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Preserved Lemons


Courtesy of Paula Wolfert, from, The Food of Morocco

The following is a treatise on how to make preserved lemons from Paula’s magnificent book, which contains her fifty years of experience with Moroccan cuisine and culture.

In Morocco, many types of lemons are put up in salt for use in salads, couscous, fish dishes, and tagines.  I’d go so far as to say that preserved lemons are the most important condiment in the Moroccan larder.  Fresh lemons are never an adequate substitute.  The taste, texture, and aroma of preserved lemons are unique and cannot be duplicated by other means (no matter what some cookbook authors tell you).

The crème de la crème of Moroccan lemons, the fragrant, thin-skinned doqq, is similar in aroma and flavor to our thicker-skinned American hybrid, the Meyer lemon.  Meyer lemons turn extremely soft during preserving, and they make an excellent flavoring for olives, salads, or brined vegetables or garnish for tagines.  California Eureka lemons also work quite well.

The following recipe can be doubled, tripled, or more.  Be sure to store your preserved lemons in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid.

According to the late distinguished food writer Michael Field, the best way to extract the maximum amount of juice from a lemon is to cook it in a microwave or in boiling water for a short time and then allow it to cool before squeezing.  Some cooks suggest using commercial lemon juice to top off their preserved lemons.  I only use freshly squeezed lemon juice.

Makes 5 preserved lemons

5 lemons, scrubbed and dried
About 1/3 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

Soften the lemons by rolling them back and forth on a wooden cutting board.  Quarter the lemons from their tops to within 1/4 inch of their bottoms, sprinkle salt on the exposed flesh, and then reshape the fruit.  Pack them into a glass jar, pushing them down and adding more salt between layers.  Top off with the lemon juice, but leave some air space before sealing the jar.

Allow the lemons to ripen in a warm place for 30 days, turning the jar upside down every few days to distribute the salt and juice.  If necessary, open the jar and add more lemon juice to keep the lemons covered

Variation:  Aziza Benchekoun’s five-day preserved lemon recipe

If you run out of preserved lemons and need some in a hurry, you can use this “quick” method taught to me by a Moroccan diplomat’s wife.  Lemons preserved this way will not keep more than1 or 2 days, but are perfectly acceptable in an emergency.

With a sharp knife, make 8 fine 2-inch vertical incisions around the peel of each lemon.  Do not cut into the membrane, which protects the pulp.  Place the lemons in a stainless steel saucepan with plenty of salt and water to cover and then boil until the peels become very soft, about 5 minutes.  Place in a clean jar, cover with the cooled cooking liquid, and leave to pickle for 5 days.


To use:  Pluck out a lemon with a wooden fork or spoon and rinse it under cold running water.  Remove and discard the pulp, unless it is called for in the recipe – I generally use only the rind, but in a few recipes, I add the pulp to the marinade.

Preserved lemons will keep for up to a year in the refrigerator, and the pickling juice can be used one more time over the course of a year; then it should be discarded.  The most important thing to remember is that the lemons must be completely covered with salted lemon juice.

Sometimes you will see a lacy white substance clinging to the preserved lemons in their jar.  This material is harmless, but it should be rinsed off for aesthetic reasons before the lemons are used.  Preserved lemons are always rinsed before use in any case, to rid them of excessive saltiness.

Patricia Rain
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