Moroccan Preserved Lemons

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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Moroccan Preserved Lemons

fermentedlemons

By Jenny Published: May 15, 2012

  • Yield: 1/2 gallon
  • Prep: 10 mins

Preserved lemon is a traditional North African condiment where its sour and salty flavor is adds a distinct flavor to classic tagines, roast chickens and other meals.

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Continue mashing, salting and mashing until your lemons fill the jar and rest below the level of the brine.
  4. Ferment at room temperature for three to four weeks. Lemons can be kept for one to two years.

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What people are saying

  1. Rosy says

    These look good, I have been reading your blog for a while, and it is really interesting. However I was wondering if this would work with Limes too?

  2. Jenny says

    Rosy! It’s always nice to hear from a reader. I’ve never tried it with limes, or heard of anyone else trying it with limes; nevertheless, there’s absolutely no reason why this technique wouldn’t work with limes. Frankly, I think preserved limes sound fantastic. If you try it out, let me know!

    • Alli Brown says

      Pickled limes were a treat referred to in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Amy gets in trouble for bringing them to school. I’ve always wondered what they were, and I’m guessing this is it!

    • Jennifer Ho says

      We make salted limes, just like this recipe. We live in Hawaii, and many people make salted lemons, (more common), or limes in glass jars left in the sun on their roof. The salty lime juice is fragrant with lime essence, and because of it’s saltyness, doesnt go bad. It does have a little (bitterness?) that is typical of limes. A little of this juice goes a long way. I add a splash to salad dressing, and would imagine it EXCELLENT in margaritas! It’s way better than the bottled lime juice avail in the market which I wont use/dont care for.

  3. Ashley says

    Would this work for lemon juice in recipes? And I echo the previous poster. I need to know what to do with a gallon of lemons … but lemon juice I know I can use!

    Ashleys last blog post..Pics

  4. Jenny says

    Mostly you use these as a condiment – served with roast chicken along with spiced olives. Or chopped up fine and used on top of fish and poultry. Remember, because they’ve been fermented they last FOREVER much like sauerkraut or cucumber pickles so there’s no urgency in using them. Regarding the lemon juice, it makes a really tasty addition to a good bloody mary. Keep in mind that the juice is salty, so it’s not suited to sweet dishes.

    • Felice says

      I have a recipe for a fish tangine requiring preserved lemon – I always ended up using fresh one but am excited to make these and try them – thank you

  5. Dawna Coxon says

    I was so excited to see this recipe. I remember my mom bringing home a jar from some Egyptian friends of hers when I was a kid. I would eat them on there own – loved them! A couple of questions: after they are done fermenting do you place in frig? If so do they not last as long once in frig? Do they have to be Meyer lemons? And if so why?

    • Jenny says

      Hi Dawna –
      I put them in the fridge to slow down the fermentation process once they’re done to my liking. You could, ostensibly, keep them in a cool dark place in your home with no adverse effects. In the fridge, they keep FOREVER or close to it. I have about 1.5 gallons in there right now that I did in December and they show no signs of spoilage or mold. They should probably last at least a year. Take care though because, as with sour beets, the juice will thicken with age and you always want the fruit to be below the brine so, periodically, you’ll want to mix sea salt and water together to add to the lemons. Also try this recipe: Preserved Lemon & Parsley Tapenade. It’s a GREAT way to use preserved lemon.

      • Edith says

        If the liquid turns cloudy and looks thicker, instead of becoming clearer and more like water, does that mean it has spoiled, not fermented and is not a viable food product anymore? I was adding brine to cover when the fluid was low. Did not use a sealed jar, but left the ring off, used a glass weight, and put the lid over it. Has been three weeks in moderate, low sixty temp out of direct sunlight.

      • Jeanmarie says

        I can testify that these last well over a year. I think I forgot mine were in the fridge, because they went faster once I remembered they were there. The brine, over time, becomes syrupy and thick, almost sweet.

        The thing I don’t understand is why it’s important to keep the lemons together instead of cutting all the way through. I found that very awkward for actually using the lemons because I had to remove the whole thing and cut off pieces and then put back what I wasn’t using. I cut all the way through when I did limes, and no problem. Next time I’m going to try slices.

        • says

          The recipe in the Nourishing Traditions cookbook for preserved lemons calls for slices. Although, it also calls for whey and cinnamon too. That’s the recipe I went with… can’t wait for those suckers to be ready, I’m salivating just thinking about them.

          Thanks for verifying that these lasted over a year for year you.

