Why You Should Have Preserved Lemons in Your Kitchen—Plus, How to Use Them in Your Cooking
They add complex, mellow tartness and flavor that ordinary lemons can't match.
Keeping a jar of preserved lemons in your pantry is like owning a valid culinary passport. Crack the lid, scoop out a segment and get ready to travel. Intensely flavored, tender and syrupy in their own brine, salted lemons steer a dish magically to North Africa and the Middle East. Their vibrant and savory sourness crosses borders and cultural divides and bridges religious differences. Because who doesn't love lemons?
What Are Preserved Lemons, and How Did They Evolve?
When we refer to preserved lemons, we generally mean the sour citrus packed in granular salt, a condiment most often associated with North Africa, and specifically Morocco, where lemons have been cultivated since (give-or-take) 100 CE. One of the most ancient ways of preserving perishable food is to salt it. Why? Salt keeps food-spoiling microbes at bay, and in a hot climate where fresh food deteriorates fast, salting (or drying) comes to the rescue—good for both storing and transporting. The sea happens to be a great source of salt, so if you combine lemon-producing regions with a coastline, you're bound to end up with preserved lemons.
But different countries and cultures have varying savory methods of putting up lemons, and the following are all technically preserved lemons: Lemon pickle in India could be flavored with a host of different spices, depending on the region. In Traditional Cooking of the Cape Malays ($21.01, amazon.com), Elena Molokhovets explains that the water should be so salty "that a fresh raw egg [in its shell] dropped into it will rise almost to the surface." In Japan the super-fragrance of lemon-relative yuzu is preserved in yubeshi, where the fruit is stuffed with salty miso and nuts, before drying.
How Are Preserved Lemons Made?
But what about the straight up, salted lemons, so closely associated with North Africa? These preserved lemons are made by quartering ripe fruit while keeping the stem-end intact. Seeds are expressed and removed because they can make the preserve bitter. The lemons are packed into jars and salt is added. Some methods call for additional lemon juice—like this one from Paula Wolfert's Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking ($45, amazon.com)—while others do not. The salt gradually draws out the juices in the lemons over a period of weeks to a couple of months, when the lemons are ready. Which brings us to this fascinating question: Are preserved lemons fermented? The answer is, yes! The microbes at work during lactic acid fermentation are responsible for the transformation of the lemons' flavor from sharp freshness to a complex and mellow tartness, while tenderizing the skin and pith until they are buttery-soft.
You can use any lemons to make preserved lemon. When they are in season, we bottle Preserved Meyer Lemons to make the most of their juiciness and extra-scented, thin skins. And if you don't want to wait weeks for preserved lemons to mature, cheat with our overnight recipe for Quick Preserved Lemons. Two tips: Scrub lemons well before preserving, and use good salt (never iodized, as it can add an acrid quality to the brine).
How Can You Use Preserved Lemons?
Preserved lemons lend authenticity and a sense of place to specific dishes from Morocco (like chicken tagine), Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, as well as diaspora-inspired influences around the eastern Mediterranean. Added to the tomato-y base of a hearty fish soup, preserved lemons transport it from the European side of the Mediterranean to the African shore in a flash. But preserved lemons are also a versatile ingredient that can be used in myriad of untraditional and creative ways: Sip a refreshing Preserved Lemon Spritzer where the assertive peel is muddled with sugar and topped with seltzer (or substitute your favorite tonic). Use preserved lemons to add body and edge to a rustic Pumpkin Soup with Pimenton. Chop and toss preserved lemon into a bowl of just-roasted root vegetables for a quick pick-me-up. Marinate halloumi with preserved lemons and olives before grilling the hearty cheese. Drizzle a spoonful of preserved lemon brine onto thick yogurt for a compelling dip or a topping for hot, baked potatoes. A simple, soul-satisfying supper is our Pasta with Preserved Lemons and Anchovies. And double the effect of the salted lemons in these Roasted Potatoes with Preserved Lemon, Garlic and Chiles. Preserved lemons complement roast lamb.