Preserved lemons are an essential flavour in North African cuisine. They are very easy to make so forget expensive store-bought versions and enjoy the satisfaction of creating your own.
The cultivation of citrus fruit has a long history in North Africa. These delicious piquant lemons, preserved in salt and spices, are an important feature of many wonderful dishes from the Maghreb.
Moroccan and Tunisian dishes have become better known here in the UK over the past couple of decades as holiday makers have become more adventurous. Supermarkets, however, can be slow to catch up and shop-bought preserved lemons often come in tiny quantities at inflated prices.
I decided years ago that I prefer to make my own. If you haven’t tried it yet, you really should!
Traditionally, small lemons are preserved whole. The end is cut off and they are cut as if to break them into quarters, to within an inch of the bottom of the fruit. The lemons are then stuffed with salt and packed into jars, sprinkled with more salt and covered with lemon juice.
The first time I tried this, I quickly realised that none of my jars had a wide enough mouth to take a whole lemon. In fact, I have found that even quartered lemons can be difficult to pack into most jars, leaving too much space for air bubbles.
To get around the problem, I quarter my lemons and throw them into my slow cooker dish and put plenty of salt on them. I leave them for a few hours before giving them a good shake and adding more salt. The salt draws the juice out and make the lemon quarter much easier to squeeze into the jar.
If you have large wide-mouthed pickle jar, you can of course keep your preserved lemons whole but the quartered version tastes just as good and allows you a much better choice of jar!
How to Make Preserved Lemons
Step 1 – First, gather your ingredients and suitable jars. Wash the jars and then sterilise them by heating in the oven.
Step 2 – Wash the lemons and top and tail them. Then cut into quarters. Spread them on a dish and cover in salt. Then leave them for three or four hours.
Step 3 – Press each quarter on the side of the dish to squeeze out some juice, which you should reserve. Then insert into a jar, stacking the lemons up in layers and packing them in tightly. To each layer add a few teaspoons of salt and some peppercorns and coriander seeds. Poke half a cinnamon stick into each jar. Top the jars with the reserved lemon juice, adding more lemon juice if necessary to get the lemon pieces fully submerged.
If you need to add more juice to the jars, remove the zest from the fruit first with a vegetable peeler. Then put it in a jar with vodka and sugar to make Limoncello. No need to waste any of that lovely lemony lemoniness!
Step 4 –Gently shake the jars every day for 4 weeks. The lemons will fizz as they ferment and you should open the jars a couple of times a week to release the pressure. Exploding jars are rare when you make preserves, but not impossible, so do remember to look after your lemons! After a month, your preserved lemons will be ready to eat. The lemon skins will be translucent and be wonderfully soft and supple.
Step 5 – To use your preserved lemons, scrape out the flesh and discard it. Wash the peel, chop it and add it to your dish. Try using them in tagines and stews, in this Moroccan chicken and rice dish or in a dressing for halloumi.
- lemons (unwaxed)
- coriander seeds
- cinnamon sticks
- Wash and top and tail your lemons. Slice into quarters and lay out on a dish, covering them with salt. (If you have small lemons and a wide jar, open them up with two slices as if to quarter them and stuff them with the salt.) Leave for 3–4 hours.
- Press each lemon quarter to squeeze out some juice and insert into a jar, layering the lemons with salt and the whole spices. Add a half cinnamon stick to each jar. Reserve the extra juice and salt on the dish.
- Scrape the remaining juice and salt into the jars, making sure that the lemon pieces are fully submerged. If necessary, squeeze more lemon juice to add to the jars before you put the lid on.
- Shake the jars each day and open a couple of times a week to release any excess gas. Your lemons will ready to use after about 4 weeks.
- To use, scrape out the flesh of the lemon and rinse off any excess salt from the skins. Add the preserved lemon skin to tagines, stews and salads.