  6. Amy says

    What if you were over generous with the salt. I am 3 days in and got plenty of juice with my lemons, but a whole lot of salt settled at the bottom the jar. Is it complete disaster…ie should I start over?

  7. Angela says

    I just opened my lemons after they had been fermenting about a week. Are they supposed to be fizzy?

    They smell wonderful….will be trying them later today!

  8. says

    I love preserved lemons and because we don’t get lemons or Meyer lemons in India, I’ve done a jar with just limes, and another with limes and tangerines both from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook. Their recipe has rosemary sprigs and red chillies added, and a dash of olive oil too. The results are delicious!

  9. D. says

    I’ve done this many times and love it. I like to lay slices of lemon on top of a beef roast just a while before it’s done roasting. Adds a fine flavor.

    I have to say, though, as much as I like this site I cannot use the sources. I’ve tried to get my computer security to let me open the sources, but in order to do that I have to turn off my entire security program. Not gonna happen, that’s WHY I have security in the first place.

    You and Kelly the Kitchen Kop both need to figure out a way to make your resources more accessible. Those are the only two places I ever have any trouble at all. Just post the links instead of setting up hyperlinks, for heavens sakes!

  10. says

    Hello!
    Today I will be making these preserved lemons. I lucked out at the market with finding gorgeous organic Meyer lemons!
    My question is about washing them; my water has a little bit of chlorine in it. I’m concerned that the chlorine will damage the naturally present good microbes on the rinds, and inhibit proper fermentation. They look lovely and perfectly clean, but it’s hard to know for sure what’s there that is invisible. Which would be better. I suppose I could rinse them in a bowl of filtered water, but again, I had thought that there were good yeasts hanging out on organic produce skins.

    To wash or not to wash… that is the question.

    Thanks in advance,
    Ananda

  11. Rashelle Gillett says

    I am somewhat new to the fermenting world. I made this recipe in a much smaller batch and after a couple of days mold started forming on the top. There is a layer of mold now. Can I remove the mold and still use the lemons?

    • gaston says

      Absolutely, I have made and been using my first batch of preserved lemons from a recipe in my middle eastern cookbook, and as it said in the book, some fuzzy white mold can occur, it also says that is fine to just wash it off before using the lemons, if you make sure that the lemons are submerged in brine the mold shouldn’t grow, they are delicious and I use them when making roasted chicken with rosemary yum.

  12. J says

    Question about the jar: can a large, regular glass jar be used, or is it necessary to use the food fermenter that you mentioned?
    Also, has anyone ever tried this with oranges?

    • Jenny says

      I strongly prefer fermenters, but any jar will work as long as you have a weight to keep the lemons submerged in brine, otherwise they will mold. I haven’t tried it with oranges, but I have tried it with limes and WOW! that is good.

        • Jeanmarie says

          CulturesforHealth.com sells fermentation weights. What’s not clear from their site is that each weight is a set of weights. So I ordered two when one would have been enough. But, now I’m glad I have extras.

          You can also use nicely sized rocks from the beach or rivers, etc. Wash well.

  13. Caroline says

    I bought a jar of preserved lemons today at the farmer’s market and made the tapenade to go with the Moroccan-spiced roasted chicken (which I love!). The tapenade is so salty that I couldn’t eat it. Are the preserved lemons supposed to be extremely salty?

  14. Jasmine says

    Could you post a picture? I can not envision what the almost quartered lemons are supposed to look like. Would slices work as well?

    • E says

      Hi Jasmine,

      Hope I’m not too late and you still see this…I thought this video might help, shows how to make preserved lemons, her method is ever so slightly different but you get to see how the lemons should be cut and yes, according to this vid, you can just slice them, with the added bonus that they will be ready sooner.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UiLjhHROnw4

  15. aegmom says

    I made these lemons and fermented them for 2 weeks. I am not sure where I went wrong and if I need to ferment them longer. I tried them this morning and they just taste like a salty lemon rind. I used meyer lemons and they just don’t taste like I thought they would. I am wondering what I can do with them at this point. Any suggestions are welcome.

    • Chedonna says

      Many traditional preserved lemons are simply salted lemons. The fermentation process isn’t necessary to use them. Try soaking the rinds for about 15-20 minutes in cool water. Slice them up and add them to a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers with lots of herbs, olive oil, a little crushed chile, and fresh lemon juice. Or mash them in a mortar and pestle with olive oil, basil, mint, parsley, and whatever other fresh soft herb you have available to make an embellishment for fresh fish cooked however you like. Something a little different: chop them up really fine and sprinkle them over a watermelon.

