Once you taste these Ottolenghi preserved lemons and realize how easy they are to make, you’ll wonder where this deeply flavorful condiment has been all your life!
When Life Gives you Lemons, Preserve Them!
My husband once scolded me for telling someone a recipe using preserved lemons was really easy. Because, he concluded, who has preserved lemons in their refrigerator except you? The goal of this post is to change that!
I co-lead an online cooking community, originally inspired by the Ottolenghi and Tamimi cookbook Jerusalem, where we’ve been talking about Middle Eastern ingredients since 2013. Follow the Facebook page and join the Facebook group – we’d love to have you learn with us. But this Ottolenghi-inspired condiment needs to be in your fridge now, whether you cook Middle Eastern food or not. If you like citrus, this umami*-rich version of a lemon will wow your taste buds.
*(umami is a Japanese term for savoriness and often referred to as the 5th taste in addition to sweet, sour, salty, and bitter)
What are preserved lemons?
Preserved lemons are whole lemons, of any variety, that have been packed with salt and lemon juice and left to pickle in a cool dark place for at least a month. Over time, the tartness of the lemon all but disappears but the intense lemon flavor found in the peel remains, making this a deeply flavored condiment. Though very common in Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisines, this ingredient is a welcome addition to many dishes.
- Salad Dressings
- Grilled meats
One of my favorite quick weeknight dinners is to mix some preserved lemon with rose harissa and a touch of olive oil, rub it on chicken, and roast it with some veggies. Deeply, deliciously flavorful and so easy!
Are preserved lemons the same as pickled lemons?
Pickled lemons and preserved lemons are essentially the same thing – since pickling by definition is letting something marinate in a salty liquid. However, as Ottolenghi and others have figured out, if you cut the lemons up much smaller, you can create a quick pickled lemon that will carry some of the flavor profile of the month-long preserved lemons but in much less time.
What type of lemons should I use to make Ottolenghi preserved lemons?
Any type of lemon will work. While many use Meyer lemons – beloved for their less sour and acidic juice and more nuanced zest, they do have less acid and a thinner skin than other lemons. Some people prefer the thicker, meatier skins of lemons like Eurekas or Lisbons. If you use Meyers and want to add more acid to the jar, just use lemon juice from a Lisbon or Eureka lemon when you top off. If you buy your lemons at the store and suspect they are waxed, just give them a scrub with a vegetable brush after dousing them with hot water. You may lose a bit of oils in the rind during this process but it will remove the wax.
How do I make preserved lemons?
- Use the lemon variety that you prefer. (see section above) Most recipes including Ottolenghi’s suggest using unwaxed lemons.
- Grab a quart size sterilized glass jar with a lid that seals tightly.
- Cut a slit two ways in the lemon about ¾ of the way through it to create a space to stuff with salt.
- Use kosher salt, adding about one tablespoon to each lemon – more or less depending on the size of the lemon.
- Place them in the glass jar, squishing them in as tightly as possibly without smashing them.
- At this stage you can follow the Ottolenghi preserved lemons method and just close the jar and wait a week. Or you can follow the Mourad Lahlou method and add enough lemon juice to cover and let it sit for a week, shaking it every day to distribute the salt.
- If following the Ottolenghi preserved lemons method, after a week, add enough lemon juice to cover and any flavorings you want to add such as a spicy pepper, rosemary, or thyme. Whatever sounds good to your palate.
- Now wait 3 more weeks, leaving the jar in a cool, dry, dark-ish place. After a month, place the jar in the fridge. They will last for a long time except that you will use them so much, that in actuality, they won’t last long at all.
Do I use the whole preserved lemon or just the rind when cooking?
Most people suggest removing all of the pulp (and of course the seeds) and just using the rind. Personally I see no real downside to using the pulp if you are preparing something like a dressing or marinade. Also, obviously there is a saltiness to the liquid and the lemon. So either reduce the salt of the dish you are making or you can rinse off the lemon to remove some of the salty flavor. Taste it so you can gauge.
Is there a substitute for preserved lemons?
If you don’t have time to even quick pickle some lemons, try lemon zest and salt. Muddle them together in a mortar and pestle or on a cutting board, but only as a last resort. Preserved lemons have a lot more complex flavor than the zest provides.
What kind of salt should I use to make preserved lemons?
Use kosher salt. Not all salts are the same flavor-wise or texturally. Kosher salt is the perfect choice to make these lemons.
How long do preserved lemons keep?
After the one month incubation period, place the jar of preserved lemons in the fridge and they will last almost indefinitely, at least up to a year. And when the lemons are gone, save the liquid to either start your next batch or to put in dressings, marinades, and sauces or both.
What can I cook with preserved lemons?
The only limit to using these Ottolenghi preserved lemons is your imagination. But start with marinades, dressings, a topping for hummus or other dips, pasta, chicken, fish. Here are a few recipes to get you started:
Ottolenghi Preserved Lemons
Once you taste this umami-rich citrusy condiment, you'll wonder why you waited this long to start cooking with them.
- 6 - 8 lemons Meyer, Eureka, Lisbon
- 6 - 8 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 cup lemon juice approximately - enough to cover the lemons in the jar after one week
- 1 sprig rosemary optional
- 2 sprigs thyme optional
- 10 peppercorns optional
- 1 spicy red pepper optional
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
Sterilize your 1 qt glass jar canning jar (run through dishwasher, run under very hot water, use your instant pot) - just make sure it is clean.
Cut 2 slits in each lemon to create a well to put the salt in, being careful not to slice all the way through. If you do, no big deal, many people preserve quartered lemons. It will work too.
Add about 1 tablespoon of kosher salt to each lemon.
Place the lemons in the glass jar fitting them in as tightly packed as you can.
Close the jar and let them sit in a cool dry place for about a week. You'll notice juice beginning to accumulate in the jar.
After a week, open the jar, add your aromatics of choice - thyme, rosemary, peppercorns, coriander, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, a whole pepper - your taste buds can be your guide. Then cover the lemons and aromatics with enough lemon juice to cover them all. Top with a bit of olive oil and close it up. Let it sit out in that cool dry place for 3 or 4 more weeks. You can occasionally shake it about if you'd like. Then place in the refrigerator and start experimenting!
Some recipes for preserved lemons add the juice to cover the lemons from the very beginning along with the aromatics, another perfectly fine option.