Preserved lemons bring bright notes of citrus, vibrant saltiness, and muted, complex tartness to your cooking. They gain their characteristic flavor through long, slow fermentation, and it's this traditional process that breaks down the lemon rind, removes its bitterness, and gives you a marvelously complex, bright flavor that pairs beautifully with roasted chicken, grilled fish, and braised vegetables.
What are preserved lemons?
Preserved lemons are lemons that have been salted and packed into jars where they ferment for several weeks to several months. Fermentation naturally preserves the lemons as it does for other fermented fruits, and the process results in a delicious condiment that's bursting with the beneficial bacteria that are so good for your gut.
You'll find them in the culinary traditions of North Africa, and they feature prominently in Moroccan cooking where they're often paired with chicken or fish or added to slowly cooked deeply flavorful tagines.
What do they taste like?
The flesh of preserved lemons is bright, salty, and citrusy, and you can use it to make sauces or in vinaigrettes. While the flesh is nice, the rind is particularly valued, and it loses its bitterness during fermentation leaving a pleasantly tart, salty, floral flavor that is well-suited to a variety of dishes.
How long do they last?
Fermentation, or the process of preserving lemons the traditional Moroccan way, takes about a month or two, depending on the volume you plan to make. More lemons require more fermentation time. Lemons are ready once their rind becomes pliable and loses its bitterness.
Once they're properly fermented, they'll last six months to a year. You can store them in the refrigerator; however, they can also be stored at room temperature because the salty, acidic brine created during fermentation acts as a preservative, just as vinegar would.
Tips for Making Preserved Lemons
To make Moroccan preserved lemons, you'll need to first select your lemons. Thin-skinned lemons like Meyer lemons work particularly well since they require less time for the rind to soften and release its bitterness, so they are done and ready to use faster than if you use thick-skinned lemons.
- Use thin-skinned lemons such as Meyer lemons. They'll lose their bitterness and ferment more quickly than thick-skinned lemons.
- Cut the very tips off the lemons, just the nubs at either end, as they can retain bitterness long after the rest of the lemon is ready.
- You need to cut them a special way. While you can quarter or slice the lemons, to make preserved lemons you need to slice them as though you'll quarter them, but leaving them connected. This allows you to sprinkle the cavity with salt.
- Use an airtight container to help prevent mold formation. A weight to keep the lemons submerged and a fermentation seal will help even more.
Moroccan Preserved Lemons Recipe
- 5 Meyer lemons
- 2 tablespoons finely ground real salt
- Trim the tips from the lemons without exposing the flesh. Slice the lemon lengthwise into quarters without slicing completely through and keeping the quarters connected at the base. Sprinkle the inside of the lemons with a generous pinch of salt, and then pack them tightly into a 750-ml jar, and sprinkle each layer of lemons with additional salt.
- Press the lemons tightly in the jar so that they release their juices, and so that the lemon juice and salt combines into a brine that completely submerges the lemons. Place a weight over the lemons, and seal the jar. Allow the lemons to ferment at least one month, before trying them. Lemons should ferment long enough so that the pith loses its bitterness.
How to Use Them
Fermented lemons have a pleasant, complex citrus flavor that pairs beautifully with savory dishes. They marry particularly well with chicken and fish dishes, and you can also use them to make condiments and sauces.
In most culinary applications, you'll discard the preserved lemon's flesh, and reserve its rind; however, both parts are edible.
Savory-Roasted Chicken with Lemon blends preserved lemons and fresh herbs with chicken and root vegetables.
Preserved Lemon Allioli is a bright, citrusy condiment made with lemon, olive oil, and garlic.
Preserved Lemon and Parsley Tapenade is an excellent condiment to serve on top of grilled fish.