Preserving Lemons

preserved lemons

I first tasted preserved lemons when I went out to Ojai for a press trip out to the Sunkist lemon groves two years ago. (What a divine trip that was. Three days in Southern California in the midst of a messy Philadelphia winter.) By the time you eat a preserved lemon, it has little in common with the fruit as we know it. Strategically slit and salted, the lemons change character radically, until all you have left is a savory, tangy, yielding condiment that acts as serious flavor player.

And, as preserving projects go, this one couldn’t be easier. It’s just a matter of scrubbing, trimming, slicing and packing with salt. No boiling water baths or sterilization necessary.

Here’s how it works. You give your lemons a really good wash and then trim both ends to remove the remains of the stem and the little nub. Then slice them as if you’re cutting them into quarters, but not all the way. The goal is to have each lemon cut in four pieces but still attached to the whole. They always look a little like one of those fortune teller games we used to make in elementary school to me.

Once all your lemons are prepped, cover the bottom of the jar you’ll be using with salt (either kosher or sea salt is best). One by one, hold each lemon over the jar and spill a tablespoon of salt into the cuts. Pack them into the jar as you fill them with salt, using a bit of force to get them in if necessary. I used a 1 1/2 liter Le Parfait jar and found that it held nine lemons quite nicely. Spread some salt between each layer of lemons and make sure to top the jar off with a good pour as well.

Keep out on the counter for the first three days, giving the jar a good shake once or twice a day to help spread the salt and activate the juice production. If they aren’t producing a whole lot of juice, feel free to open the lid and press down to help things along. On the fourth day, take a good look at your lemons. They should be submerged in their own juice by this point. If they are not, top the jar off with some additional juice. Stash them in the back of the fridge for at least three weeks. After that, they should be ready to use. However, they’ll keep this way for at least six months (if not longer).

When you’re ready to use one, remove it from the jar and give it a rinse. Chop into tiny pieces and toss in salads, braises or grain dishes. I imagine it would be wonderful in this salad, in place of the braised lemon slices.

If you’ve bought or made them before, what’s your favorite way to use a preserved lemon?

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135 responses to “Preserving Lemons”

  1. Just wanted to say, “Hi!”. I was on the Ojai Sunkist trip, too! I was the woman who got really sick on the first night and had to leave a few minutes into the first presentation and missed the first night’s supper.

    🙂

    Love this blog, btw.

    OK, back to lemon preservation.

  2. What an interesting way to preserve lemons! I received a box of organic lemons from a friend when I was In AZ a few weeks ago. I have juiced, make lemon peel, candied lemon peel, frozen the juice, lemon cordial, and Lemon Curd. I will have to try this and add it to my list of ways to preserve lemons!!

    The lemon curd and candied lemon peels are fabulous by the way!

    bee blessed
    mary

  3. These are fantastic! You can also add spices as is done in Morocco. Very tasty with pork dishes, too. We live in AZ and are inundated with lemons; I’ve been using them mostly in (failed) batches of marmalade, but I’m planning on this, too, once I get the right jars.

  4. I should note from experience that this is not a project to be undertaken if you have a hangnail or any sort of cut on your finger. And in fact you may discover one you didn’t realize was there once you get started. 😛

  5. Can you preserve any kind of citrus using this method? I have about half a dozen tangelos that are a bit too seedy for eating and I’d love to try this with them. What do you think?

  6. We starting doing preserved lemon about a year ago, and as usual, we had to experiment. We tried the salt packing method, but also a brine method. Both worked, but the brine method produced a much more shelf stable product, and one that stayed clear over time (so a gorgeous presentation). We currently have a batch of Meyer lemons and some Cara Cara oranges aging, and they look so awesome!

        • Give me a day or so and I’ll find the recipe in my notes and get it up – maybe with a few pictures. I could probably just find the ratio, but I’d like to credit the source for the idea.

        • Sorry for the delay – I had to do some computer surgery to get at the hard drive… here are the numbers from my production notes, and a blog post will come soon..

          This was from another blog, and I cannot find the original source because of a computer crash. Credit to the orignal blogger – I’ll try and find the information as I can.