  16. D. says

    I do SO wish you would just list the entire web site of the places where you like to buy things and the things you like to buy. Your “sources” page doesn’t work for me, never has. I’ve unblocked all my pop-up blockers and yada yada yada but nothing seems to work to open them. Can’t you (and all the other nutrient-dense bloggers) please just list the entire web site url??

    It would be very helpful. If it’s a long url, shorten it by going to tiny url or snip url.com

    Thanks for your kind attention. I would love to use some of the products you talk about, but I have no access to them if I can’t open the link.

    • Jenny says

      If you’re using an adblocker, you will not see anything on the resources page. If you disable your adblocker, it should work.

    • Jenny says

      Of course you can. Meyer lemons are my preference, but certainly not required for the recipe. In fact, when shooting the video – I don’t think I used Meyers.

  17. Sarah Davis says

    I usually use FIT veggie wash on my store-bought produce. Would it hurt to do so for these lemons? Thanks! :)

  18. says

    Thanks for posting this! It’s been on my list to make a batch of preserved lemons and this is reminding me to do it. I love your blog.
    Thora

  19. Crystalline Ruby Muse says

    Sally Fallon says to put a tight lid on your ferments while they are brewing, & Sandor Katz says to only put on a secured cloth. It looks like you are of the lidded approach, but I wanted to find out from you which you think is better.

    Also, where did you get your “picklet” (don’t know if my spelling is right)? Thank you, you are a gem!

    • Jenny says

      I put a loose lid on ferments that aren’t in an airlocked device. I don’t think it matters significantly as your ferments will be safe if the solids rest below the level of the brine.

  20. says

    Oh how absolutely divine! It is certainly the right season for lemons, we should all make these and enjoy the increased digestive fire and boosted vitamin content :)

    • Ray says

      I am going to try this! Both the limes, and the other citrus fruits. I think if the Lemon ratio is high enough, you can get away with adding in some oranges.

  21. HollymMead says

    I just started a batch today and I see that I have room for probably four or five more lemons in my jar. I made a brine and used a little whiskey glass to smoosh the lemons below the brine before popping on the “loose” lid. Could I buy more lemons this evening and add them to the jar tomorrow since that would require pouring off brine and any juices that accumulated overnight?

  22. Ray says

    Awesome, unique ferment. Thanks for the tutorial! I’m adding Lemons to my FoodStamp List. :) Can’t wait to try these!

  23. Chedonna says

    When I preserve citrus, I use a 3-1 or 2-1 ratio of salt to sugar. The added sugar doesn’t interfere with the preservative qualities of salt and produces a much less abrasively salty end result. I’ve done lemons, limes, and oranges of all varieties and kumquats too! Currently, I have some other fruit and even vegetables canned in the same salt/sugar mixture, some with aromatics such as herbs, chiles, and spices. Test batches are still in their beginning stages and I expect mixed results but there’s nothing worse than throwing away produce when the east coast season is so short.

  24. Lorraine says

    Funny, I am reading this as I sip a drink I concocted with a little lemon preserve. I made a jar more than a month ago and am looking for ways to use them. It is a hot day here which means I need salt so I decided to add a little lemon preserve to my coconut water, ginger tea, fizzy water blend. It is really refreshing!

  25. Christina B. says

    I finally opened my jar of lemons that I started last December. I made roast chicken with one sliced in half amongst the juices. It was heavenly! Next time I will ferment thesm in my fido jars since I did get a mold cap that was pretty funky. I tossed the first two layers of lemons. I used a 2 gallon jar and forgot about it for far too long. Thanks for the idea!

    • Karen says

      I’ve read that if the lemons are not bone-dry when you pack them, you’ll get mould. It’s something about tap water. As well, you don’t have to worry about oxidation if you keep turning the jar upside down every so often. Needless to say, I use real lids when I make my lemons.

      And, to the person who said her lemons were too salty, you need to rinse them off before you use them…depending on your taste and what you’re making, that is.

  26. Treasa says

    I did the morrocan lemons in a gallon jar about 2 weeks ago.. My jar has a fermenting lid on it and they seem to be
    doing well I don’t see any molds but some of the rinds are now above the brine. with this be an issue?

  27. Meredith Reichmann says

    So, then how and with what do you eat these lemons?
    This is probably already addressed in the comments, but I didn’t feel like reading every one since it was a long feed.

