When Life Gives You Lemons

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Skip the lemonade and go directly to preserved lemons. This condiment adds a unique, soft, and subtle flavor to a variety of dishes. Popular in Mediterranean regions from Tunisia to France and Morocco to Spain, these bits of sunshine are also prized in South Indian cuisine. The all-natural fruit lends a brightness to foods such as rice, baked fish and chicken, soups and stews, and countless other dishes. It is an essential ingredient of chicken tagine. All you’ll need for preserved lemons is lemons, salt, and time!

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How to make Preserved Lemons: Printable

  • 6-8 Lemons
  • Some recipes indicate a preference for the thinner-skinned, sweeter Meyer lemons, others indicate that Meyer lemons become slightly mushy when preserved. Eureka lemons are perfectly acceptable. Choose smaller lemons if possible, they will be easier to close-pack in the preserving jar. Further, since you are preserving the entire lemon, organic lemons are highly recommended.

  • Salt
  • Additive-free kosher salt, or sea salt, are best for this recipe. Ordinary table salt will add a harsh, chemical taste.

To begin, scrub lemons with a vegetable brush and dry them well. Cut off the little rounded bit, or nib, at the stem end.

Hold lemons over a plate or bowl to catch any juice. On the end opposite the nib, make a large cut by slicing lengthwise downward. Make a second downward slice, so you’ve incised the lemon with an X shape. Avoid making the cuts so deep that the lemon separates into quarters.

Pack salt into the lemon where you made the cuts. Be generous; use about 1 tablespoon salt per lemon.

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Put a couple of tablespoons of salt in the bottom of a sterilized quart glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add the salt-filled lemons, packing fruit in layers, and sprinkling a thin layer of salt between each layer. Push the lemons down firmly to pack them tightly and to help express some of their juice. I used a pestle from a mortar and pestle set to help shmoosh the lemons into the jar.

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If you desire, add a Safi spice mixture—a few coriander seeds, a bay leaf, a dried chili, and a cinnamon stick, or any combination of these. Finish with a final layer of salt. Cover the jar tightly and let stand overnight.

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The next day, press lemons down again. Encourage them to release more juice as they begin to soften. Repeat for 2 to 3 days. My lemons were not overly juicy, so I needed to add more freshly-squeezed lemon juice. It is important to make certain the lemons are completely covered with salted lemon juice. After about a month the preserved lemons will be soft and ready to use. While preserved lemons are kept in pantries in North Africa, most U.S. chefs recommend keeping them under refrigeration where they will last for months.

(As it happens, this method is suitable for preserving limes as well as lemons. Pickled limes were fashionable New England treats in the middle of the 19th century. Remember all those pickled limes Amy March loved?)

Preserved lemons are both intensely salty and acidic, a little bit goes a long way. Their unique pickled taste and special silken texture cannot be duplicated with fresh lemon or lime juice. During the preserving process, the lemons release their juice into the brine, creating a lemon infusion that is wonderful in soups and sauces. The pickling juice is particularly welcome in Bloody Marys and salad dressings. If desired, cook with both pulp and rind.

Do not fish the lemons out of the brine using your fingers; avoid metal utensils as well. Use a plastic picnic fork or wooden utensil to remove the lemons instead.

Occasionally, there may be a lacy, white substance clinging to preserved lemons in the jar. It is perfectly harmless, but for aesthetic reasons it should be rinsed off just before the lemons are used. In any case, lemons should be rinsed to reduce their saltiness.

If you wish, pull lemons apart. Scrape out the pulp and pith using the dull edge of a knife, this removes any bitterness. Slice lemon peel into thin strips or cut into small dice and add to steamed fish, roasted chicken, and grain dishes. Diced peel can be mixed into your favorite sauces, or gremolata. Toss with salads. Garnish grilled meat or place a slice or two into a tuna fish sandwich. Surprise family and guests by using preserved lemon as a garnish for vanilla ice cream or a fruit granita.

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To get you started, here are three recipes that rely on preserved lemons for their spark and personality:


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