Preserved lemon: Everything you need to know

A jar of homemade preserved lemons also makes a great gift for a friend or neighbour.
A jar of homemade preserved lemons also makes a great gift for a friend or neighbour.  Photo: iStock

What is it?

Preserved lemons are ripe lemons that are transformed through lactic acid fermentation and the action of salt into beautifully aromatic, sharp and salty slices of citrus. Washed, unblemished lemons are trimmed, sliced into quarters or eighths depending on their size, and covered with salt. They are packed tightly in jars and squashed to release juice.

More juice is added to ensure the lemons are covered. The jars are closed and sat out at room temperature for several days to help kickstart the lactic acid fermentation. Meanwhile, the salt draws liquid from the lemon and helps create an environment in which the pectin from the rind and pith thickens the liquid. 

Neil Perry's braised lamb, peas and preserved lemon.
Neil Perry's braised lamb, peas and preserved lemon. Photo: William Meppem

Most commonly associated with North African and Middle Eastern cuisine, the art of pickling lemons was not unknown to 17th-century Britons, who called them leems. Small lemons are pickled for traditional medicine and culinary uses in China and Vietnam, where they are called chanh muoi and made into salty lemonade.

Why do we love it?

Perhaps because they are so easy to make at home using very simple recipes and equipment. A jar of homemade preserved lemons also makes a great gift for a friend or neighbour. With their bright colour, sweet and salty tang, and smooth citrus aroma, they give dishes a bright hit of summer, even in the depths of winter. Preserved lemons have lengthy storage capacity and will last for years, slowly deepening in colour, the rind becoming softer and softer and the flavours mellowing out.

Who uses it?

Michael James, baker and author says: "A few years ago, we had a glut of lemons. The most obvious thing was to preserve them for the months and even years ahead. We recently finished off a jar from back then and it was so good – umami, salty, acidic, mellow and sour all at once."

In his new book All Day Baking, he gives recipes for kangaroo, preserved lemon, prune and sweet potato pie. He also gives us a rye puff pastry pithivier with mushrooms and flecks of preserved lemon plus a recipe for light and crunchy focaccia with olives, rosemary and preserved lemon for extra tang.

Michael James says the pulp and skin are useful in the kitchen, from salads and sauces to braises and mayonnaise. "The juice will thicken over time and is wonderful in dressings or simply mixed with a little olive oil over pasta," he says. In the second edition of The Cook's Companion, (the one with the striped cover), Stephanie Alexander presents a beautiful recipe for Moroccan-inspired chicken, with chickpeas, swedes, pumpkin, saffron and cumin slowly cooked to make a rich gravy that is finished with coriander and pieces of preserved lemon.

How do you use it?

With respect. Preserved lemons are potent and can easily overpower a dish. Think of them as two parts – the pieces of lemon and the syrup that they are in. Use the lemon part as culinary punctuation, where small morsels can add a hit of colour, an acidic tang and a nice whack of salt. 

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Expect to use them in tajines, Middle Eastern stews, and innovative dishes such as cracked wheat, prawn, and lemon salad. Preserved lemons love Middle Eastern spices such as cumin, saffron and coriander seed, and legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and fresh broad beans. Preserved lemon is perfect with grilled and stewed lamb and chicken. You can add the syrup to dishes as a seasoning or brush over meats as they grill.

Where do you get it? 

With lemons in season, you can try making your own.  Or look for it at farmers' markets and food stores. The supermarkets carry good brands such as Raw Materials Preserved Lemons or buy Arabian Nights lemons preserved in Morocco from Essential Ingredient. 

After more than 10 years of answering readers' vexing culinary questions, Richard Cornish has turned​ his focus to ingredients. Suggest an ingredient via email to brainfood@richardcornish.com.au or tweet to @foodcornish.