  28. Kira says

    Just made some in a big half-gallon Ball canning jar. :-) I’m wondering if they should be in a dark place. Or can I leave the beautiful jar on my kitchen counter while they ferment? TIA!

    • Alia says

      I’ve seen similar recipes that say to put the fermenting lemons in direct sunlight for a couple months. They should be fine on your counter.

  29. Gavin says

    I made these about 2 months ago, and despite my love of ferments, I’ve been nervous to try them, wondering how the sourness and saltiness could possibly be mellowed. But for lunch today I had a lemon quarter with some baked wild salmon. I cut a small piece of lemon to have together with each bite of fish and hello! The intensely fresh taste with the citrusy sourness balances the salmon is such a beautiful way. I’m hooked! I also was unable to find organic meyers so I just used regular o. lemons, and even my thick-skinned variety was heavenly. I’m sure the vitamin C and bioflavanoid content of this pickle is through the roof, too!

  30. Amanda says

    I tried this and could not get enough juice to cover my lemons; so then they went bad. I think I’m missing one piece of critical common sense information. :) In order to get enough juice out of the lemons to cover them, you must have to squish the lemons until they’re a pulpy mess? Help!

  31. T K B says

    Just reading the questions and issues with washing the lemons in tap water. I have never done any canning or worked with organics, but it seems to me that you would just use a purified drinking water product.

  32. Heidi says

    I had a bunch of lemons in my fridge that I needed to use up, so I followed this recipe using a lock-top Ball jar with the seal. After i finished cutting, salting and packing them, I realized that I forgot to wash them first, and they’re not organic. They’ve been sitting on my counter for 5 days now and I’m petrified to taste them for fear of botulism. Should I dump them out and start over??

    • Alia says

      Botulism is mainly an issue in low acid canned food. From Colorado State U’s Botulism fact sheet:

      “A pH near 7 or neutral favors the growth of Clostridium botulinum, while growth is inhibited at a pH of 4.6 or lower. ”

      The pH of lemon juice is about 2. And salt also inhibits bacterial growth. You can test the pH just in case before you eat them.

    • Jeanmarie says

      Botulism isn’t a concern here. Lacto-fermentation is the safest method of food preservation. Botulism can be an issue in an anaerobic environment as in pressure-canning.

  33. says

    “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.” Not OLIVES, right? ;-)

    You got a new follower. Awesome job. Thanks!

  34. SallySynthiaSue says

    Yes, limes work wonderfully as well. I like to eat them paired with roasted duck and potatoes. Although sometimes I stuff them inside chickens and turkeys to add an additional level of flavor, it’s always a hit.

  35. says

    Not sure if this post is still being followed, but everything looked “normal” until my last (4th) week. There is a thin, mostly whitish film on top of my jar. They dont small bad, but then again I dont have a great nose. Should I be concerned?

    • Jenny says

      It sounds as though you weren’t using an airlocked device which can help to prevent microbial contamination of your ferments. Open up your jar, spoon of the film, and continue to ferment. If you’re in love with fermentation, you might invest in a fermentation crock.

  36. Mtecca says

    I used coarse sea salt, and the salt looks dark in the jar (after about 6 weeks of fermentation. ) THe lemons look good. Are they still edible?

  37. Richelle says

    I went out and bought a bag of organic lemons (which are very expensive up here in Canada), so I could try this recipe. Because of all the mashing, there was pulp floating on top of the brine. I tried pushing the pulp down, under the brine. I had to go away for the weekend so I left, hoping for the best, but when I got home I discovered that there is mold growing all over the top of the concoction. So disappointing!

    I think this issue might be something you might want to mention in your recipe, as I don’t see how people can make this successfully without either using a fermenter or scooping out all the floating pulp.

  38. Elizabeth says

    Yesterday I prepared my lemons following your instructions. I put them in 1 quart mason jars. I placed a layer of plastic film over the jars so that the acidic brine will not touch the plastic coated metal tops, then screwed down the tops tightly. My lemons float up above the brine no matter how much I push them down. The brine is to the shoulder of the jars. Will it be a problem that the lemons rise above the brine?

  39. Jenny says

    Aren’t they lovely! I ended up ordering a case from our health foods store. You might still be able to get some from the shopping section of localharvest.org.

  40. Charlise says

    I put up a jar of lemons and a jar of limes yesterday. My lemons look great but a few of my limes are now looking brown. Is that normal or did I do something wrong?

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