Meyer Lemons — The Salty

The beginnings of preserved lemons.

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.

How easy?

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.

Day One: Packing the lemons into the jar.

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.

Week 2: The lemons are softening, and exuding their juice.

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.

Week 3: Finished preserved lemons in all their beauty.

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

More: Saveur’s Best Damn Meyer Lemon Cake

And a Recipe That Incorporates Preserved Lemon: Ming Tsai’s Savory Braised Oxtail with Preserved Lemon Polenta

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88 comments

  • OK, I;m sold. I’m going to do it. One question? How do you tell if it’s a Meyer lemon?

  • Now, I’m convinced. I need to make preserved lemons! I’ve read about preserving them in a couple of great books, but just haven’t gotten around to it yet. Using them in tuna salad and couscous sounds great!

  • Meyers have a much thinner skin. They’re usually smaller than Eurekas, too, and have an almost yellow-orange colored skin, as opposed to the basic yellow of the Eureka. Also, just smell them. Meyers have a very floral-citrusy fragrance, almost lemony-tangerine-like.

  • This is the kind of post that makes your mouth water, mostly because of the lemons! My mom used to just put lemons in a big jar in Hawaii and leave it outside near the porch and it turns totally brown. I forgot what she used it for, but it was always really tender and sour. I saw some Eurekas at the farmers markets and they do have more rind and also look a bit more bumpy than Meyer lemons.

  • That’s true that the Eurekas are bumpy, while the Meyers are very smooth on the outside.

    And how interesting about the Hawaiian-method of preserved lemons. Almost like making sun tea.

  • Hi Carolyn!

    I never tried to make preserved lemons but it seems so easy especially to use with tagine or couscous love them! If we preserve them in the sweet version like lemon jams? Two versions but the same result, future lemon delights 😉
    If you say Moroccan cuisine I’m the first in the list to enter…

    Gera .:. sweetsfoods

  • OK, no more excuses, I’m in.

  • The Alinea cookbook has a recipe for preserved lemons which Grant A. has said came from Thomas Keller. He adds sugar to the mix and leaves them in the freezer for three months. The rationale is that the slower curing leads to more complexity – sort of how a long rise leads to better bread.

    I don’t know if the theory is true, but I’ve got a container of meyer lemons in the freezer about a month into their cure.

  • I love preserved lemons and had plans to make a new bottle myself this weekend! They are delightfully simple to make and even more fun to eat later. The photos look great!

  • I made these once — when you wrote about them in the Merc, actually. They are great!!

    By the way, you should try “Meyer Lemons — the Frozen” next:

    http://feedme.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/04/lemon-sorbet.html

  • With regard to to those asking about Meyers: I have rarely found them in the supermarket. Saw them once at Cosentino’s. Has anyone seen them anywhere?

    That’s unfortunate because the Meyer is wonderful. Fortunately for me, I have a tree!! Unfortunately, I am waiting now for them to ripen and more unfortunately, looks like a light crop this time around. It yields two crops a year, I think.

    The best way to tell them by sight is color which, as Foodgal says, is more orange than a regular lemon which is pure yellow. The photos above are pretty true. I am pretty sure they would be labeled as Meyer in the store.

  • Paul: Oh my gawd, there’s something in the Alinea cookbook that actually is EASY to do? I must try this. So you just freeze the lemons with sugar and salt? You must let us know how they taste once yours are ready. This has me so intrigued.

    Moe: OK, “Meyer Lemons — The Frozen” will be my sequel. 😉

    And yes, Meyers are not always easy to find in supermarkets. I have seen them at Cosentino’s. Draeger’s also sells them.

  • For those in the Bay Area, Meyer Lemons are pretty easy to find at the Farmers Markets this time of year. At least three vendors at the Ferry Plaza Saturday market had them last weekend.

  • Wow. Just Wow. How long do they keep?

  • What a fun project. I’ve always wanted to make my own!

  • Okay – you have answered my prayers: two new lemon recipes to try! Now, if only I can wait til the weekend to get started. Focus on work. Must have focus. (so why do I keep stopping here?) =-)

  • John, they keep in the fridge for at least a year. Pray tell, I’ve had some even longer than that, and they’ve been fine to use. Just make sure they’re covered in the brine.

  • My mouth is totally watering for these lemons. Time to go back over to the friends and pick more lemons!

  • Carolyn,

    Re: Alinea and “EASY” – don’t get your hopes up! The 3-month preserved Meyer lemon recipe is part of “Lamb in Cubism” which includes lamb boned and rolled, lamb stock, lamb rillettes, eggplant puree, date puree, yoghurt pudding,, pine nut pudding, pomegranate pudding mint pudding, saffron and goat’s milk pudding, lemon puree, braised mustard seeds, eggplant seeds, chili rings, four or five other garnishes, and yes… the preserved lemon peel. The entire dish contains roughly 50 ingredients!

  • Paul said: “For those in the Bay Area, Meyer Lemons are pretty easy to find at the Farmers Markets this time of year. ”

    Yep, I was apparently not paying attention before. I saw them this morning at the Cupertino Farmer’s Market (the one at Vallco near Alexander’s Steakhouse).

    Thanks for the tip, Paul.