          Brined Lemons (1 quart)
          3 c water (good quality)
          scant 3/4 c. kosher salt
          ~6 well-washed lemons, cut in half to sixths, depending on your needs
          spices if desired (suggestion for lemons: 1 cinnamon stick, 3 cloves, 1 star anise, 6 cardamon pods, 1/2 tsp whole peppercorns)

          – load a sanitized jar with lemons and whole spices and press slightly to release a little juice. DO NOT pack tightly!
          – heat salt and water to dissolve
          – ladle the hot brine over lemons to cover by at least 1/2″
          – the original source then added 1/4-1/2″ olive oil, but I’m not down with that. I skip that.
          – seal the jar and store for 4-6 weeks in a cool dark place before use
          – I periodically vent the jars for the first couple weeks to release any trapped air.
          – I normally store at room temp on a kitchen shelf away from direct heat and sun. Mine look great after 8 months
          – Refrigerate after opening.
          – The recipe scales easily, just do as many quart jars as you need.
          – I find that the salt-cured version works, but you can get yeast blooms (still yummy, but not as pretty) and they do not store as well. The brine method always makes gorgeous jars with a stable, clear brine with extended shelf life.
          – This method is great for all kinds of thick peeled citrus. We’ve tried Meyer and Eureka lemons and Cara Cara and Valencia ornages so far, and I think I might try some blood oranges before they are out of season, and tangerines and clementines might be worth a try. Just don’t overcrowd the jars. We also change up the spices for the oranges – the common cinnamon, clove, nutmeg/mace, and peppercorn combo.

          • Tarc, thanks so much for taking the time to dig out that detail. I am definitely going to try it using this method. I’ve got some meyer lemons to preserve!

  7. I love preserved lemons. I like to toss a few cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, and maybe a chili or two in there. (Dried of course.) I have also preserved kumquats, grapefruits, meyer lemons and others. I find that they are MONEY in a chicken tagine for example. The peel gives a good dimension to the dish, the brine and the pulp make for an interesting seasoning medium. In fact, if you are so inclined, you can use the liquid as a sort of “lemon salt”.

  8. I have been wanting to do this since I saw Mark Bittman’s piece on it. My question is, what about the seeds? Should I remove them? Or do I sort of just deal with them as I use the lemons?

  9. Hey there, do you know anything about doing this sort of thing with sugar instead of salt? I wondered if it would work, especially if i did it in the fridge, but would like to know if anyone has tried it before committing the lemons.

    • I don’t know if sugar would have the same softening effect that salt does. I’ve done a bit of googling and I can’t find any recipes that recommend it.

      • “curing ‘ the lemons in a sugar solution or a high sugar to salt ratio will give you leathery, tough rinds. I don’t now what about the sugar does this but I suspect it is the same science that tells us to cook or soak our cut citrus before adding any sugar, when making marmalades.
        I make and use about 200# of preserved lemons in a year (restaurant/business) and prefer the brine method AND let them ferment. Scary at first, but truly the best result..

    • Sugar won’t preserve the lemons. Salt is a preservative, and it acts with the acid in the lemons to keep them. I suppose it would work for the short term, but packing them in salt allows you to keep them for 6+ months.

  10. I think I’m almost done with my own jar of preserved lemons (I did exactly this) — they actually lasted longer than the 6 months…in terms of not spoiling, that is. However, they have indeed lost some “structural integrity” — each lemon segment is more like a spreadable paste now.

    However, I don’t have a problem with that, as most of the things I’ve been using it for call for it to be chopped fine and spread on something; since it’s spreadable as-is, I just use it like that. (And I’m assuming that since I haven’t had any ill effects, that that’s okay, but I yield to wiser heads who know more about food preserving than I if you read this and think it’s a serious red flag.)

    One of the things I’ve used it for is for bluefish — people sometimes find that bluefish and other oilier fish are a little too strong-flavored for them, but this handles that nicely — for filets, lay them in a pan, spread a little of the preserved lemon on each filet and broil. Quick, simple, delicious. I also hit on a fantastic roast chicken and potato recipe using preserved lemons — you need a roasting chicken, cut up, a couple potatoes — maybe two or three — and a piece or two of preserved lemon. Cut the potatoes into chunks, toss them in a little olive oil and spread in a baking pan. Then cut the preserved lemon pieces into chunks and tuck them in among the potatoes, then lay the chicken pieces on top. Then add about a half-inch of water to the pan, and roast the whole thing.

  11. Keep those ideas coming! Have always wanted to try doing this with lemons, but other than enjoying how they look, have no clue what to DO with them.

    Thanks to all!

  12. Gonna try this with grapefruits TODAY!
    I’ve got 6 taking up space on the counter and juicing is always nice, but I’d like something different…

    If anyone figures out the sugar, let us know!

