Making and using preserved lemon.

Have you ever been traveling and marveled at some new food or product that you swear you’ve never seen at home? (A writer smarter than I called this phenomenon amnesic product recollection.) During our winter trip to Marrakech, and especially during the Moroccan cooking class that I took, I discovered preserved lemons. Their supersaltysourcitrus flavor was new to me, and a wonder. Imagine my surprise when I found them not only at our local Mediterranean market, but also on the shelves at Williams-Sonoma.

No matter. I’m totally hooked on preserved lemon. Finely minced, rind and all, preserved lemon adds a salty brightness to any dish. Our cooking school instructor in Marrakech showed us how to separate the flesh from the membranes and chop it finely; we added that to the marinade for the Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemon and Olives. We reserved the rind and sliced it into strips to garnish the dish.

During the cooking class, we took a brief tour of the food stalls in the souk, or market, where we sniffed spices like Ras el Hanout (a 35-spice blend). I asked our guide where I might purchase a jar of preserved lemon, and he took me to a vendor where I traded 40 dihrams, about $5, for a jar of lemons in their watery brine. We’ve used them several times at home, but I find the Moroccan lemons to be a bit too bitter in a way that overwhelms other flavors in the dish. So I decided to make my own, which is ridiculously easy, using a technique from Paula Wolfert, said to be the Queen of Tagine; this comes from her 1973 book “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco.”

What can you do with preserved lemon?

  • Mince the flesh and rind and add to a garlicky marinade for shrimp or chicken
  • Add minced preserved lemon peel to a rice pilaf, or to couscous
  • Chop finely and use to season roast chicken, along with pressed garlic, salt & pepper (rub this mixture under the skin and inside the cavity)
  • Chop preserved lemon peel and a large handful of parsley and a garlic clove for gremolata
  • Use it in the classic Chicken Tagine (recipe to come—I promise!)

preserved lemon

3 or 4 Meyer lemons (preferably organic) plus additional 1 or 2 for juice as needed
coarse or kosher salt
additional lemon juice as needed
Note: the original recipe calls for bay leaf and peppercorns, which I omitted, preferring the pure lemon taste)

Wash the lemons thoroughly; use a paring knife to slice them from end to end, stopping about 1/2 inch from the stem end (the lemons will resemble a cootie catcher!). Separate the slices gently, and liberally sprinkle each surface with salt; press the lemons back into shape.

Prepare a jar (I like to sterilize jars with a rinse of boiling water). Add a layer of salt at the bottom, then place a lemon in the jar and squish it down. Sprinkle with a layer of salt; repeat with the other lemons. Add more lemon juice to cover if needed. Cover jar and let sit on the counter at room temperature for 3 to 4 weeks, shaking gently every day. Then store in the refrigerator.

Note: Some recipes call for rinsing preserved lemon to mitigate the saltiness; taste yours to see if that’s needed. If you choose not to rinse the lemon, be careful adding salt to the dish you’re cooking—the fruit can be plenty salty.

The jar at far right is the one I brought back from the souk in Marrakech.

13 thoughts on “Making and using preserved lemon.

  1. thanks for this, bryn! i decided to make preserved lemon earlier this month, but i haven’t used it yet. i saw some articles say to wash the lemon off, but i figured why not just use them minced, salt & all, as the seasoning for the dish? thanks for this list, i’m going to plan some of my next meals around getting familiar with my jar of preserved lemon.

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  5. O.k. I have seen this, and will be making my first jar today! Cant wait to use them in my lemon chicken recipe.

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  7. Does the liquid have to cover the lemons? And once they are in the fridge, how long will they last before they go bad – or will they. I’m looking forward to trying… Thanks for the recipe…

    • Hi there — thanks for the great questions! Yes, the liquid should just cover the lemons. I would recommend keeping preserved lemon in the refrigerator for up to six months. Longer storage time softens the lemon peel and intensifies the saltiness, so adjust your recipes accordingly if you’re using preserved lemon you’ve had for awhile.

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  9. I have made preserved lemons and have found that 1 or 2 lemons are enough. I filled a quart jar and because I didn’t use them fast enough they got slimy. I did use them a lot, however. E.G., salad dressings, chili, soups, stews, any place that I would ordinarily want a jolt of flavor. I live in Southern California and everyone has lemon trees so I have an abundance of them. I use them a lot! I’m thinking about concocting a cocktail using them next.

    • Thanks for the comment about preserved lemons! Reminds me I need to make up another batch — you’re right: they’re so good in salad dressing.

    • Hi Patsy. Our family enjoys drinking Lemon Sours. What we make is from fresh lemons and no alcohol, but it can be a starting point for you. Per 10 oz glass: Juice of 1/2 large, juicy lemon, or from one whole small lemon. . 3-4 T. Several shakes of salt (1/8+ tsp. salt) Stir it in well. Add Three
      times as much club soda as lemon juice. 7-8 ice cubes (crescent shaped from the ice maker). Crush the ice cubes to part snow, part chunks. Add to club soda mix. Sprinkle lightly w salt. Enjoy!