  • Paul: Oh my gawd, are you making that entire Alinea dish?? I think it would take me a good month to do all that. And then I’d need to nap for at least 48 hours. 😉

  • Great way to preserve lemons! We didn’t realize that you could do this. Will it work with any citrus?

  • Not sure if it will work with any citrus. But I know a former colleague who successfully made preserved limes using this method.

  • I first got turned onto Moroccan food at Aziza. That’s a great tip about Eureaka’s not breaking down as much. I’ve always used preserved Meyer lemons for the flavour and just accepted the fact that they disintegrate as inevitable. Maybe next time I’ll try using making a mixed batch of preserved lemons so I can use both.

  • oooh, what a fun project 🙂 thanks for this post! I can’t wait to start experimenting.
    I haven’t been to Aziza yet, but I just saw that they are participating in “http://www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com/taste/”>Dine About Town
    @Moe Rubenzahl: *sigh* to have your own meyer lemon tree…how lovely!

  • I’ve never had a preserved lemon (at least, I don’t think so) and I’m totally intrigued with trying this experiment.. I’ve gotta just find some Meyer lemons and I’ll be all set.

  • “This is the kind of post that makes your mouth water, mostly because of the lemons! My mom used to just put lemons in a big jar in Hawaii and leave it outside near the porch and it turns totally brown.”

    My mom long ago in Hawaii used to do the same thing. I recall just taking them out and eating them! One of the oriental stores locally (Oregon) has something similar in a jar from Thailand I think, but not as good (different smaller lemons).

    My mouth is watering (but then, I’m someone who LOVES eating “lemon peel” (which is dried with salt, sugar, and a little something else)).

  • i made these a few weeks ago…and they are so good…i am making another batch tonight.

  • Thanks for this, will definately be preserving lemons next week.

  • We don’t get Meyer lemons here and I’m feeling a little left out right now. 😛

  • Purple Foodie: No reason to feel left out. You can make preserved lemons with Eurekas or any other kinds of lemons. So go get that salt and sterile glass jar, and start preserving. 😉

  • What difference would organic lemons make to the preserving process other than they are more expensive?

  • Eater, organic shouldn’t make a real difference in taste in this case. If you’re worried about pesticide residue, then you wouldn’t have that issue with organic lemons. I’ve used both purchased non-organic lemons and a friend’s backyard-grown lemons (which I assume had no pesticides on them), and the preserved lemons turned out fine each time.

  • I’ve been wondering what to do with all those lemons on my tree. I’m trying this today. In our area, Houston, Meyer Lemons can be found at Whole Foods but not for long. Wonderful web site!!

  • I know you’ll love making your preserved lemons, Mary. It’s so much fun. I even planted my own Meyer lemon tree this year just so I’ll have a steady supply of lemons to preserve. 😉

  • secret agent girl

    I don’t like to waste even something as cheap as salt. Would really like to see measurements for the minimum amount of salt per pound of lemons needed to make a safe pickling brine.

  • Secret Agent Girl: I’ve never measured the precise amount of salt needed to preserve a jar of lemons, but my best guesstimate would be that you probably need about two tablespoons of salt per lemon. Plus, you don’t really end up wasting any salt. You make two deep slashes in each lemon, so that you have quarter pieces that are still attached. I usually pour some salt into a deep soup bowl. Then, I use a spoon and my hands to pour and stuff the crevices of each lemon with the salt. Any salt that remains in the bowl afterward hasn’t been touched by the lemons and can be used for other purposes.

  • Could someone please tell me where I can buy these lemons in the Washington DC area?
    Thanks

  • Princesscorpio: You don’t have to use Meyer lemons for this. Everyday, supermarket Eureka lemons are fine for preserving in this salt method, too.

  • It’s true, there’s something really fun about making things that take a long time – they undergo such changes that it’s sort of like magic, and you don’t have to worry that you’ll leave them in ten minutes too long! I’ll have to give this a try.

  • I made my very own and very first preserved lemons this year! 🙂 Guess I’m a tad behind you, but like you said, it was SO easy. And fun actually. I gave some jars to friends as gifts, and they were well received! 🙂

  • One question: do the lemons have to be situated tightly in the jar? Can there be space above them when the jar is sealed? I just bought too many for my small jar and too few for my bigger one.
    Thanks!

  • Amy: You probably don’t have to fill the jar tightly to the top with lemons. I think the weight of them on top of each other does help compress them and maybe speed up the process a little, but probably not by much. I think you should be OK. Good luck, and have fun with those lemons.

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  • Well, well, well!

    I just went a-googling for “preserved lemon recipe” and look whose blog popped right up near the very top 🙂

    Silly me — I should have known to check here first!

    Just scored a large container of Meyer lemons at Costco last week (not literally local, but from just a few valleys over it looks like 🙂 and have been intending to make some of these for ages, so now I’ve got a couple of jars happily percolating on the kitchen counter,

    I can’t wait to decide what to do with them first!

  • AM Update: These things are fabulous! The jars, I mean. They’re like little lava lamps. I just spent a good five minutes twirling and tilting them to watch all the air bubbles to rise to the top after I turned them over. Just what I need — another completely time-sapping diversion. Thanks a lot, (yet again) Carolyn!

  • Meyers lemons are to die for!

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  • My mom has done marmalade with lemon’s since I can remember! I love this and can’t wait to find a new recipe to try. YUm.
    -Amy
    Zig Zag Papers

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