Preserved lemons are lemons that have been pickled in brine and are most commonly found in Moroccan, Middle Eastern, Indian, and North African cuisine. They have a tangy, salty flavor that can be a magical secret ingredient in soups, sauces, meat dishes, marinades, and much more. The culturing process increases the health benefits of the lemons by breaking down the sugars, preserving the nutritional content, developing probiotics, and increasing the bio-availability of the vitamins and minerals.
Normally, we don’t consume lemons whole because the pith is bitter, but once preserved, the bitterness disappears and the peel becomes the most prized part. You can also use flesh and brining liquid as ingredients in cooking. Beware, the brine makes them quite salty, so taste before adding any additional salt to your dishes! If the salt is too much, you can always rinse them off before use.
Preserved lemons can be expensive to buy in stores or online, but the good news is you can make this exotic ingredient cheaply and easily at home. Meyer lemons are often chosen because of their smaller size, thinner skins, and milder flavor, however, regular lemons work fine. Regular lemons tend to be more acidic, but also carry a bolder, more lemony flavor—if you love the fresh, zesty scent and flavor of lemon like I do, this is not a bad thing! I’ve used both with success—use whatever you have access to.
- Lemons (any variety)
- Salt (I prefer Himalayan pink salt because of all the great minerals and nutrients it provides; you can also use sea salt or kosher salt; avoid iodized table salt as it is too fine and the iodine may impart an unpleasant flavor and impede the culturing process)
- Glass jar (plastic or metal lids are ok, but the container itself should be glass or ceramic)
- Rinse lemons to remove excess dirt. You don’t have to scrub the heck out of them—the natural yeast and bacteria on them are actually beneficial to the preserving process, so a quick rinse and dry is perfectly sufficient (unless you are using non-organic lemons, then wash them well to remove pesticides).
- Traditionally, the lemons are left whole with slits cut into them for the salt to get in and the juices to get out, but there is no real reason to leave the lemon intact other than aesthetic. Cut up your lemons in the method of your choice, whether it be whole, halved, quartered, diced, or sliced (see below for details on each method).
- Now it’s time to add the salt. If you opt for either “whole lemon” approach, pry open the slits and use a small spoon to fill up the crevices as much as you can with the salt. If you halved, quartered, sliced, or diced your lemons, rub the flesh with a generous amount of salt. Add your salted lemons to the jar, smashing them down to fit as much as you can into the jar and to help release the juices. Cover and wait two days. If you are using a metal lid and ring, you may want to cover the jar with plastic wrap first so the acid doesn’t corrode your lid. I like to use plastic mason jar lids like these—they’re so convenient!
- After two days, squeeze fresh lemons into the jar until your salted lemons are completely covered in lemon juice (waiting a couple days gives the salted lemons a chance to release their juices; if you covered them with juice on the first day, the jar would end up over-flowing—speaking from experience here!). Push the salted lemons down below the surface of the juice so they are not exposed to air because any part of the lemons that stick out above the juice may grow mold. They have a tendency to float up, so you may need to place a weight on top to keep them down. Glass weights can be purchased online, but you can save a few bucks and use a glass votive holder from the Dollar Store or a well-washed river rock.
- After about one month they will be ready to eat. At this point, transfer them to the fridge to suspend the fermentation process where they should keep for at least a year.
WHOLE LEMON (METHOD ONE): The most common way is to cut an “X” into the lemon about 3/4 of the way down, leaving the base intact. I initially tried this and the reason I abandoned it is that the lemons tended to split all the way open later in the process, in which case you may as well just quarter them completely.
WHOLE LEMON (METHOD TWO): Position your knife at the top of the lemon and slice as if you were going to cut it in half vertically, but only slice about 3/4 of the way down. Turn the lemon over and repeat this slice on the opposite side, but at a right angle to the first cut. This works great!
HALVED LEMONS: Cut lemons in half, and then slice an “X” into the face of each half.
QUARTERED LEMONS: This may be the simplest—just cut your lemons into quarters. The advantage to this is it’s quick and easy, and you can cram a lot more lemons into the jar!
SLICED OR DICED: I think these are less common used because it doesn’t showcase the lemon peel, the best part of preserved lemons. There’s no reason, however, why they wouldn’t work.
Now… how do you use preserved lemons?? You can add them to a tuna salad or pasta dish, mix with goat cheese and serve with crackers and figs, use them in your fish or meat marinades, perk up salsas, salad dressings and stews… the list is endless. Here are a couple ideas to get you started. The following two recipes work great together for dinner:
PRESERVED LEMON & GARLIC VINAIGRETTE
Combine the following ingredients in a small jar and shake well to emulsify. Leftover dressing will last longest in the fridge; the olive oil may harden when cold, so just take it out of the fridge an hour or two before you plan on using it next. Excellent on salads, roasted veggies, rice, chicken, fish, etc. My new favorite way to eat asparagus is to stir fry it in a skillet and then toss it with this dressing. Delicious!!
- Half a preserved lemon (or two quarters), very finely chopped
- 1-2 large garlic cloves, grated on a micro-plane or very finely minced
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup rice vinegar, white wine vinegar, or red wine vinegar
- Black pepper to taste
CHICKEN WITH PRESERVED LEMONS
- 1 to 1.5 lbs. chicken (breasts, thighs, legs… whatever you’re into )
- Salt (if needed), pepper, garlic powder, and any other optional spices (you might like to add turmeric, saffron, coriander, ginger, or curry, any of which would partner well with this palate)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 white or yellow onion, sliced
- 3 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1 preserved lemon (separate peel from the flesh and dice up both, removing any seeds), plus 2 TB juice from the jar
- Green or black olives (optional)
- 3 cups chicken broth
- 3 TB butter
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- Chopped parsley and/or cilantro
- Rice, quinoa, or couscous
Prepare rice, quinoa, or couscous separately. Cook in chicken or vegetable broth (as opposed to water) if you want to add some extra flavor.
Slather raw chicken with 2 TB of preserved lemon juice and then season with pepper and garlic powder. You shouldn’t need to add extra salt because the juice from the jar is quite salty. (If you’re planning ahead, you can leave this to marinade in the fridge for up to 24 hours; if not, you can slather it on right before cooking.) Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven or a large skillet over a medium heat. Brown the chicken well on each side and remove once cooked through. Set aside.
Add the onion, garlic, and seasonings of your choice to the same pan. Sauté for a couple minutes or until softened but not browned. Add the preserved lemons, olives, and chicken broth. Scrape the browned bits in the pan with a wooden spoon and bring the mixture to a low boil. Simmer until the sauce is reduced by half.
Lower the heat and mix in the butter and sour cream. Taste and adjust seasoning. Return the chicken to the pan and heat through. Serve over rice, quinoa, or couscous and garnish generously with chopped parsley and/or cilantro.
If you have any recipes or ideas for using preserved lemons, feel free to share them in the comments!