Preserved lemons thrill me. I love their saltiness, their tangy-ness, and how they seem to go with just about all my favorite foods. They last for years in a cool pantry. They’re amazing in dips and condiments, and I even enjoy them with certain sweets. When I don’t have olives around for one of my favorite dishes, preserved lemons can help fill that missing “salty-sour” note, even if the texture is quite different.
Since I use preserved lemons (and limes) in so many of my recipes, I wanted to give you an easy to reference post on this wonderful creation right off the bat.
Preserved lemons at their most basic are simply lemons that are cured in a mixture of salt and lemon juice. Here in the US, we’re most familiar with them in Moroccan cuisine, but they’re also found in Asian, Indian, and Egyptian cooking, as well as in early 19th century British and American records. I’ve seen recipes that include chiles, olive oil, sugar, and various spices and herbs. Also, preserved limes are also popular in many countries, with a similar variety of curing styles.
The majority of the popular methods take 4-6 weeks to cure. If you are interested in trying out some quicker methods, here’s a few that have served me very well.
Cheater’s Method for Preserved Lemons
The taste is almost identical as the lemons you have to be more patient for. We call this the Cheater’s Method because technically these are not “preserved lemons,” since they don’t cure in the salt, but are cooked in the salt, with water, until some of the water evaporates and the rest cooks into the lemons. This is a good one to start with if you want to see how much you like the flavor, or if you need some right away to use for another recipe. You can also make these in a larger batch, of course, once you get hooked! I wish I could tell you if they keep as long as regular preserved lemons. So far, we always eat them up too fast to be able to tell!
Soon, I will squirrel some away!
Inspiration for this method came from a recipe by Kitty Morse. In her recipe, the lemons were left in wedges, and they take longer to cook. In my version they are finely chopped before cooking, so you can use them straight from the pan or the jar. I also like to add herbs.
1 1/2-2 tablespoons sea salt (depending on the size of the lemons)
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary, ground in a mortar (or 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced) and/or 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground in a mortar (both herbs optional)
Scrub and slice the lemons, remove all of the seeds (hold each slice up to the light to see any small, hiding-ones) and chop them up as finely as possible, either by hand or in a food processor. Mix them with the salt and optional herb/s and put this paste in a pot with 1 cup water. Cook over medium-low heat until much of the water has cooked into the lemons and the raw flavor has mellowed. Watch carefully. Once there is very little liquid left, turn the heat down to low, and cook just a bit longer. When it’s done it will be a fairly dense paste. Pack into a half-pint jar and keep in a cool pantry or in the fridge. Ready to use right away, but it will also keep for at least 3 weeks.
Quick Preserved Lemons (or Limes)
This method utilizes the curing magic of salt, citrus, and time. But it’s much quicker than all the more traditional recipes I’ve seen, because the fruits are sliced or chopped before curing. A two pound bag of lemons or limes will make a full quart jar.
All you need besides the fruit is a quart canning jar, and 1/2 cup of sea salt. Or, you can halve or quarter the recipe to make a pint or a half pint jar, if you’re not sure about making such a large amount.
There are benefits to both ways that I make this version of preserved lemons. If I chop the lemons in the food processor before curing, they cure faster and they’re ready to add to anything without having to chop them up. But, if I leave the slices intact, not only can I choose to rinse some of the salt from the slices before using them (which can be handy when using for a sweet item), I can also use them in bigger chunks, whenever the texture would be beneficial. Also, they can be used decoratively, left in whole slices–especially if they happen to be milder, Meyer lemons.
I like to keep at least one quart jar of chopped up lemons and one jar of sliced lemons in my pantry at all times. And let’s not forget the preserved limes. It’s a good thing that I have a roomy pantry!
About 2 pounds regular or Meyer lemons (or limes )
1/2 cup sea salt
- 1/2-1 teaspoon dried lavender flowers, ground in a mortar
- 1/2-1 teaspoon cardamon seeds, separated from their pods and ground in a mortar
- 2 teaspoons lightly toasted coriander or fennel seeds, ground
- several leaves fresh sage, minced
- a few dried red chile pods, crumbled
- up to 2 teaspoons fresh minced rosemary, or half that amount dried and ground
- Wash the fruits (scrub if they’re not organic, but don’t use soap) and cut them into 1/4” slices.
