What are preserved lemons?
Preserved lemons are a popular ingredient in Moroccan cooking and have long been used in cuisines across India, the Middle East, and South Asia. What differentiates them from regular fresh lemons is the process they undergo before they’re ready to use. The lemons are packed—peel and all—with salt in an air-tight vessel over a prolonged time. The process not only extends the life of lemons, but it also lends them a unique flavor that’s as beloved today as it was way back when.
What preserved lemons taste like
The taste of preserved lemons is savory and a little sweet with an intense lemony flavor. “But it isn’t the lemony flavor we’re familiar with,” says Nargisse Benkabbou, executive chef at L’Mida Marrakech, author, and owner of the food blog My Moroccan Food. “It’s a flavor with more character.” They’re acidic and tangy, but don’t have the high-toned brightness that’s present in fresh lemons. In addition to tempering the lemons’ bite, the preservation process tenderizes the peels and piths until they become as soft as butter. While salt is all you need to completely transform the lemons’ flavor, other recipe varieties incorporate aromatics, such as herbs, spices, and alliums, to jazz up the condiment.
What are the health benefits of preserved lemons?
For one, lemons are chock-full of healthful properties, like vitamin C, which is rich in antioxidants and has long been claimed to help boost immunity. Lemon peel also has health benefits, and because the entire fruit becomes pleasantly edible when preserved, you can reap these benefits, too. “The peel provides fiber and [additional] vitamin C, and it’s rich in d-Limonene, a fragrant compound with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,” says Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian nutritionist.
Additionally, preserved lemons may also contain beneficial bacteria, thanks to the magic of lacto-fermentation. “This is a fermentation that involves lactic acid bacteria, which is potentially beneficial,” says Justine Dees, PhD, a microbiologist and the founder of the Joyful Microbe blog and podcast. Whether people ingest beneficial bacteria and reap the benefits when they eat preserved lemons is hard to say, according to Dr. Dees, but it shouldn’t deter you from introducing them to your diet. “It wouldn’t hurt to expose your body to potentially beneficial microbes, so why not?” she says. While more research needs to be conducted on fermented foods’ health benefits, a recent study conducted by researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine shows promise. The researchers found that eating fermented foods could increase the diversity of gut microbes, which in turn, lead to lower levels of inflammation. One thing Dr. Dees can say for certain that making fermented foods is a “life-enhancing pastime” that’s most certainly delicious and fun to do at home.
How to make preserved lemons
If you want to learn how to make preserved lemons, Benkabbou shares her grandmother’s recipe that stays true to the traditional Moroccan method. It requires just a handful of lemons, a hefty amount of salt, and an airtight glass jar. Benkabbou also says that you’re welcome to add lemon juice or water, though it isn’t necessary—the salt slowly draws the juices from the lemon over time, she says.
In addition to choosing organic or unwaxed lemons, Benkabbou recommends selecting lemons that aren’t too large, so you can fit more than a few of them in your jar, and have a thin peel (like Meyer lemons).
You can also opt to add aromatics to the recipe. While Benkabbou prefers it the “old-fashioned way,” she encourages people to experiment. Take a page from Paula Wolfert, who introduced preserved lemons—and the wonderful world of Moroccan cooking—to America by way of her cookbook Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. Her preserved lemon recipe incorporates warming spices, like cardamom, peppercorn, cinnamon, and bay leaves.
Organic or unwaxed Meyer lemons
Aromatics like herbs, spices, alliums, and peppercorns (optional)
Airtight glass container/jar
1. Place the lemon upright on a cutting board. Using a knife, slice each lemon from the top, stopping a few inches short of the stem. Make a similar cut on the other end of the lemon, again being careful not to cut all the way through the fruit.
2. Fill the cut sections of each lemon with a tablespoon of kosher salt. Place the lemons into a clean airtight glass container, trying to fit as many lemons as you can inside it. You can opt to add lemon juice or water or additional aromatics, though as mentioned, these are all optional.
3. Close the jar and store it in a cool, dark place, allowing the lemons to ferment for at least one month. Shake the jar every now and again to ensure the salt is evenly distributed. After one month, you can transfer the jar to the refrigerator.
