserved Lemon Substitutes
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.
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.
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 something like this quick spinach pasta.
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 apparently excellent.
More Homemade Preserves
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- 5-6 large lemons unwaxed
- 6 tablespoons coarse sea salt
- Lemon juice to cover
- Sterilize a 1 litre (2 pint) flip-top glass jar 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.5-6 large lemons
- 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.6 tablespoons coarse sea salt
- 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.Lemon juice
- 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.
* For American cup measurements, please click the pink link text above the ingredient list that says ‘American’.
Nutrition is provided as a courtesy and is an estimate. If this information is important to you, please have it verified independently.