The first time I discovered preserved lemons was in the kitchen at Rialto, a restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., where I had my first cooking job. Taleeb, a food runner who originally hailed from Morocco and had worked in the restaurant for years, was in the kitchen with a case of lemons and a large box of kosher salt. Curious, I went over to find out what he was doing. He looked up and smiled as he poured salt into a lemon that had been cut in half almost all the way. He filled the cavity with salt, then rubbed the lemon halves together and got the juices flowing a bit before adding the lemon to a large plastic tub where he already had a layer of similarly packed lemons.
Preserved lemons are a staple of Moroccan cuisine. Typically the rinds, which become soft in texture and mellow in flavor once preserved, are sliced thin or minced before being added to a recipe. Their bright citrus flavor, balanced by brininess and sourness, can add depth and nuance to all sorts of dishes, perhaps most famously to Moroccan tagines. But I go beyond the expected, adding them to simple pan sauces, combining them with a garlicky yogurt for serving with grilled meats or fish, and incorporating them into vinaigrettes. Plus, you can flavor the lemons by adding a cinnamon stick, bay leaf, coriander seeds, and/or various other spices to the jar while they preserve. The possibilities are endless.
The ingredient list is short for nearly every recipe for preserved lemons that you may come across—lemons and salt. What varies is the way in which the lemons are cut, how much salt is used, whether additional lemon juice is used, and for how long the lemons cure. After preserving a number of batches, here’s what I found.
I use Meyer lemons because they are thin-skinned and a bit sweeter and mellower than common supermarket (Eureka) lemons. But either variety of lemon will work. Washing, scrubbing, and drying the lemons well is important because that’s the part of preserved lemons that you eat.
There are several ways to cut lemons for preserving; however, I prefer cutting them into quarters, leaving about 1 inch of the bottom of the lemon intact, so that you can pack the lemon well with salt. I do this by holding the lemon upright, then slicing it in half lengthwise, stopping about 1 inch from the bottom. I then rotate the lemon and do the same thing (creating an X). Then I gently pull the quarters slightly apart, being careful not to detach it at the base.
Some recipes pack the whole jar with copious amounts of salt. However, I find that filling the cavity of each lemon with about 2 tablespoons of kosher salt is enough to cure the lemons in about six to eight weeks and avoids making them overly salty.
Rub and squeeze each lemon over a bowl, grinding the salt into the flesh of the lemon to get the juices flowing. Place the lemons into a clean 1-quart glass jar and pour any of the accumulated salt and juice into the jar with the lemons.
Juice a bunch of extra lemons until you have about 1½ cups of lemon juice. (You’ll need to juice around 8 lemons to get this much.) Pour the lemon juice over the salted lemons until they are submerged, and gently press them down. Cover the jar with the lid to seal tightly and place the jar in the refrigerator.
Now be patient and wait. The lemons will soften, deflate a bit, change texture, and begin to glisten. When the lemons are ready (start checking around six weeks) they should look like this. If not, put them back and let them cure a little longer. As they deflate and become softer, the lemons might start to float above the liquid. This is fine; just shake the jar occasionally to rearrange them so the same bit isn’t always above the surface.
When I’m ready to put a little to use, I first remove the flesh and pith with a knife and use just the rind. Some folks I know like to use all parts of the lemon; experiment and learn what you like. To rinse or not to rinse is another personal preference; rinsing gives a slightly cleaner flavor. Lastly, I slice the preserved lemon rind into thin strips or mince it, depending on the dish. Use as much or as little as you like; I find a quarter of a lemon adds just the right touch of flavor to a vinaigrette or pan sauce.