How to make preserved lemons
I like the analogy on Hunter Angler Gardener Cook: Preserved lemons are to fresh as salami is to fresh meat. One isn’t better than the other; they’re both very good and very different things. As the lemon cures in salt, the rind (the only part you eat) loses the sharp, tongue-numbing quality of fresh zest, and the bitterness of the pith mellows. It’s almost as if the rind caramelizes without becoming sweet. Lemon flavour without the acidity.
If you know salt-preserved lemons (sometimes called lemon confit) as a staple of Moroccan cooking, you might be reluctant to bother making a jarful. How many chicken-lemon-olive tagines can you eat? (Quite a few, actually, as I found out when I visited Morocco in December.) But the preserved lemon is far more versatile than that (and it’s found in many other cuisines too). You can use them pretty much anywhere you want a hit of lemon and salt:
- Boost olives (Moroccan-style) by tossing them with finely chopped preserved lemon and chopped parsley or coriander.
- Purée preserved lemon rind and mix with harissa (North African hot sauce) or another hot sauce.
- Use slices of preserved lemon in cocktails. In a martini, you’ll get a hint of salt, and a milder lemon flavour than with the traditional twist of lemon peel.
- Chop preserved lemons and sprinkle over bitter-green salads. Preserved lemon on radicchio looks as good as it tastes.
- In Asian stir-fries and similar dishes that you might squeeze lime over, you can also sprinkle chopped preserved lemon on top. It’s very tasty on noodle dishes like Pad Thai.
I surprised myself one day by using preserved lemon in rock cakes, a very old-school British tea bun much like a scone. My mother’s recipe (from a 1952 Good Housekeeping cookbook) calls for candied peel, which I didn’t have on hand. (Candied peel is so out of fashion now, it’s due–mark my words–for a revival.) I chopped an equivalent amount of preserved lemon, and the salty-sweet combination was fantastic.
The technique works on other citrus fruits, too. Preserved oranges and grapefruits are very good (salads, baking); limes taste good, but they lose some of their bright green colour. (The photo at top shows a couple of preserved grapefruit quarters on top of the lemons–I needed to fill the jar.)
Almost always, the rind is the only part you’ll use. The flesh is just too salty. You can scoop it out with a spoon, but I find it faster and cleaner to use a knife–I just skin a piece the same way I’d cut the skin from a fish fillet. If you want to remove some of the salt, pour boiling water over the rind and let it sit a minute or two.
The first time I was in Morocco I took a cooking class with chef Lahcen Beqqi. When we asked for a preserved-lemon demo, he gave us a bit of a look–as if we’d asked how to boil water. It is really that simple. Some online recipes complicate the process with carefully measured brines or images of perfect whole lemons arranged in jars just-so. Ignore them. There’s no need to treat the lemons like precious objects. You’ll never use a preserved lemon whole like that, so it doesn’t matter what it looks like in the jar. It will always be scooped, sliced or chopped, so just squish the lemons into a jar and stop worrying so much. Lahcen pointed out that you can even use a drinking glass covered with plastic wrap. Here’s what he taught us:
Moroccan-Style Preserved Lemons
You can make as many preserved lemons as you have on hand (hold one lemon back for a juice top-up); you’ll need a sterilized glass jar (a wide-mouthed mason jar is ideal) that’s just barely big enough to hold the lemons. You can even use a small drinking glass to preserve a single lemon.
Hands-On Time: 10 minutes | Start to Finish: at least 3 weeks (to cure)
coarse salt (not iodized)
1. Scrub lemons well. Cut in quarters, but don’t cut all the way through, as in the photo at right (this lemon needs more salt). Cup a lemon in your hand, with the cut end up and partly opened, and pour as much salt into the flesh as it will hold. Do this over a large bowl to catch spilled salt.
3. Pack the salted lemon tightly into a clean, sterilized glass jar.
4. Repeat with remaining lemons, packing tightly. The juice will start to squeeze out as you pack; more will be released as the lemons cure. Toss in another tablespoon or two of salt for good measure, and put the lid on the jar.
5. Check them after about a day. The lemons should be submerged in liquid; if needed squeeze extra lemon juice overtop. If some lemons float, place something non-reactive on top to push them down (see tips, below). Undissolved salt in the jar is fine–you can tip the jar back and forth a few times to help dissolve the salt, if you like.
6. The lemons can be used after about 3 weeks, but they’re at their best with between 1-3 months curing. After that, they are still delicious, but the skin will lose some colour.
Yield: Makes as many preserved lemons as you like.
Tips: You can’t use too much salt in preserved lemons–don’t scrimp. Persuading the lemons to stay submerged can be a challenge. I have small ceramic condiment dishes and stone chopstick rests which I put under the lid to force the lemons down. Just be sure what you use won’t react with the salt—no metal, please. Because the lemons don’t need an airtight seal, you can use your old canning jar lids here.
Quartered-lemon photo: Miheco