Preserved lemons enhance the cooking of North Africa with their pronounced saltiness and a sourness that is oddly mellowed, rather than enhanced, through fermentation. Even with no other ingredients but salt and lemon, preserved lemons take on other unique and complex flavor profiles that can become even mint-like over time and after proper fermentation.
While you can buy them at specialty stores and online for up to $15 for a jar, you can make them yourself with just a little investment in salt, lemons and time.
dinner in Morocco
I tasted my first preserved lemon in Morocco. It was my junior or senior year in college, and I left for the summer to travel alone throughout Europe and Morocco, where I did volunteer work and hopped from city to city first visiting Tangiers, then Chefchaouen, Al Hoceima, Rabat and Marrakech. I met friends – Italian girls with whom I traveled – and Mustapha, a dear friend who now lives in Los Angeles with his wife.
Mustapha had invited me to stay with his family – mother, father, two sisters (Fatima and Zineb) and what seemed like countless brothers.
My first evening in his family’s home, his mother showed me how they baked bread at home (a luxury, really, as most Moroccan families prepare their bread at home and baked it in huge wood-fired communal bakeries). She also prepared a roast chicken with olives, spices and these preserved lemons.
Not wanting to offend, I dutifully ate every single bite of salad, olives, chicken and bread Mustapha’s mother piled high on my plate. And when she piled more on my plate, I protested, but ate every single bite again. Mustapha’s father urged me to eat the lemons, too, which I thought simply enhanced the flavor of the chicken. When I balked, he chortled, and showed me that when a lemon is fully and properly fermented, the whole thing becomes edible – rind and all.
fermenting lemons in morocco
Later, Mustapha’s mother showed me how to she prepares the lemons (and his father showed me how they cure olives). The technique was simple: slice the lemons as if to quarter them, sprinkle them with salt and press them into a large jar so that the lemon juice and salt create a brine that covers the olives. Let them ferment several weeks and enjoy. They don’t need refrigeration, but their flavor will continue to change over time. So if you wish to preserve that flavor at any single point during fermentation, simply transfer the lemons to cold storage. Properly fermented lemons will last for years – even at room temperature.
special equipment for fermentation
Now, when I make preserved lemons as I do every year, I typically use a closed fermentation system with an airlock (you can find them online), but they’re not at all necessary for proper fermentation, just a personal preference of mine. Remember, Mustapha’s mother and father (who had been fermenting lemons and curing olives since childhood) fermented in large gallon-sized glass jars – no fancy systems, no weights, no airlocks.
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- 2½ pounds lemons, (preferably Meyer lemons)
- ¼ cup unrefined sea salt
- Trim the ends off lemons, taking care not to
- cut into the flesh, then slice the lemons as if to quarter them - keeping the base of the lemon intact.
- Sprinkle the interior of the lemons with unrefined sea salt then layer in your mason jar, crock or fermentation device. Sprinkle with unrefined sea salt then mash with a wooden spoon or dowel until the rinds of the lemon begin to soften and the lemons release their juice which should combine with the salt to create a brine conducive to the proliferation of beneficial bacteria.
- Continue mashing, salting and mashing until
- your lemons fill the jar and rest below the
- level of the brine.
- Ferment at room temperature for three to four weeks. Lemons can be kept for one to two years.