When I first tasted preserved lemons many years ago while in the Middle East, their piquant, salty-sour taste and soft, meaty rind were nothing like I had imagined it would be. I was instantly hooked, thinking of all the different ways I could incorporate their complex flavor into modern day dishes. Preserving lemons is an age old technique practiced by many cultures, especially when availability of citrus was limited by season. They are an essential ingredient of many traditional Moroccan and North African dishes, revered by the Chinese for their healing properties and are the basis of a popular drink in Vietnam. Wonderfully versatile, they are one of my ‘secret ingredients’ in many of our grain and pasta dishes, salad dressings, sauces, and meat stews. Uber easy to prepare, they only require a bit of patience during the fermentation period. But so worth the wait.
The most basic of ingredients with room to be creative with the spices. We usually make two batches, one with heat from dried chilis and one without the chilis. Since pesticides are concentrated in the rinds, we use organic lemons. If organic or pesticide free lemons are not available, soak the whole (uncut) fruit in a wash such as Biokleen, which we use on all market produce. We use a good quality sea salt, but kosher salt will also work. Do not use iodized table salt, as it can interfere with the fermenting process and darken the lemons. The spices should be whole, not ground. It is easier to pack the salt and spices into the fruit if you cut each half into quarters, but only three-quarters of the way through.
Start layering the salt and spices and citrus into a clean jar, packing salt into the incisions made in each quarter. Pack each layer down firmly until the jar is nearly full. A cocktail muddler or pestle makes fast work of this. If needed, add additional citrus juice (1″ or 2.5 cm, headspace), as it is essential that the pieces remain completely submerged in juice while fermenting. Otherwise, a white mold may form. We use glass weights like these to keep fruits and vegetables submerged while fermenting. If you are thrifty, like me and always on the hunt for a more economical solution, MightyNest has glass jar replacement lids for half the cost that make perfect weights for wide mouth canning jars. Seal the jar with a non-reactive lid like these and store in a cool, dark space. Check the jar daily to make sure the citrus pieces are completely submerged in juice.
You should begin to see visible changes within 4-7 days. If left at room temperature, the flavor will continue to deepen (up to 6 months). Not to worry, you don’t need to wait that long! We start using ours after 4 weeks, moving the jars to the refrigerator. Get creative and use them in salads, drinks, baked seafood and dressings. A little goes a long way, so start with small amounts until you get the flavor you want.