- Remove the seeds from each slice.
- If you like, process them in a food processor to chop finely, or leave the slices whole, as you wish.
- Mix the sliced or chopped lemons with the salt, and pack the mixture into a quart jar, with any of the optional spices/herbs of choice.
- Once the jar is full, press very firmly with a pestle to see how much juice will rise up. If the juice easily covers the lemons, pour off any excess salty juice, save it for another use if you like, and you can call yourself done!
- If the juice only comes partway up the side of the jar, add some more lemon slices to the jar, if they’ll fit, and then find a stone that just fits into the top of the jar. Scrub the stone (and/or boil it for a while) and press it into the lemons or limes very firmly, until the slices are completely covered with their own juice. The sliced lemons, salt and juice after pressing with the stone should come up to about 2 inches from the very top of the jar, with just enough room for the stone.
- If it doesn’t, add some more seeded lemon slices or plain lemon juice and press again. The lemons turn out best, in my opinion, when they’re just covered with juice, with no extra. Put in a cool place or refrigerator and let sit for 5-10 days before using. Check them after a day or two to make sure the lemon slices are still covered in juice. As I mentioned, if you’ve processed the lemons to a paste first they will cure more quickly. The sliced ones will keep for years. I tend to use the chopped ones more quickly, but they keep for at least 6 months. Over time the color and texture will develop to where the (sliced) lemons are a deep gold and have the texture of dried fruits soaked in liqueur.
Using Preserved Lemons
If you didn’t run the sliced, seeded lemons through the food processor when you first made them, you can also do this once they’ve cured. Or keep half the jar in slices, and chop up the other half. Having pre-chopped preserved lemons is so handy for countless uses. My favorites? Well, I don’t want to give too many spoilers… but here’s a few: hummus, babaganoush, salad dressings, marinades, bean soups, veggie stir fries… and soo much more! Basically, you might want to try them in everything! I promise to give you more details, with time!
One thing you might want to try right away? Preserved lemons or limes in salsa! Not only do I love it in all my homemade salsas, it’s my number one remedy for otherwise not-so interesting storebought salsa. Here’s a quick way to perk up the next jar that you buy.
If chipotle chile is too spicy for you or your family members, try substituting the chile powder with smoked paprika powder.
Preserved Lemon or Lime Salsa with Chipotle
If I’m not serving it right away, I just pour it back in its jar.
1 14 oz. jar storebought salsa
1-3 tablespoons preserved lemon or lime, well chopped, to taste
1/2-1 teaspoon chipotle chile powder, or 1/2-2 tablespoons canned “chipotle chiles en adobo”, minced very finely
1/2-3/4 teaspoon cumin (ground, or freshly toasted whole cumin seed), optional
Pour the salsa into a small mixing bowl. Mash the preserved lemon or lime into a small amount of the salsa, then mix it in thoroughly to the rest of the bowl. Then mix in the chipotle powder or chopped chiles.
A Few Important Facts About Preserved Limes
Number one: don’t worry about the color that your limes will turn. I’ve read the reactions of some folks that freaked and threw out entire quart jars of perfectly good preserved limes, just because they looked a little, well, ugly.
I don’t think preserved limes look ugly. Raw limes are bright green, preserved limes are not. They’re kind of a yellowy green, a kind of shade that looks nice on certain vegetables and plants. And once they turn color, you know that they’re done curing, and you can now eat them!
I haven’t tried my “cheater’s method” with limes yet, but I’m guessing that it works great too, and that the cooking process would have the same effect on the color as the raw lime-salt cure. Anyone who gets to it before I do, please write me or leave a comment, thanks!
Number two: be careful with them, they’re potent. As well as potently delicious! Although they can be used in many of the same ways as the preserved lemons, and the effect of them is actually even more remarkable to me in many cases, a little more caution needs to be taken with the amounts used. I once made an otherwise perfect stew taste bitter, just by going overboard on the lime. I especially love preserved lime in dishes involving sweet squashes, avocados, sweet potatoes, anything Mexican or involving chiles, and anything corn-related!
Happy Summer Solstice!