Unfussy Fare

Preserved Lemons


I typically put preserving food in the same category as changing my own motor oil, or cutting my own hair. That is to say, not worth the effort, since I’m likely to botch the job at high personal cost. Preserving food scares me.  I’m afraid of poisoning people with botulism or mysterious molds. But once I heard how easy it was to make preserved lemons, I was emboldened. If I can do this, people, anyone can.

I should probably warn you that I’m not objective about citrus. The truth is, I have a big crush on citrus. If I met citrus at a party, I’d angle to sit next to it. Citrus would crack surprising jokes. It would be soft-spoken and witty. It would be complicated on the outside, sweet and sublime within. Plus it would smell like flowers. Fascinating.

I swoon a little when I taste citrus in just about anything. Cocktails? Oh, yeah.  Pie crusts and cakes? Yes, please. Chicken or fish? Uh-huh. Citrus can throw a little pop rocket into just about any dish.  So you see, forces larger than myself drove me to preserve lemons. Not only do I find citrus charismatic and beautiful, I also love pretty little jars, and the color yellow, and salt. Salt is right up there with citrus as the unwitting object of my affection. How could I resist chopping a lemon, and salting it heavily, and leaving it to marinate in its own briny juices?

Preserved lemon is an alchemist. It’s one of those magical secret ingredients with the power to add depth and dimension to an ordinary dish. It’s impact is subtle but profound. Together, the salt and the lemon add up to much more than the sum of their parts. Come to think of it, I should maybe set my hopeless crushes aside and graciously applaud the union of salt and lemon. They’re such a cute couple.

How to use them? I’ll post a recipe featuring preserved lemons soon. In the meantime, just pull a lemon wedge out of the jar. Rinse it off and add it to a braise or stew. Or discard the pulp and chop the peel into fine bits. Mix the bits with butter and toss with vegetables. Add it to grain salads and pasta dishes. You can sprinkle some on fish, or mix it into dressing or marinade. A little goes a long way. (Preserved lemons are salty. Bear that in mind when you’re seasoning.) 

Preserved lemons improve with age. I’ve read they’re best after six months or more.  I believe it. But I used some one-week-old preserved lemon rind in gremolata last night, and it was not half bad. The preserved lemon already had a notably different and more complex flavor than fresh zest. So here’s what you do:


(adapted from this recipe from Gourmet magazine)
makes four 8 ½  ounce jars

4 pounds small lemons (about 14 lemons – I used organic, for their thinner skins)
3/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup olive oil

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Blanch seven lemons in boiling water for five minutes.

When cool enough to handle, cut lemons into eight wedges each and discard seeds.

Toss lemons with salt in a large bowl. Distribute salted lemon wedges into jars.

Squeeze juice from remaining lemons. Add enough juice to jars to cover lemon wedges.

Close jar lids and let stand at room temperature for one week, flipping the jar each day.
(Did you get that? The jar sits on its lid every other day.)

 Add one tablespoon olive oil to each jar. Refrigerate. Keeps for a year or more.


18 Responses to “Preserved Lemons”

  1. Gillian says:

    Glad you asked! I wondered if should describe gremolata, but I was worried about going on too long. Anyway, gremolata is a minced-up mixture of garlic, parsley, lemon zest, and olive oil. At least that’s how I make it. I’m not sure if that’s exactly traditional. Regardless, it tastes great as a condiment on chicken, lamb, fish, what-have-you. I make it often because it’s delicious, and because I almost always have those four ingredients on hand. (We have very happy parsley plants in the garden for most of the year.) I use roughly 1/4 cup of chopped parsley, a small garlic clove, a splash of olive oil, and about a teaspoon of lemon zest. That’s it!

  2. esme says:

    I don’t know if I’ll make it but I LOVED ready about you making it. An admirer

  3. Hoofer says:

    Do you have to do the whole sanitizing/canning thing, or can you just put the lemons
    into regular jars. I have tons of lemons on my tree, and would love to give these as
    holiday gifts!

