Preserved Lemons

When an aunt and uncle from Northern California hand you a cooler full of Meyer lemons, make lemon marmalade.  And lemon curd.  And when you just can’t fit one more sweet lemony thing into your day, make preserved lemons with the rest.

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Preserved lemons are one of my absolute favorite condiments.  Whole lemons are pickled in a mixture of salt and lemon juice, and after a few weeks the rinds soften and they’re ready to eat.  Perhaps most well-known in North African cooking, several Indian cuisines also make lemon pickles, with hot chilies and spices.  I’ve made both styles, and while I do like to have a good spicy lemon pickle in the fridge, Moroccan-style plain preserved lemons are the ones I find myself making a few times a year to ensure that I always have them on hand.

They may also be one of the friendliest ways to introduce yourself to fermenting foods.  Since most of the action here occurs in the safe, cool confines of the fridge, you don’t have to worry about the scums, smells, and other unsavoriness* that attends many  fermentations.  I’m not a fermentation fanatic, but I do believe it’s spiritually invigorating to cast off the strictures of white lab coats and sterile rooms, and to invite the little wild yeasties and bacteria in the air into your life.  So perhaps the salty, acidic, antimicrobial atmosphere of preserved lemons is the gentle introduction that some of you need into this world.

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Typically one only uses the rind of preserved lemons, so rather than adding tartness to a dish, they come to play a role similar to olives: salty, and with that unique tang that comes with salt-curing.  An integral ingredient to many Moroccan dishes, I’ve also found them delicious in pasta salads, chopped vegetable salads, or just with rice and hot sauce.

Another key benefit is that commercial preserved lemons run upwards of $10 a jar, and if you make your own your only cost is the lemons and a few minutes of your time–and if you know someone with a lemon tree, the cost becomes very attractive indeed.

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Preserved Lemons
Lemons, organic or no-spray
Sea salt
Extra lemon juice

Scrub the lemons and cut slits almost all the way to the center, so that the lemon is in quarters but still attached.  Generously sprinkle salt into each slit and press the lemons into a clean jar.  Push down and squeeze as many lemons as possible in each jar.  I can usually fit 3-4 lemons per pint jar.  Seal with a clean lid, preferably plastic or coated metal (Mason canning lids will rust in the brine).  Let stand at room temperature for 3-4 days.  During this time the lemons will release most of their juice.  Top the jar off with fresh lemon juice to cover the lemons, and then transfer to the fridge.  They will be ready to use in 1 month.

*If you’re new to fermentation, please note that this unsavoriness is often quite natural.  In particular, when exposed to air, fermented foods do often mold, but the food still under the brine is still safe and untouched.  Some people are just more comfortable than others about skimming mold off of something they’re about to eat.

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