How to Make Preserved Lemons and Use Them
by Victoria Challancin
Each year when I lead groups to Morocco, I visit the souks seeking my annual dose of sensual stimulations, always highlighted by a visit to the olives, spices, and preserved lemons. Every single time, I am dazzled anew. Every time I seem to literally leave my skin and allow my being to enter a world unknown, a world of colors, sounds, and sights so exotic, yet oddly so familiar--so utterly beautiful that they almost take my breath away. Truly, I do not exaggerate. And words seem to fail me.
One of the ingredients I love most in Morocco is the preserved lemon. Common throughout North Africa, where they are used in a variety of tagines, or stews (see my recipe for a Chicken Tagine with Green Olives and Preserved Lemon, a Moroccan classic), just a little bit of these salt-cured beauties adds an intense citrus kick and subtle lemon nuance to a variety of dishes. And for those who do not have access to year-round citrus, they satisfy that yen for a bright citrus note, even when lemons are out of season. For my readers in San Miguel this is an especially nice bonus as, although we have limes available all year, Eureka lemons are a relatively new item here and the availability is sporadic at best.
A Bit of History
Throughout history, pickling has been both a practical and economic way of preserving food. Although in our modern world preserved lemons often considered to have a North African provenance, citrus is commonly preserved in many other diverse cultures as well. In Cambodia whole preserved lemons are often added to a soup called ngam nguv. Chanh muoi, the Vietnamese version using limes (lemons are used in other countries), is often used to make a sort of salty-sweet lemonade with sugar and water or carbonated water. The lime pickles of the Indian subcontinent are legendary and varied in their preparation, which often includes a spicy oil with lots of chile. The internet also tells me that lemon pickle is used in Africa as a folk remedy for excessive growth of the spleen!
Hank Shaw, cookbook author and writer of the immensely entertaining and interesting blog hunter.angler.gardener.cook, delves into the history of the preserved lemon a bit more. He says that the earliest reference in English that he found came from an English cookbook called A New System of Domestic Cooking by Eliza Rundell, written in 1808. And in Little Women, a childhood classic and favorite of mine, the barrels of pickled limes mentioned there referred to Florida key limes shipped north even during the Civil War era. Mrs. Bradley's Housekeeper's Guide (1860) suggests salting quartered lemons and allowing them to dry in the sun for days, until leathery, then packing them into jars with ginger and vinegar, and waiting for at least 6 months to use them.
Shaw [thank you, Hank, for this wonderful research that I am paraphrasing here] also tells us that lemons are boiled in Sri Lanka until they split, then are stuffed with salt and submerged in vinegar. Later, six months later to be exact, they are minced with shallot and chiles to be served with rice or curry as a sort of exotic gremolata. Russians also submerge lemons in brine, to be used after some months sliced thinly to be served with wild game.
Going back in time even further and using a method similar to the standard Moroccan version, Shaw tells us that the Greeks began by preserving citrons and by the 1st century had also begin to preserve the lemons they brought from Persia. Both the Chinese and East Africans preserve lemons as well. Ibn Battuta, my favorite traveler of all time, reported in 1325 that he ate preserved lemons in Somalia, leaving Shaw to wonder if he had brought the recipe back to his native Morocco at that early date!
How to Make Moroccan Preserved Lemons
There are countless recipes and variations for making preserved lemons online. In one earlier post titled "Olives, Preserved Lemons, and a Moroccan Tagine" In this post I even give a recipe for Quick Preserved Lemons by Kitty Morse, a cookbook author who was born and raised in Morocco. Note that the quick-fix version, while giving you something to use in a pinch, lacks the depth of flavor and nuance that makes preserved lemons so special.
Recipe: My Version of Moroccan-Style Preserved Lemons
To make my version of Moroccan-style preserved lemons, I use Eureka lemons because I like the flavor and because they are available. Some people like the sweetness of Meyer lemon. Scrub the lemons first, cut off the tips, partially quarter the lemons lengthwise, leaving them intact at the stem base. Pack with Kosher or sea salt (not iodized table salt, which alters both the texture and the flavor). Place them in a sterilized jar, using a sterilized tool such as tongs. Smush the lemons down into the jar, squeezing out the juice as you push. Fill the jar and add additional salt and more lemon juice if your lemons aren't juicy enough to produce enough juice to cover the lemons. After a day or two, you can add more lemons, using sterilized tools, of course. It is just that simple. Now you just have to wait 4 or 5 weeks to allow them to cure.
