Lately, several of my excursions into North African Mediterranean cuisine have been thwarted by a missing ingredient: preserved lemons. It turns out that preserved lemons are not an item you can just go pick up at your local grocery store. Surely some enterprising food packing company produces and distributes jars of them somewhere, but for the life of me I can’t find any. Luckily, a bit of research revealed that they’re easy-peasy to make. The first recipe I think I encountered was in Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ wonderful The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: A Delicious Alternative for Lifelong Health (this is an affiliate link, by the way). There’s no reason not to make your own. The recipe is essentially to slice some lemons, coat them in sea salt, and pack them in a sterile jar with enough additional lemon juice to cover the whole works. Seriously. That’s the recipe. Granted, some people embellish a bit. They might add some herbs or spices to augment the flavor. You’ll see that I added a few cinnamon sticks to mine. But at base we’re really talking about salt-cured lemons here. It ain’t rocket science. Dozens of recipes can be found online, and they’re all fairly similar.
There is a bit of a rub in making preserved lemons though. Time. They have to ferment for a month before they’re ready for use. This isn’t an impulse item. It’s not like you can thumb through your Moroccan cookbook, happen upon a recipe for Chicken Tajine, realize that preserved lemons are required, and then quickly decide to whip up a batch in time for dinner that night. Preserved lemons require some patience. For this reason, I suggest laying in a batch of preserved lemons now. Yes, now. This week. Seriously. Do it. Do it one time and taste them, and you won’t have to be coaxed into making them ever again.
From the moment I sampled my first batch (after waiting an excruciating month) I vowed on the spot to never be without a batch of preserved lemons ever again. I don’t want to oversell them here. Eating them isn’t like a religious conversion experience or anything. However, I really am convinced that life is just a little bit better now that they’re around.
The lemons are definitely transformed in the fermentation process. You pull the lemon pulp from the rind and discard it. It’s the rind you want. The pith has become soft and translucent. The juice is thick and syrupy. It glistens on the bright yellow peel. I find myself wanting to put them in and on everything. It doesn’t have to be North African cuisine. They’re incredible when added to a salad dressing, or on grilled salmon, or mixed into a batch of lentils, or sprinkled on pizza, or used in any application where you might otherwise add a bit of citrus. I made a very “hippy” style Buddha bowl for lunch today, and I mixed them in with some raw beets. It was amazing! You might also try this stupid good Moroccan Chickpea Stew. The bits of preserved lemon offer this rather intense burst of lemon flavor, but it’s not harsh in the way that raw lemon peel would be. It’s salty-sweet rather than bitter. The intensity isn’t that sharp, and it doesn’t linger on the palate. So when it’s diced and mixed into a dish, it offers big bright lemony notes here and there that arrive and depart quickly rather than melding into the background flavors. It’s like your dish is a jazz standard, and the preserved lemon is your dish played by Thelonious Monk. In fact, it tastes a lot like this. The varied flavor experience really adds some interesting complexity to a dish. It’s flavor, flavor, flavor, BURST OF LEMON, flavor, flavor, flavor, flavor BURST OF LEMON, flavor, flavor, BURST OF LEMON!
I suppose I should mention that these preserved lemons qualify as a fermented food. While I haven’t read anything about preserved lemons in particular, fermented foods tend to contribute beneficial bacteria to our gut microbiome. While scientific study of the gut microbiome is still in it’s infancy, it’s becoming pretty clear that the kinds of critters living in your intestines have a big impact on auto-immunity and your overall health.
I should add that the North African Mediterranean region isn’t the only place that ferments citrus fruit. There are all kinds of citrus pickles in India and Pakistan. I’ve got an awesome, hot, sour, salty Indian Limb Pickle recipe on the blog here.
My recipe adopts the traditional method of making preserved lemons described in this Nourished Kitchen recipe. You’ll need a big mason jar. Since you’re eating the skin, organic lemons are the way to go here. The idea is to cut the very end of the stem end off of each lemon, and then cut them into quarters only part of the way through so the four corner sections remain attached. Then you pack the interior of the lemon with sea salt and place them one by one into the jar, mashing them with a large wooden spoon so they release their juice. You’ll want to have a few more lemons on hand than will fit in the jar, because you’ll need a bit of extra juice to ensure that all of the lemons are immersed in briny lemon juice. If any parts stick up out of the brine, they’re liable to develop mold (which I understand is harmless, but is not exactly aesthetically pleasing).
Prepare to see many recipes that incorporate this Mediterranean staple. If you make a batch, please leave a comment and let me know how they turned out. If you take photos, post one to Instagram with the hashtag #SlowBurningPassion. Thanks!
- 12 - 15 Fresh Organic Lemons
- ½ Cup Sea Salt or Kosher Salt
- 4 Sticks of Cinnamon
- Clean and sterilize a large, half-gallon-sized mason jar and its lid.
- Scrub, rinse, and dry the lemons. Since you're eating the peel, it's important to use organic or pesticide-free lemons here.
- With a sharp knife, cut off the stem end of each lemon. Then quarter each lemon from the pointed tip to the stem end, but don't cut all the way through to the stem end. The entire lemon should remain in tact, with an "X" cut in the top.
- Slightly pull open the "X" and pack the interior of each lemon with some salt. Salt them liberally. You can pack close to a tablespoon's worth in each one.
- As you salt each lemon. place them into the clean jar. Give them a squeeze as you do so, and press down on them with a large wooden spoon to release some of their juices. Depending on their size, you should be able to get 8 - 12 lemons in the jar.
- Slide the cinammon sticks down the sides of the jar when it gets close to being full. If the lemons are not completely covered in juice, squeeze a few additional lemons and add the juice to cover.
- Put the lid on the jar loosely. Don't screw it down. You want it to be able to breathe. Let the lemons ferment for four weeks at room temperature. A few times a week, I screw the cap on and invert the jar, then re-loosen the cap.
- After a month they're ready to eat. You can store them in a cool place and they'll last indefinitely. I keep mine in the refrigerator.
- To use: separate a quarter from one of the lemons and scrape away the inner pulp. Rinse off the salty brine. Slice or dice as needed.