Preserved Meyer Lemons

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Preserved lemons always seemed to be listed in the Moroccan recipes I was interested in trying, but I never had any on hand. I'd gone as far as looking up how to preserve my own lemons and committed to trying it, someday. Instead, I'd cook something else or (shamefully) substitute lemon and orange zest as many recipes will suggest you do. And then I'd move on, only to arrive right back in front of a recipe calling for preserved lemons but finding myself lemonless again. Preserved lemons aren't difficult at all to make - it's simply a matter of tossing sliced lemons and salt and letting nature take its course. It's the actual time it takes to wait for lemons to be preserved that I groan about. The idea of preparing an ingredient four weeks before I'd actually need it is way outside the bounds of my procrastination habits.

But one day I got off my ass and preserved some lemons. I stuck them in the back of the fridge and forgot about them for a few weeks. The next time I was in the mood for one of my favorite Moroccan braised chicken dishes, I finally had the right lemons to use. And as it turns out, preserved lemons are worth the wait. Their flavor is intensely citrusy, more so than you could achieve by zesting a lemon into your dish. Meyer lemons especially, which are only available for a few months, scream to be preserved so you can enjoy them throughout the year. You can preserve any kind of lemon, but if you can find Meyer lemons in season (typically late winter into early spring) you should scoop them up. They have a sweeter, orange-like flavor and a tender rind that is edible even before being preserved, so it only gets better. You can also add things like bay leaves, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, cloves or thyme to infuse flavors into your lemons, if you'd like.

A preserved lemon is completely edible, flesh and all, but it's the lemon peel you'll really treasure. For most recipes you'll be instructed to discard the flesh and rinse off the peel before slicing or dicing. I do occasionally use the flesh for things like sauces and vinaigrettes though, anything that would be pureed. Once in awhile I will also use some of the lemon juice left in the jar, although it's extremely salty so adjust your recipe accordingly if you go that route. Preserved lemons are great when added to soups, stews and braises which will take on the lemony flavor. They also are perfect for relishes, salads and dips. The sky's the limit, so don't be afraid to get creative. Moroccan recipes will be the perfect place to start if you need some ideas, but you can certainly use preserved lemons in any cuisine that you desire. I'm really excited to properly update my recipe for Moroccan Skillet Chicken with Lemons and Olives soon, which is a natural fit for preserved lemons!

Preserved Meyer Lemons

6 Meyer lemons, preferably organic
3 tablespoons fine sea salt

Active Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 4 weeks
Yield: 4 preserved lemons
Special Equipment: Pint sized sterilized mason jar or other glass jar with a tight fitting lid

Slice four of the lemons into quarters, leaving the stem end attached. (It's probably not the end of the world if you sliced them all the way through, but this is traditionally how they're left. Sometimes I'll cut the last one all the way if it helps fit into the jar better.)

Add the first lemon to the jar and cover liberally with a couple spoonfuls of salt. Make sure you get the salt in between the lemon quarters. I like the flavor of Himalayan sea salt, so I use that.

Keep adding the remaining sliced lemons to the jar, pressing them down as you go and layering each one with salt. Don't worry about using too much salt, that's the point.

Once all the sliced lemons are packed into the jar, top it off with salt.

Now you need to fill the jar up with lemon juice, so that's what the two reserved lemons are for. Juice the lemons thoroughly to fill up the jar; you should get it at least 3/4 of the way full. If you're shorter than that, add the juice of another lemon.

(I save my Meyer lemon peels because they're really great for spice blends. You can dry them out in the oven and then grind and use as needed.)

Close the jar tightly and shake it to dissolve the salt and redistribute the lemon juice a bit. Leave it out on the counter and every few hours shake it up again. You should see it fill up completely with lemon juice by the end of the first day. If not, just top it off with sterile water.

Now comes the wait. Technically you don't need to refrigerate the lemons, that was historically the whole reason foods were preserved in salt. But if that makes you uneasy it doesn't hurt to keep your jar in the fridge. I no longer refrigerate mine and they turn out the same either way, just make sure you're using sterile jars. In four weeks, you'll have preserved lemons! 

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