Preserving the Perfume of Lemons


So how do we take beautiful but tough-skinned lemons like these and turn them into the succulent, translucent beauties known as Preserved Lemons? All you need are 1-2 sterilized jars and lids, 10 lemons, one cup of coarse sea salt, and after 5 days, some olive oil. Plus 4-6 weeks of patience.

Our efforts, however, will be rewarded with nothing short of liquid gold. Yes, you can use the rinds in tagines like Chicken with Preserved Lemons & Olives, but the briny lemony curing liquid is also a quick flavor boost for dressings, marinades, and drinks; and even the oil sealing in the lemons can add a touch of clean citrus flavor when used to pan-fry meats or fish, or saute vegetables.

The end result will look like the next 2 photos. Admittedly, not pretty perhaps. But here is a jar filled with a perfumed elixir redolent of sunshine and citrus, ready to bring the light and lightness of summer to any dish, savory or sweet. In the depths of winter, it’s a real joy to have one of these jars gleaming at the back of the fridge, promising that summer will return, and boosting our spirits until it does. (I did have 8 winters in Germany and Boston before we moved to Hawaii . . . I remember the feeling!)

The last of the presrved lemonsPreserved lemon rind, sliced for use

The Jars

You can use a single 1 quart/liter jar for 6 lemons, or 2 half-liters with 3 lemons each. The advantage of using 2 jars is two-fold. I find they’re easier to store in the fridge; and opening the second jar for the first time in the middle of winter is a special kind of present for the chef. (In the photos below you see one half-liter bottle with 3 lemons.) Sterilize your jars and lids as you would for canning.

The Lemons

If you have access to particularly flavorful lemon varieties such as Meyers or Sorrentos, by all means use those, but regular lemons will work just as well (I’ve only ever used regular lemons, but will cheerfully accept donations of Meyers or Sorrentos if someone wants me to experiment with those!). If you can find organic ones, even better. No matter what variety, look for lemons that are unblemished and with a firm skin.

Wash the lemons well. I used to lightly scrub the surface with a soft vegetable brush (not a potato brush, the bristles are too hard and will release the precious lemon oils into the wash water). A couple of years ago, however, I started looking for alternatives to remove pesticides and dirt from all produce and found many sites recommending soaking or washing with white vinegar, so we adopted this method with great success. Then last fall, National Public Radio ran a story (“What does it take to clean fresh food,”) about the importance of removing pesticides and dirt from all produce before using, and recommended using white vinegar. The magazine Cook’s Illustrated has also tested white vinegar against a commercial vegetable cleaner for 2 purposes: 1) removing wax from vegetables (they tested cucumbers, but apples, lemons and other citrus are also waxed, see April 2007 edition), and 2) killing bacteria (March 2007). In both cases, they recommended plain white vinegar over the purchased product. (The NPR story link is accessible to anyone, but the CI articles are available to members only on the Web, but check your library for back issues.)

Now I soak the lemons in a solution of 1/4 cup white vinegar and 1/2 gallon of water for about a minute, then rinse in cool water. Dry each lemon with a clean paper towel. (If you lightly rub the surface of a lemon with your thumb before and after this brief soak, you will appreciate just how much wax, if nothing else, is removed by this simple step.) And since the prized part of preserving lemons is the rind, it’s really a step worth doing.

Cut 6 of the lemons into 6-8 pieces, depending on the size of each. Remove straggler seeds that can be reached without having to dig too hard into each piece. Cut remaining 4 lemons in half crosswise and juice well with a lemon reamer or juicer. Keep juice aside. (If you’re feeling really motivated, zest the lemons before cutting in half, and keep zest either in the freezer for future use; or add to 4 cups of sugar in an air-tight container and keep for 2 weeks, after which you will have a wonderful lemon sugar to use in baking or iced tea.)

The Salt

I prefer coarse sea salt, but kosher salt will work too — what you’re looking for is a salt that is minimally processed, and is not Iodized. Iodized salt will cloud and add a strange off-taste to your finished product. Measure out about a cup of salt for every 6 lemons you intend to preserve. Put 2 tablespoons or so of salt into the bottom of your sterilized jar, and place first layer of lemon pieces atop salt. Cover with 2-3 more spoonfuls of salt, then next layer of lemons. Continue layering salt and lemons, ending with salt. If you’re doing 2 separate half-liter jars, you will probably need 1-2 more tablespoons of salt for each jar.

Using a sterilized spoon, press on the lemons to pack them well, then add reserved lemon juice. Cover and leave in a warm dark place.
Days One thru Five of preserving lemons
Day Two. The lemons will begin to soften, use a sterilized spoon to press them below the juice line as much as possible, and shake gently to re-distribute the salt.

Day Three – Five. Repeat process of pressing down lemons and shaking bottle.

On Day Five, after pressing lemons, gently tap bottom of the jar against the counter several times to ensure all air bubbles have been released. Top mixture with olive oil to seal: place the back (rounded side) of a spoon about and inch above the juice line, and touching the inside of the jar, and slowly pour oil over the spoon — this will allow the oil to just sit over the juice and lemons with splattering. Add about an inch of oil. Cover and place in a dark cool corner of the pantry.

And now we wait. Today is the end of the Week One. Only 3-5 more weeks to go. The end time is determined by the weather, the types of lemons, quantity being preserved, etc. The rinds on these particular lemons looked a bit thick, so I’m guessing these will take another 4 weeks (for a total of 5) before they’re done. If you find a thinner-rinded lemon, like the Meyers, yours might be ready in 4 weeks total. You can follow the transformation of this batch at the Lemon Vigil, which will be in the sidebar for the next 2 months. I’ll put up a photo each Friday with notes about any special care the lemons needed. When the lemons are ready, we’ll have more recipes to try, too.

See also: Preserved Lemon & Almond Polenta Torta