Preserved lemons

I’ve written before about some of the ingredients that have cachet among chefs and food-lovers who really know their stuff: quince, celeriac, short ribs. That list has never aspired to be comprehensive, but I would be remiss if I didn’t amend it to include preserved lemons (aka lemon confit).

Naturally, because this ingredient is such a darling of chefs everywhere, cookbooks contain a wealth of recipes for it. A quick search on Eat Your Books turns up 15 or more versions in my cookbook library alone. I first learned about them years ago while reading up on Moroccan cuisine, in which I have a longstanding interest, and I still use Paula Wolfert’s approach when making them.

Obviously, lemons are high in acidity, and that, combined with salt, produces a very hostile environment for mold and spoilage bacteria. This is a good thing if you’re developing a national cuisine in the days before refrigerated transport trucks. But preserved lemons are more than just a pickle, they’re a transmutation: the long salt treatment softens the tough lemon rind, tones down its bitterness, and adds complexity to the flavour. (I’ve never seen confirmation of this, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there were some lactic bacterial fermentation going on.) Keep in mind that it’s the rind of a preserved lemon that gets eaten, not the flesh!

Among all those recipes I have, though, there is very little variation. The most common one is the addition of spices, such as bay leaves, coriander seeds, cinnamon, and black pepper. Many of them also call for some sugar to balance out either the acidity of the lemons or the salinity of the salt; not a bad idea at all, but not really necessary in my view. And some recipes suggest giving other citrus fruit the same treatment, which is a great idea, though one I’ve never gotten around to implementing.

How to make preserved lemons

Cover the bottom of a large jar, such as a 1-litre home-canning jar, with a thin layer of kosher or pickling salt, about 1 tablespoon. Take 5-6 washed whole lemons, quarter them lengthwise, almost – but not quite – all the way through: the four quarters should be attached at one end. Pack the cut surfaces of each lemon with a tablespoon or so of salt. (Do this over a bowl to catch any salt or juice that runs off, which you can add at the end.) Place them in the jar, pressing down to fit. Cover them with additional fresh-squeezed lemon juice, making sure the lemons are fully submerged. Keep at room temperature for a week, shaking daily and re-submerging the lemons if necessary. (It’ll be necessary.) After a week, place the jar in the fridge and leave it there for a month. By this point, they’ll be ready to use, but they’ll continue to improve in the months that follow.

How to use preserved lemons

Once they’re ready, you can remove them from their brine, separate the flesh from the rind, rinse the rind and cut it as desired. Use them anywhere you want a touch of lemony flavour and can stand some extra salt. If they’re too salty, you can blanch them in boiling water to remove some. They’ll be slightly acidic from being marinated in all that lemon juice, but I wouldn’t count on them to correct the acidity of a dish; they add more depth of flavour than brightness. They’re great in meat braises, chicken dishes, as a garnish on fish, mixed into vegetables or lentils or pasta… not to mention in traditional Moroccan dishes!

How have you enjoyed preserved lemons?

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6 Responses to “Preserved lemons”

  1. Hi. Someone found out how to prepare preserved lemons by using a sous vide procedure. I don’t have a controlled temperature water bath so I couldn’t try the method, but maybe it is worth a test.

  2. One thing I’ve learned recently about using preserved lemons is to avoid them if there’s a lot of sweetness in the other ingredients. For instance, I tried to do a kernel corn salad with red onion, garlic and the preserved lemon. Instead of adding that mellow lemony depth I was hoping for, the lemon and sweet corn combined to almost taste like a dessert. Any thoughts about other things to avoid using them with?

  3. Interesting, Isaia. Thanks for the link!

  4. This is an interesting point, Christine. As I said above, I wouldn’t recommend using preserved lemon to provide balancing acidity in a dish. To my mind, most of the acidity in a lemon is in the juice. I wonder how your salad would have been if you’d used a combination of regular lemon juice and preserved lemon rind?

  5. My batch is now 10 weeks old and I am using them regularly.
    Have you used any of the amber liquid as a salt or savory addition?
    I am going to try this because it is intensely salty, sour, and savory. I wonder if it used in north Africa.

  6. Hi!
    I do the same, but instead of lemon juice, I brine them into olive oil. Once they have been brining for for a couple of weeks, you can filter out the lemon, leave a nive fragrant lemon olive oil.

    I use with chicken legs, or white fish ravioli.