Variations: I have made them with the addition of spices such as bay leaves, cardamom, black pepper, but I actually prefer the simple method which I outlined above. I also noted that Yotam Ottolenghi, by favorite chef of all time, uses rosemary and chile in his version--I've not seen that elsewhere, but can imagine that they would yield an interesting flavor. Other ingredients I have seen include, turmeric, sugar (why?) turmeric, coriander seeds, cloves, fresh ginger, garlic, white wine vinegar
Tips for Using Preserved Lemons
- Rinse the salted lemons before using
- Remove pith and pulp using a spoon and cut the rind into small pieces, small cubes or narrow strips. Sometimes in cooking classes I have taken in Marrakech, the pith and pulp are also used. To me the best of the flavor is in the rind as it contains the flavorful lemon oil. Also, because these are such a salty ingredient, it will take a little practice to understand just how much to use, hence it is easier to eliminate the pulp and pith--up to you.
- Don't worry if the lemony liquid in the jar thickens with time. This is both normal and desirable.
- Apparently, if the lemons darken somewhat, it is a good thing. My instinct is to go for the most lemony-yellow color when making or buying, but Gemma of Souk Cuisine assures me the lightly browner ones are the most delicious. I wish I had known that before I tossed my last batch when they looked less than a perfect, bright yellow!
- Sometimes a white film will appear on the lemons. This can simply be washed away.
- Use a clean utensil to remove lemons from the prepared batch as your hands would contaminate the remaining lemons.
- Make sure your lemons stay submerged in the liquid in the jar.
- Some recipes suggest lightly blanching the preserved lemon before using to bring out the natural sweetness, however, I have never done this.
- If the color or flavors change noticeably (in an unpleasant way, of course) over time, discard them and start again
- Be sure to reduce the salt in a recipe using preserved lemons, or at least check before adding salt
- Be adventurous and use a bit of preserved lemon in any recipe that might call for regular lemons, just use discretion as they are intensely flavored and intensely salty!
Preserved lemons are to fresh ones what cured salami is to fresh meat. No they are not fresh, but they are just as good, if not better. It is a different taste and sensation. Funkier, more mellow.
Traditional and Non-Traditional Uses for Preserved Lemons:
Some of the ways I have used preserved lemons in my kitchen:
- In a traditional Moroccan tagine, where I first learned to love them. See my recipe here.
- With purchased mayonnaise and lots of garlic to make an aioli
- In a vinaigrette
- In a beurre blanc to serve with seafood
- In tuna salad
- In tapenade
- In gremolata
- In hummus
- In guacamole
- In a Caesar Salad
- In pesto
- In lentil soup
- With capers and artichokes over chicken paillards with a touch of white wine
- In a Mediterranean-style quinoa salad. Actually, I have used them minced into many grain salads, including tabouleh
- In a non-traditional Mexican tomato-tomatillo salsa
Some of the ways I have seen them used online:
Note: I apologize for the lack of links here. When I made my first batch of preserved lemons some years ago, I looked online for inspiration, without copying down the recipes. I just noted the names of the recipes to be used either as a suggestion for me to create my own version, or to be looked up later. If any appeal, I am certain a Google Search will yield immediate results. If I know the source, I will give it.
- Roasted Tomato and Preserved Lemon Sauce
- Zesty Salsa with Preserved Lemons
- Roast Chicken with Preserved Lemon and Braised Vegetables
- Moroccan-Flavored Pork Ragu (sounds good even if Moroccans do't eat pork!)
