I owe a debt of gratitude to Moroccan cooking expert Kitty Morse.
After all, she’s the one who taught me just how easy it is to make my own preserved lemons.
So easy that you don’t even need a real recipe for it.
I took a cooking class at Draeger’s years ago that Morse taught. It was there that she turned me on to the endless wonders of preserved lemons.
They cost a tidy sum if you buy them already made in jars in fancy gourmet stores. They cost mere pennies if you make them yourself, especially if you have your own lemon tree.
I always use Meyer lemons just because I love the floral, complex, and less puckery taste that they have. But I also know that Mourad Lahlou, the Marrakech-born chef-owner of Aziza in San Francisco, likes both Meyers and Eurekas, but for different uses. At a cooking demonstration late last year at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Campus in St. Helena, Lahlou said he favors the more delicate preserved Meyer lemons in salads, but preserved Eurekas in long-cooked stews because the rind is thicker and doesn’t break down so much.
Whatever lemon variety you choose, I guarantee you will have a fascinating time making preserved lemons. If you have kids, they’ll have fun watching the lemons do their thing, too. Think of it as your own little science experiment.
Indeed, the first time I wrote about making preserved lemons years ago in the San Jose Mercury News, I admitted I couldn’t stop looking at my lemons as they transformed themselves. I wasn’t the only one. Many readers wrote back after making their own batch, confessing that if they woke up in the middle of the night, they’d sneak a peek at their lemons. Morse even laughed that my lemons had become my pets.
So how do you make them? Simple. All you need are washed and preferably organic lemons (either Eurekas or Meyers), kosher salt, and a glass jar with a tight lid that has been sterilized by running it through the dishwasher.
Make two cuts in each lemon so that the quarters created remain attached. Stuff kosher salt into the crevices of the lemons. Then, place salted lemons tightly into the glass jar. If I have one or two leftover lemons, I’ll often squeeze the juice into the jar before closing it. But you don’t have to. This just gives the lemons a little bit of a head start.
Place the jar on a counter top, and then just watch and wait. Over the next few days, more and more juice will exude from the lemons, filling the jar. You can give it a shake now and then — or not — to keep the salt blended well in the liquid. In about three weeks, the lemons will get very soft, and the brining liquid thick and cloudy. Once that happens, you can store the jar in the refrigerator. As long as the brine covers the lemons, they’ll keep for about a year refrigerated.
To use, pick a lemon or part of one out of the jar with a clean fork. Give the lemon a quick rinse. Remove any seeds. Then, use the peel however you like — chopped or sliced in thin slivers. Some people discard the flesh, but Morse considers that wasteful. I always add some of the chopped flesh in with the rind in whatever I’m making.
Use preserved lemons in your favorite Moroccan chicken tagine recipes. Or stir it into tuna salad for sandwiches, pasta salad, bean salad, vinaigrettes, marinades for fish or Cornish game hens, or in couscous topped with toasted pine nuts.
With their bright, salty-citrus taste and jammy texture, you’ll find that preserved lemons add complexity and depth to so many dishes.
Of course, there are faster ways to make preserved lemons. Some people boil the lemons in the jar in a water bath, thereby cooking the lemons, and making them ready to use the very next day. Others freeze the lemons first, so they start to break down. But I like to wait for mine. After all, that’s half the fun.
Yesterday: Meyer Lemons — The Sweet; Making Marmalade
More Lemons: Pastry Chef Emily Luchetti’s Perfect Lemon Squares
And a Recipe That Incorporates Preserved Lemon: Ming Tsai’s Savory Braised Oxtail with Preserved Lemon Polenta