  13. So are these technically pickled lemon rinds? I’m so intrigued how something so sour can mellow so much. What is the difference between this and lemon curd? Could other citrus fruit be preserved like this–say limes? What about Meyer lemons? What else can I make with preserved lemons? Sorry so many questions–I just think there’s so much potential here, and maybe now I will go purchase that heirloom lemon tree I’ve had my eye on at my local nursery!

    • Well, they’re salt-pickled lemon rinds. There is a huge difference between these and lemon curd, though. Lemon curd is a spread made with butter, egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest.

      You can preserve other types of citrus in this same manner. If you do a bit of googling, you’ll find lots of recipes that include pickled lemon rind.

  14. Yes! My favourite. I am eating a soup with chunks of squash, preserved lemon peel, rosemary, and fresh fennel RIGHT NOW.

    I use the peel in basically everything– totally going to start using the pulp and juice more after reading these comments. Besides this soup, another favourite is tomato sauce with dried black olives, red pepper, minced preserved lemon peel, etc.

    Have you seen the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz? He covers lots more delicious lacto-fermentation recipes that are just as easy as this, and explains how the preservation/fermentation works.

    My guess is that sugar would be delicious, but would not stop the lemons from going moldy. You’d have to sterilize and seal it like jam.

  15. I made these last year and still have them in the fridge. They haven’t turned to mush. I think that I used an excessive amount of salt, tho. We used the pulp to stuff a roasted chicken and I have to admit that is the first time that I’ve tasted the lemon come through the meat. Totally yum! We also chop a small amount the rind into a simple tomato and cucumber salad. We’ve had so much success with them that it is rare that we go a week without pulling them out of the fridge at least once! I’m waiting for my new batch to be done. This year, I received some Meyer Lemons and am curious about how different these ones will be.

  16. ….i used to work at a rest. in nashville where we had them on hand all the time. It was SO good to me..to have pan seared chicken (from a local farm) and serve it with preserved lemons and greens. nothing fancy…but the salty bits and BRITE lemon are just great together…

  17. Can you help with this question? The lemons on my tree have a thick peeling. But my neighbor’s lemons have a thin peeling and are much juicier. Which ones should I use? I can’t wait to try this recipe?

    • Cathie, from what I’ve read, you can use either variety of lemon. I used the standard ones with the thicker peel, but I’ve heard that those thinner skinned, juicy lemons (probably Meyer lemons) also do very well treated like this. It might be interesting to do two jars and see how the turn out.

      • Thanks, Marisa! I did make one today with the Meyer lemons. VEry pretty! I’ll try one with the thicker ones, but I can see how it’ll be harder to shove them in the jar! Thanks for this recipe! I can’t wait to try them in a recipe! BTW, I love your site!!

  18. Thanks for sending this article about preserving lemons. I will definetly try it and hope it will be ready when you come to visit! I can see combining this with some cardamon, ginger, capers, artichokes, and corn starch to make a sauce the would be WOW! for a Chicken Picata Capri over rice…YUMMMMM!!! LYTEAB.

  19. We have identical lemon preserving methods. I prefer Meyers over Eurekas (or similar) for salt-preserving. I think they taste better.

    I use these all over the place. I think my current favorite recipe is sugar snap peas stir fried with a little green garlic and slivers of preserved lemon. SO VERY VERY GOOD!

  20. Hurray for preserved lemons! I just opened a jar I made a year ago. I used some in guacamole and then added about half of one, finely diced, to a yellow split pea with cumin soup. Yum on both counts. After a year on the pantry shelf (with no refrigeration) they are perfect. Absolutely no hint of spoilage. I think these guys will keep for a good long time.

  21. I just started a small batch of these, and I can’t wait to see how they progress over the next few days. Shaking the jar to distribute the salt and assess juice production is addictive. I’d never heard of preserved lemons until our friends mentioned a failed attempt to make some. Of course, when I saw your post and read how easy it should be, I had to try it myself (not that I’m competitive or anything…). I’m using two jars so I can give them one. 🙂

  22. I have always wanted to try making these. Actually, I think about making them everytime I have to bypass a recipe because it’s got preserved lemons in it and I don’t want to get in the car and drive the 20 minutes to get to the only store in my area that sells them. But then I forget about them. I’ve book marked the page so I’ll make them this weekend.

    I love the description about the Chinese fortune teller things we made in school. It got me from “Huh, how do I cut these lemons?” to “Ahhh, I get it.”

    Thanks!

