How to Make and Use Preserved Lemons

You're going to want a jar of this incredibly versatile condiment on-hand at all times.

Have you ever tasted a traditional Moroccoan dish and thought, "What is that extraordinary flavor that I can't's sort of acidic, a little lemony — but a lot deeper and more mysterious — a bit salty, but almost, I don't really know what??"

What Are Preserved Lemons?

The haunting flavor, all but ubiquitous in countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, comes from preserved lemons, or lemons that have undergone a pickling process to extend their shelf life. An ancient method to keep lemons from spoiling has become a cherished flavor — a complex flavor and soft, silky texture that is incomparable. That said, I'm pretty confident that, once you taste them, preserved lemons will start sneaking their way into a lot of your cooking. Not only that, but they could hardly be any easier to make at home.

You only need three things: fresh lemons, kosher salt, and a quart-size glass jar with a tight fitting lid.

How to Make Preserved Lemons

Wash six lemons (you may not use all six, but it's good to have extras on hand). Organic, pesticide-free lemons are best, but any nice, bright, unbruised lemons will work. Cut each lemon into quarters, from the top, ALMOST all the way through — just leave the quarters attached at the bottom. Put some kosher salt in the bottom of the clean, quart-size jar. Sprinkle salt all over the inside of the lemons, and push them down into the jar, sprinkling a bit of salt atop each lemon as you go. Fit as many lemons as you can into the jar, and add even more salt at the top. (Don't worry, there really is no recipe here; you'll use about ¾ of a cup of kosher salt, and before you use the lemons, you'll rinse off most of the salt!)

Pour in some extra lemon juice to cover the lemons and then place the top on the jar. Leave the sealed jar for 3-4 weeks, turning upside down every day or so to redistribute the brine. Can you add other flavorings? Of course! I like mine plain, but many people add peppercorns and bay leaves, to mention two possibilities. Just remember: Preserving only works if the lemons remain covered by the brine.

After the seemingly endless (but totally worth it) wait, fish out one lemon — with a very clean fork or knife — rinse away all of the salt, scrape away the lemon's pulp, and finely mince the rind. Believe it or not, what you're going to use in your cooking is the rind and the white pith…yes, that stuff we are always told not to use. But the month in brine has changed everything, and the slight bitterness remaining in the pith is a major part of the extraordinary flavor. (You can use the pulp of the lemon if you like, but it is REALLY salty.)

You can keep your homemade preserved lemons at room temperature, but I prefer to store them in the fridge. There, they will last at least one year, and I've even used them after two years. Just make sure to add more lemon juice if needed to keep them covered.

How to Use Preserved Lemons

Now that you have this wonderful condiment, what can you do with it? Here are a few ways I love to use a bit of finely minced preserved lemon:

  • In any stew that would benefit from a bit of brightness and depth
  • As an ingredient in marinated olives
  • As a way to give somewhat plain pasta sauces a real boost (I use it all the time in shrimp pastas.)
  • Mixed into any cocktail where a little salt and lemon might be used
  • Added to my favorite soups
  • Topping of a bowl of homemade hummus
  • To bring dynamic flavor to legume dishes, especially chickpeas and lentils

Rest assured, once you try it, you will find yourself adding preserved lemon to dishes I haven't even thought of. But remember to salt these dishes a bit less, because the lemons will add salt even after rinsing. Just keep exploring places you might use them.

I doubt you'll have to worry about keeping them for a year; in fact, I predict you'll be making a second batch in a month or two.

Preserved Lemon Recipes to Try:

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