Preserved lemons are magical! Used in salads, couscous, fish preparations, meat dishes and even desserts, they add a flavour punch like nothing you have tasted before!
Lemons that have been cured in salt, sugar and spices for weeks, have a beautiful taste and are a great addition to any recipes that require acidity. Preserving lemons change their texture in a way that all the flavour is actually in the skin.
The fermentation process not only adds more depth to the citrus fruit, it makes it last longer too (up to a year). While I have always enjoyed using preserved lemons in my cooking, I could never understand the price tag that comes attached to it!
Making preserved lemons couldn't be any easier, they are done in 15 minutes! But yes, knowing they take 4-6 weeks to really develop their flavour, is what makes them expensive I guess! That's why I decided to make my own and just wait patiently to reap the lemony harvest throughout the rest of the year (without the price tag).
I assure you it's worth the wait - It will enhance your dishes like nothing you’ve ever tasted before!
Why preserve lemons?
Curing lemons in salt is an old way of preserving food. Famously used in North African cuisine, they are actually not meant to be eaten whole but instead used for seasoning a whole array of dishes.
The bitter substances in the rind of the lemon are reduced through the curing process. This softens the skin and makes them pleasantly edible i.e. you will be left with pure lemon flavour without that sour tartness! Great for transforming a variety of dishes – from meats to salads, stews and sauces.
Since the skin will become the most important part after the curing process, it is important that you use lemons that have not been treated. I always recommend buying local and seasonal, to ensure the lemons have been grown organically.
Fortunately, we have a lemon tree growing in our garden, currently in full bloom hence we have beautiful lemons in abundance. Whichever variety of lemons you go for, I suggest using medium size lemons with skin that is not too thick.
What else do you need
Salt is the primary ingredient for curing lemons. Salt actually removes bitterness and tenderises the lemon skin.
Sugar most recipes will not list sugar as an ingredient but I like to add it even though it does not add much sweetness to the lemons. But, what it does help with is the fermentation and will eventually breakdown completely.
Water To ensure the lemons are entirely covered in liquid, it is inevitable to add water.
Aromatics herbs and spices not only make the curing jar look pretty, they actually add more flavour to the lemons. Add bay leaf, thyme, rosemary, clove, star anis, chillies, peppercorns or whatever you feel like.
How to cure lemons
Preserving lemons is a lengthy process, after 3 to 4 weeks you will be able to start using the lemons in your cooking or just eat them straight up (like my wife Shilpi😆)!
the day before
The first step is to prepare the lemons before you add them to your curing jar.
Cut the lemons lengthwise into quarters, without cutting through the base (refer to image below).
Place the lemons in a large bowl and mix salt and sugar in another bowl. Now, take a handful of the salt-sugar mixture and stuff the cut lemons with it (refer to image below)
Add the remaining salt-sugar mix to the bowl with the lemons.
Add the herbs and spices, cover the bowl with cling film and refrigerate it overnight.
the next day
The next day, the lemons would have released some liquid. Now, it's time to start the canning process.
In a clean jar, add the lemons one by one, pressing them down in an upright position and leaving as little space as possible between them. And feel free to stick the aromatics as well in between the lemons.
After each layer of lemons, make sure you add a bit of the wet salt mixture left in the bowl.
When you have filled the jar completely, pour the liquid left in the bowl over the lemons.
Add more water or lemon juice if required, as we need lemons submerged completely.
Place the jar in a cool and dark place for at least three weeks, preferably a month, before opening it.
On day 3, take the jar and turn it gently upside down for a few seconds - make sure the jar is properly sealed before you do it😄
This step will make sure, there are no unwanted bacteria growing on the surface.
Store the lemons at room temperature usually ranging between 15 C (59 F) to 25 C (77 F). If your house is too warm, keep the jar in your fridge and increase the curing time to at least 1 month.
The lemons are ready to be used when the skin has become almost translucent. The skin will be soft and would have lost most of it's bitterness.
Preserved lemons can be stored in the fridge or in a cool dark place. As long as they are not exposed to sunlight, they are safe to eat for months.
Stored in the fridge or in a dark cool spot, preserved lemons can be stored for up to a year. Though, make sure they are submerged in liquid at all times.
How to use preserved lemons
To use the lemons, take them out from the jar using a fork or long spoon. Remove any excess salt from the lemons by rinsing them under cold water for a few seconds.
Pat dry and cut them into wedges.
Cut the pulp away as it will most likely be very salty but don't be afraid to use small amounts in stews or for braising, like in this lamb shank recipe.
Cut the remaining peel according to your recipe. Here I am cutting them into long stripes which I will later cut into dices.
What to use them for?
Unless you have a wife who eats them straight out of the jar like candy, here are some great suggestions of how else to use them😉:
- finely chopped and tossed through a roasted potato or pasta dish
- mixed inside a sauce, like this garlic aioli
- added in a salmon tartar instead of fresh lemon
- used in middle eastern cooking like a tabouleh salad or babaganoush
- in desserts like this ricotta cheesecake or a lemon semifreddo
Honestly, once I have a batch ready, these lemons go into almost everything! Pretty sure you too will do the same after you have had a taste of it yourself!
For other great homemade condiments, be sure to check out my Chef's Pantry. I show how to make things like doughs, sauces, dips, preserves etc right from scratch!
Until then, Happy canning!
How to make preserved lemons
- glass jar with lid
- mixing bowl
- 8 lemons
- 250 gram sea salt
- 1 tablespoon caster sugar
- 2 thyme sprigs
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- Wash the lemons and pat dry.
- Cut the top and bottom from the lemons and place them on the cutting board standing up.
- Cut the lemons lengthwise into quarters without cutting through the base.
- Mix salt and sugar in a bowl.
- Open the lemons carefully without separating the wedges and fill in some of the salt mixture. Add your herbs and spices.
- Place the stuffed lemons in a seperate bowl and cover. Refrigerate overnight.
- The next day the lemons will have released some liquid.
- In a clean jar, add the lemons one by one pressing them down in an upright position, leaving as little space as possible between them.
- After each layer of lemons, add a bit of the salt mixture left in the bowl and stick the thyme sprigs and peppercorns in between.
- When you have filled the jar, pour the liquid that was left in the bowl over the lemons.
- Add more water or lemon juice if required to submerge lemons completely.
- Close the jar and store the lemons in a cool dry place for at least 3 week. Give them a shake every once in a while to disperse the juice and salt.
- After three weeks store in the fridge.
- When you want to use a lemon, remove it from the jar using a fork or spoon. Rinse with water to remove excess salt. Cut the lemon pulp away from the rind and use in small amounts for stews or a braise.
- Cut and use the lemon rind according to your recipe.