Preserved lemons are most commonly associated with North African, notably Moroccan, cuisine. The act of preserving food in salt, however, is a time-honored tradition that spans the globe, since salt-cured foods rarely require refrigeration. Often called pickled lemons, preserved lemons combine various curing methods, resulting in a highly flavorful and edible rind.
Preserving food with salt can be done either wet or dry.
Preserved lemons incorporate both methods. Rubbing dry salt into the flesh of the lemon draws out the moisture, inhibiting the growth of bacteria. Placing the lemons in a container and pressing them extracts more natural liquid and allows them to continue curing in their own juices, effectively creating a wet cure, or brine, that further develops the flavor.
Since salt-curing enhances the natural flavor of the lemon and incorporates the flavors of the salt and spices, it's important to use only the highest-quality ingredients. Meyer lemons or Eureka lemons are preferred for their pure flavor and visual attractiveness. Kosher salt will certainly do the trick, but a purer sea salt is the best option. Don't use table salt or iodized salt; the added preservatives leave behind an unpleasant taste and can inhibit the curing process. High-quality spices should also be used because they add other flavors to the lemon. This recipe calls for cloves, black peppercorns, coriander seeds, cinnamon, bay leaves and dried chiles. But feel free to use any combination of flavors that best suits your palate.
Applications for preserved lemons vary: In some, only the rind is used, with the lemon flesh scooped out and discarded. Other applications recommend cutting the lemon into wedges and leaving the flesh intact. My personal preference is to leave the flesh intact and incorporate the wedges into pastas, salads, sauces and roasted meats. I also serve the wedges with grilled vegetables, olives, cheeses and charcuterie, and I use the reserved juice in exotic cocktails. The traditional Moroccan tajine is one of my favorite dishes using preserved lemons. Get the recipe below!
Meyer or Eureka lemons are preferred. If both are unavailable, be sure to use organic or unsprayed lemons since you will be eating the rind.
- 10 Meyer or Eureka lemons
- 1½ cups kosher salt or sea salt
- 2 tsp whole cloves
- 2 tsp whole black peppercorns
- 2 tsp whole coriander seeds
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 4 bay leaves
- 2 dried chiles
| Preparation | Using a vegetable brush, thoroughly clean and dry each lemon. Slice off the top and bottom of each one so that they stand upright on the cutting board. Carefully make two cuts into each lemon, creating an X. Leave at least a ½-inch of the lemon intact at the bottom.
Pack each lemon cavity with salt. Place remaining salt in the bottom of a glass or plastic container. Place lemons on top of the layer of salt and sprinkle remaining spices on top.
Press firmly on the lemons with your hands, pushing juices out into the spice mixture. Loosely cover with plastic wrap and place heavy weights on top to apply additional pressure to the lemons. Canned goods or a cast-iron pan work well for this.
Let lemons stand at room temperature overnight and repeat the pressing process for 2 to 3 nights or until the lemons are completely covered in liquid. If, after 3 days, the lemons aren't completely submerged in liquid, add freshly squeezed lemon juice to cover.
Store the lemons in the refrigerator for 1 month. Once they are soft, rinse them and refrigerate (for longer, safer shelf life) for up to 6 months.
FEAST EXTRA RECIPE!
Chicken Tajine with Preserved Lemons
Serves | 4 |
Preserved lemons are a signature ingredient in this chicken tajine. Perfect for a chilly night, the chicken is slow cooked in earthenware, and it comes out tender, juicy and full of flavor.
- 3 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 1 3½-lb chicken, cut into quarters
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 yellow onions, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tsp fresh ginger, grated
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp saffron threads, lightly toasted
- 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 1 tsp cilantro, chopped
- 2 preserved lemons, cut into wedges
- 1½ cups pitted olives
- ½ cup lemon juice
- ½ cup water or stock
| Preparation | On the stovetop, heat a 12-inch tajine or casserole dish on medium-high heat. Melt oil and butter together. Once vessel is hot, season chicken with salt and pepper and sear on both sides. Add onions, garlic, ginger, bay leaf, cinnamon, turmeric, saffron, parsley and cilantro. Toss together until well combined and fragrant. Salt and pepper if desired.
Remove the chicken pieces and put them on top of the onion sauté. Add the preserved lemon wedges, olives, lemon juice and water, reserving a bit of preserved lemon and olives for garnish. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Add more liquid as needed to keep moisture in the tajine.
Once the chicken is cooked through, remove from heat and garnish with reserved olives and lemon wedges. Serve immediately.
Cassandra Vires is the owner and chef of Home Wine Kitchen. She received her culinary training in Houston and has a knack for reimagining classic dishes.