I’m not part of the mason jar parade. Some people jelly everything, right down to corn cobs. There are businesses that stake their livelihoods on the bottomless and rich inspiration of the Ball jar, from homemade soap dispensers and wine glasses to thousand-dollar hipster chandeliers. I admire their passion from afar. Although my interest in preserving is casual at best (a pickling dilettante, if you will), it was not so long ago that preserving food without refrigeration was a central part of survival. As with any essential domestic activity, preserving food has become an art in its own right. Though its charm is homey and rustic, preserving can also be highly elegant and amazingly varied.
These lemons come from sunny Morocco, where the citizens of Casablanca are enjoying a high today of 64 degrees.
You don’t see preserved lemons much in the United States, although they’re very common in New Zealand and Australian cooking. New Zealand grows—in my opinion—some of the best lemons in the world. It’s very common to keep a lemon tree in your backyard. When the bumper crop arrives and you can’t bake one more single batch of lemon bars, you bring down the glass jars from the kitchen cupboard and get to work.
The way to prepare them for cooking, once they’ve preserved, is to rinse off the salt and dice the softened peel before adding to a dish. You can scrape out the pulp and throw it away, but why would you? You can use the lemon juice from the jar, too, as long as you’re careful of the salt. I toss it in stir-fries, vinaigrettes, and marinades.
The taste of preserved lemons is very different from fresh lemon: highly concentrated, deep, aromatic, and about as earthy as a citrus fruit can be. Where fresh juice and zest are bright and sharp, preserved lemon is complex and intense.
What can you do with preserved lemon?
– Add to roasts, tagines, and any Middle Eastern meat dish, particularly lamb.
– A few tablespoons will warm up your winter salads of lentils, kale, and quinoa.
– Add a hit to couscous, rice, orzo, risotto, and pasta.
– Make Iranian jeweled rice, using lemons instead of orange peel.
– Dice finely and toss with root vegetables before sautéing or roasting
– Top some labneh with preserved lemon, oregano, a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper.
– Add to seafood dishes in place of lemon juice, or blend with mayonnaise for lemon aïoli to serve atop fish.
I got this recipe out of an Australian food magazine called Cuisine, which I adore and always buy an issue of when I’m down in New Zealand. Prior to reading the article, I’d never even heard of preserved lemons, but after trying it once, I always keep a jar in the cupboard. They’re one of those versatile ingredients that wake up so many tired weeknight dinners when you don’t have the time or wherewithal to spend hours in the kitchen after work.
And they won’t make your face pucker nearly as much as a fresh lemon, so there’s that.
Variations: This recipe is as simple as lemons and salt. Some parts of the Middle East top off the jar with a layer of olive oil. Bay leaves and peppercorns are traditional, but you can experiment with cinnamon, allspice, coriander, cloves, crushed or fresh chilies, fresh rosemary or thyme sprigs, even garlic cloves. Lemons play well with a wide variety of aromatics.
Moroccan Preserved Lemons
Makes 2 jars
8 to 10 lemons, depending on your jars
Kosher salt (at least one cup)
10 bay leaves
2 tbsp. pink or black peppercorns
2 tbsp. cinnamon bark (optional)
- Sterilise your jars by boiling them in a water bath at least 3 minutes. Dry off the jars, then add about ½ inch of salt to the bottom of each jar.
- Wash your lemons well under running water. Cut a cross into each lemon all the way down to the stalk end (see above photo), so that the lemon separates into quarters without falling apart.
- Working over a bowl to catch the excess salt (you can try working over the jar, but you’re guaranteed to have a mess), open the lemon and sprinkle a tablespoon of salt inside. Pack the lemons tightly into the jar, squashing them down to release some of their juices. You’ll likely have leftover salt.
- After each layer, add a few peppercorns and a bay leaf. Slide more bay leaves and cinnamon down the sides of the jar, for a pretty visual effect.
- When you reach the top of the jar, press down the lemons once more. If you have more than ½ inch of headspace left at the top of the jar, squeeze the juice from another lemon or use a small quantity of olive oil. Don’t use bottled lemon juice or water.
- Leave the lemons to rest one month in a cupboard, shaking the jar once in a while to distribute salt evenly. It is not necessary to seal the jars in a hot water bath, as the acidity and salt prevent bacteria from growing.
Recipe adapted from February 2012 issue of Cuisine magazine.