  4. You have absolutely convinced me to try this. I share your fears about canning, preserving and the like, (not to mention the labor-intensive process that can be involved), but this seems ultimately doable! I think most people don’t realize that their food needs a little citrus to round it out. Salty, sweet, bitter and sour! If you can find a balance between these, your dishes will sing. Listen, you wrote it much more eloquently in your post, so I’ll stop here. Lovely recipe, engaging writing. I’ll be back often. :D

    Anyway, I found you through TasteSpotting and am writing to say that if you have any photos that aren

  5. Gillian says:

    Esme: I’ll make you preserved lemons any time. The admiration is mutual :)

    Hoofer: I don’t believe santizing is necessary. I did run the jars through the dishwasher before I used them. But I think between blanching the lemons, and all that salt and acid, scary things just won’t grow. I looked at lots of preserved lemon recipes, and none of them called for sanititizing, so I think it’s safe.

    Casey: Thanks for the kind words. Your site is genius! I can’t wait to submit some photos. It’s disheartening to get rejections from the photo sights: “Unflattering composition, dull, not sharp,” or my personal favorite: “not a compelling subject matter.” Says who?

  6. Nic says:

    I too am terrified by canning/preserving. I made oven dried tomatoes and canned them at the weekend and that was really simple if slow! This looks awsome, I’ve always wanted to try preserved lemons but they are so expensive to buy here, and now I can make them! hurrah!

  7. Gillian says:

    It really is that simple, Nic. I’m so enthralled with preserved lemons that I’m making myself a much bigger jar today. I’ll give the little ones as gifts.

    I’d love to know how you canned your oven-dried tomatoes. I love slow-roasted tomatoes. We tend to eat them so fast they don’t need preserving. But still, I’m intrigued!

  8. Pamela Perry says:

    I’m in. Just got home with my lemons. More later.

  9. Pamela Perry says:

    Oh, and I already thought of the perfect fabric to dress the jars for their journey to their new homes. It’s all about the outfit!

  10. Gillian says:

    You’re way ahead of me, Pamela. As usual. I hadn’t even considered what they should wear.

    I made a giant jar of preserved lemons yesterday, because I was feeling a little stingy about using them. I don’t want to run out.

    Note to anyone trying this at home (based on my experience yesterday…sorry Pamela, too late for you): Buy a few extra lemons, in case you cut some open to find they’re not so good inside. Sigh.

  11. Pamela Perry says:

    I did buy extra and there was one bad one. Other than that, beautiful.

    So just to clarify, they ‘sit and spin’ for a week, then the olive oil is added, then refrigerated?

    I made 8 1/2 pint jars and one pint from about 3.5 lbs of lemons – they were exceptionally big. I ran them through my juicer rather than pressing the juice as it yielded more.

    I’ll send a picture of them all dolled up.

    You’re doing such a great job with this site. I eagerly anticipate your next post.

  12. Gillian says:

    Yay! Thanks for the kind words. I can’t wait to see your lemon results. Yes, you leave them out for a week, flipping them each day. Then a bit of olive oil on top and into the fridge. Most of the recipes I read recommended waiting three weeks or more before eating them.

    Since you’re so DIY in the kitchen, here’s a link to a vanilla extract recipe I’ve been eyeing. Maybe you could save me the trouble, and just give me a little bottle of homemade vanilla extract for Christmas, in some kind of really cute bottle with fabric or a homemade label or something…


  13. Pamela Perry says:

    I posted the lemon info on FB. I’ve already flipped them today, so they’re off to a good start.

    I’ll get right on that extract. ;)

  14. Gillian says:

    Pamela, thanks for the facebook plug! I’m flipping my giant jar of lemons daily. Very satisfying.

  15. SFgirlie says:

    I love your jars! Would you be able to tell me what brand they are? Did you buy them locally or online?

  16. Gillian says:

    I love those jars, too! They’re Quattro Staggioni brand. I use their big jars for my bulk grains and beans and things. I’ve seen them at various stores. I bought mine at Kitchen Kaboodle here in Portland, but I think you can get them anywhere.

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