Just as having a pantry full of preserved fruits or vegetables brings a feeling of comfort and a cheerful burst of color to your kitchen, so does having a jar of lemons preserving on your counter. Preserving lemons involves little more than cramming a bunch of lemons and salt in jar and letting it sit for a month. The end result is like a food version of lemonade: a little tart, a little sweet and pleasantly bitter.
Rather than eaten alone, preserved lemons are used as an ingredient, most often in Moroccan-inspired cooking. The intensely lemony flavor has a bit of a bite to it and is too strong to be a main ingredient; rather, preserved lemons should be thought of as an exclamation point, adding a burst of citrus flavor to finish a dish. Thin strips of preserved lemon can be added to braised meat, such as lamb, near the end of the cooking process. The lemons can be finely chopped with a shallot and parsley, mashed with olive oil or butter and spread on top of cooked seafood or chicken. They can be added to roasted vegetables, sprinkled into salads or diced and mixed with olives for an appetizer.
You can follow our simple recipe exactly and make straight preserved lemons, or you can experiment by adding different flavors to the batch. Possibilities include adding a cinnamon stick, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, a dried chili or peppercorns.
If you’re lucky enough to have a lemon tree in your yard, this recipe is an ideal way to preserve the bounty. If you don’t live in a climate that makes growing your own lemons possible, then try to buy unwaxed, organic lemons for this recipe since you’ll be eating the lemon peel. Meyer lemons are often used because they have a smoother rind and sweeter flavor. (Meyer lemons also work well because they are smaller in size and easier to fit into a canning jar.) Other varieties of lemons can be used, but won’t get quite as soft and will have a bit more bitterness to them.
If you’ve preserved lemons before, let us know your favorite ways to use them in the kitchen!
Thoroughly wash the lemons.
Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of salt on the bottom of the jar.
Make two intersecting slices in each lemon, separating the lemon into four quarters, without cutting all the way through the bottom. This way, the lemon opens up but remains whole because the four quarters are still attached at the base.
Sprinkle salt (about 1 tablespoon) into each cut lemon.
Pack the lemons into the jar, sprinkling a light coating of salt over each layer of lemons. Some recipes call for more than 1/2 cup of salt, so there is no harm in being generous as you sprinkle. Use a wooden spoon to push down the lemons and really cram them in. Add any additional flavorings. Put the lid on the jar.
The lemons will release some juice as you pack them in, and even more over the next 2 days. Make sure that by day two the lemons are completely covered with juice. If you need to, squeeze the juice from 1-2 fresh lemons and pour it into the jar.
We like to let the lemons sit at room temperature for 30 days, but they don’t necessarily need that long, although we recommend giving them at least 2 weeks. Shake the jar periodically to distribute the salt and juice.
After 30 days or so, remove the lemons from the liquid and rinse well to remove the salt. You can keep the liquid in the jar to start a new batch of preserved lemons.
Scrape out the pulp from each lemon slice (you can press the pulp through a mesh sieve and reserve the juice for salad dressing or marinades).
Some people store the lemon peels at room temp, but we prefer to cover them with olive oil and put them in the refrigerator, where they’ll keep for at least 6 months.