More chef-approved tips
1. Make sure your container is airtight.
A container with an airtight lid helps prevent excess air from interfering with the fermentation process. As a plus, it keeps out pesky kitchen pests out of the vessel. Consider using a Mason jar or an option with a locking lid.
2. Choose lemons that are the right size for the jar you have available.
If you plan on purchasing lemons to preserve, ensure that you’re selecting ones that will fit in the jar you have at home. “When you’re picking lemons, think about what jar you have,” says Benkabbou. That way, you can use most, if not, all of the lemons you buy.
3. Avoid refrigerating preserved lemons while they’re fermenting.
While it’s important to keep preserved lemons in a cool, dark place as they ferment, you also want to avoid storing them in too cool of an environment, according to Benkabbou—“just room temperature in a dark place is good,” she says.
How to use preserved lemons in your cooking
Preserved lemons are incredibly versatile. “You can use them in the same way that you would use any aromatic,” Benkabbou says. While traditionally used in stews, like tagine, and salads in Morocco, they lend well to most savory fare. You can pair them with meat and seafood, and they can also add pep to rice and pasta. And if you really want to explore the possibilities of preserved lemons, you can try incorporating them into sweet dishes. In other words, “there are no limits” when it comes to preserved lemons.
4 preserved lemon recipes to try
It’s clear that there are plenty, if not endless ways to incorporate preserved lemons into both savory and sweet dishes, but if you’re looking for inspiration, consider trying one of these four recipes. They are easy to make, and some take cues from Moroccan cuisine.
Lemon cauliflower and chickpeas tagine
This recipe from My Moorish Plate is a vegan riff on tagine, the famed aromatic stew of North Africa. Cauliflower and chickpeas are simmered with stock, and enhanced with preserved lemons and a mixture of warming spices, such as cardamom, ginger, cumin, plus cayenne for a kick, to capture the essence of the traditional Moroccan dish.
Get the recipe: Lemon Cauliflower and Chickpeas Tagine
Lemony chickpea quinoa salad
This colorful salad recipe from Feasting At Home comes together in a pinch. Cucumbers, tomatoes, and kalamata olives are tossed with a preserved lemon vinaigrette—and with protein-rich chickpeas and quinoa in the mix, it can be a main-dish salad. You’re also welcome to add avocados, radishes, and feta cheese to enhance the flavors and textures of the recipe.
Get the recipe: Lemony Chickpea Quinoa Salad
In this potato salad recipe from Salima’s Kitchen, preserved lemons, traditional Moroccan spices—paprika and harissa (or cayenne powder or a hot chili sauce, if the latter isn’t readily available)—plus tender cooked potatoes combine to make a savory side dish. The salad makes the perfect accompaniment to hearty mains.
Get the recipe: Spicy Potatoes
Lemon jam with preserved lemon
If you want to explore the sweet possibilities of preserved lemons, consider this recipe from Benkabbou’s food blog My Moroccan Food. In her blog, Benkabbou describes the taste of the jam as “caramelized lemons” that “spent some time in the Middle East or North Africa.” Have it on toast alongside cream cheese, or enjoy it with yogurt or ice cream.
Get the recipe: Lemon Jam With Preserved Lemon
Frequently asked questions
How should you store preserved lemons?
It’s important to allow preserved lemons to ferment in a cool, dark place at room temperature, like the cupboard or pantry. After a month, or when the lemons have gone slack and soft, you can opt to store them in the fridge.
How long can preserved lemons last?
Preserved lemons can last for years, says Benkabbou. In fact, she shares that, at home, she has had the same jar of preserved lemons for over 10 years—and like a fine wine, they only grow better with age. “With time they become more sweet [and] a little bitter, but also more fragrant.”
Do preserved lemons spoil?
Benkabbou says preserved lemons won’t spoil, but you might notice them develop a white film on their surface over time, which is a normal part of the fermentation process. “You can just remove it, or wash it out,” she says.
Are there preserved lemon substitutes that you can use?
There is no equivalent to the flavor notes of preserved lemons, Benkkabou says, but if you’re in a pinch, she recommends using lemon skin. “Use a vegetable peeler and take off the skin and not the [pith],” she says. “It will be a different flavor, but it will add a delicious flavor.”
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