- Preserved Lemon Cocktail (Eat Boutique)
- Use them on pizza
- Make a condiment by blending them with olive oil
- Pizza with Za'atar, Preserved Lemons and Ricotta
- Toasted Orzo with Preserved Lemon, Pine Nuts and Currants (A New Way to Cook)
- Bake fish in foil or parchment with preserved lemon and fresh herbs
- Add to cooked vegetables
- Add to chili
- Add to a sweet potato salad
- Add to seafood risotto (or vegetable risotto--or any other)
- Add to marinades
- Make a compound butter and add tiny minced pieces of preserved lemon and herbs--and garlic
- Add to a Greek Salad (the flavors are perfect with feta and black olives)
- Preserved Lemon Semifreddo with Basil Syrup
- Pureed Preserved Lemons (Food in Jars)
- Strozzapreti with Spinach and Preserved Lemon (Bon Appétit)
- Baked Chicken with Artichokes, Cinnamon, and Preserved Lemons (The Kitchn)
- Leeks with Preserved Lemons and Tarragon (MJ's Kitchen)
- Grilled Bread with Thyme Pesto and Preserved Lemon Cream (Food52)
- Rice Salad with Merguez and Preserved Lemon Dressing (Food & Wine)
- Marinated Mozzarella with Preserved Lemon and Basil (Donna Hay)
- Pasta with Preserved Lemon and Roasted Garlic (ryanbros)
- Fettuccine with Preserved Lemon and Roasted Garlic
- Cauliflower Couscous with Preserved Lemons
- In a Bloody Mary
- Preserve Lemon Relish (with dill and shallots--from Simply Recipes)
- Toasted Kale and Pan-Fried Chickpea Salad
- Preserved Lemon Quinoa with Shaved Brussels and Toasted Walnuts
- Artichokes with Parsley and Preserved Lemon Pesto
- Nectarine and Sweet Onion Salad with Preserved Lemon Dressing
- Israeli Couscous with Roasted Butternut Squash and Preserved Lemon (Gourmet)
- Pernod Shrimp
- Preserved Lemon Hummus
- Preserved Lemon Rice
- Chicken Braised with Preserved Lemons and Cinnamon
- Preserved Lemon Rice
- Salmon Quiche with Preserved Lemons
- Preserved Lemon Caesar Salad
- Roasted Pepper, Tomato, and Salted Lemon Relish (Kitty Morse, Moroccan Cusine)
- Parmesan, Preserved Lemon, and Thyme Wafers
- Lemon Tossed Salad
- Chicken, Nice Style (Babs in Toyland)
- Tabbouleh Wrapped in Romaine Leaves
- Pine Nut and Preserved Lemon Couscous (Emeril Lagasse)
Moroccan-Style Recipes Using Preserved Lemon:Souk Cuisine in Marrakech (see my post here on a fun and informative class I took there last April).
Note: Check out about.com Moroccan Food for great and authentic Moroccan recipes (many of these are from that site).
- In a tagine with chicken and lavender tagine olives (I mentioned this one earlier, but it THE classic recipe for using preserved lemons)
- With a leg of lamb
- With snapper and fennel
- Marinated Quail, Chicken, and/or Duck with Preserved Lemons and Harissa
- Shrimp with Preserved Lemon
- In a Carrot Salad (cooked or uncooked, Moroccan-Style)
- Spicy Potato Tagine with Preserved Lemon and Olives (Paula Wolfert via epicurious)
- Moroccan Meatballs with Preserved Lemon (Kirsten's Kitchen to Yours)
- Moroccan Butternut Squash Chickpea Stew (Use Real Butter)
- Chickpea and Tomato Tagine (Kirsten's Kitchen to Yours
- Moroccan Grilled Chicken with Preserved Lemon
- Couscous with Mint and Preserved Lemons
- Root Vegetable Couscous with Preserved Lemon
- Moroccan Fish Tagine
- Moroccan Style Cauliflower
- Spinach Salad with Preserved Lemon and Olives (Christine Benlafquih)
- Djaj (Chicken) Souiri (Christine Benlaquih)
- Tagine of Chicken with Fennel
- Lamb with Cabbage
- Beef or Lamb Tagine with Carrots
- Tagine with Fava Beans and Artichokes
- Brain with Preserved Lemons
- Salade Mechouia
- Chicken with Nigella Seeds
- Chicken with Potato and Olives
- Moroccan Fava Bean Salad with Olive Oil and Spices
- Tagine of Lamb, Peas, Potatoes and Zucchini
- Lamb with Eggplant
- Lamb with Cauliflower or Green Beans
- Chicken Mezgueldi
- Moroccan Artichoke Salad
Like what you see? Join me in April 2015 on one of my tours to Morocco.
Parting Shot: My Own Latest Batch
A recent batch of Eureka lemons I put up about six weeks ago, now ready to use!
Want to join me next April in Morocco? Contact me by email for more information.
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