    • Christine, I’m so glad to hear that the fortune teller description was helpful. I debated including it, since I wasn’t sure it if would be useful or more confusing. But it’s what I see each time I cut lemons for preserving, so I went with it.

  23. I finally got around to making these a few days ago but after thinking about it, I realized that I cut the lemons wrong. I cut them into quarters but left them attached in the middle instead of on one end (if that image makes any sense). Do you think they will still preserve alright? I’m now on day 3 and they’re almost fully submerged in juice.
    Thank you for always being so helpful!

  24. There are so many recipes for preserved lemons, and I am utterly confused. I just made a batch last night and recalled the question I had the last time I made them, over a year ago (yes, my preserving has gone off–now that my new (second) baby is almost a year old I’m trying to get back in the swing of things). all recipes say to keep the lemons covered by juice. But they also often ask you to shake things up, or invert, or something along those lines to keep the salt evenly distributed. Problem is, doing so always results in one (or two) pieces of lemon bobbing around up top, definitely not submerged. I have to re-open the jar to smush it back into place. But then I think, should I be opening the jar? Does it matter if the lemon is floating at the top if I’m just going to flip it over the next day?

    Yours is the first recipe I’ve seen to ask you to cure in the fridge–interesting.

    I make Mark Bittman’s recipe and I love adding those spices to the mix. Cardamom, star anise, cloves? Lovely.

  25. […] Preserved Lemons from Food In Jars:  a great simple recipe that requires no cooking.  I worked at a french restaurant in San Francisco for awhile, and one of the dishes I always was making were theseSanddabs a la Plancha with a brown butter sauce, roasted garlic, and preserved lemons.  These silly little fish gave me nightmares, since they needed to be perfectly seared on a flaming hot cast-iron skillet and it was a really tricky dish to execute correctly (especially if you need 5 or 6 orders of them) but man oh man oh man were they delicious.  Once my lemons are done I will definitely be re-creating this at home, away from the pressures of a Saturday night saute shift. preserved lemons […]

  26. I first had preserved lemons with cumin-y chicken stew and green olives, and can never get enough. I also love cured meyer lemons (the kind I make at home) in split pea soup, or in a chard, white bean and short ribs soup. It’s like a burst of sunshine in winter food.

  27. I made these pickles a few months ago, and I’ve found that the metal lid has become completely corroded. I’m a little afraid that the lemons may have rust mixed in with them; do you know if they are still safe to eat?

  28. Thanks for this recipe Marisa, I tried it out this weekend. I added peppercorns and bay leaves inspired by another recipe I saw, but used your procedures. We’ve enjoyed the quick preserved lemon before on top of fish to give it a nice perk.

  29. Lemon Ginger Pork Roast

    3 pound pork roast.

    Put it in a large roasting pan with plenty of room for vegies & fruit to roast along with it.

    Marinade:

    * Olive Oil
    * Juice of 1 or 2 lemons
    * Minced ginger to taste
    * Sea Salt
    * Thinly sliced carrots
    * Thinly sliced mushrooms
    * Sea Salt
    * Mix these four together, pour over the roast and refrigerate overnight.

    Vegies and Fruit:

    * Green Cabbage/span>
    * Tart Apples, such as Granny Smith or Pippin
    * Red Onions.
    * Cut into quarters or eighths and roast in the pan with the pork.

    Leftover Lemon-Ginger Pork Roast
    Chill and thinly slice the leftover roast. Use in sandwiches with fresh apple slices and mint.
    for more details http://holy-food.org

    • Has to be Meyer lemons, not the standard thick skinned ones seen in smaller groceries and throughout the year. Meyer’s will be labeled as such at the store. Organic or not is your personal preference :).

    • My Nonna (Italian Grandmother) from Northern Italy used whatever she could find in the store when she moved stateside. Did say to she used white vinegar to to do the first scrubbing and just plain water for the second.

  30. I was wondering, do you put a tablespoon of salt in each of the slits in a lemon or split a tablespoon amongst the slits?

  31. Hello:

    I am happy to see so many uses for my favorite condiment, preserved lemons. I give the recipe for my great grandmother’s method of preserving lemons in all my 5 Moroccan cookbooks, including Cooking at the Kasbah.

    The most important ingredient in making preserved lemons (citrons confits) is PATIENCE. Wait at least 3 or 4 weeks (with jars on a kitchen shelf) until the rind is soft enough to cut with a fork. Then you have a PRESERVE. Then, and only then, do you refrigerate the lemons. Lemons floating in water are NOT preserved, merely pickled in brine. C’est tout a fait different.

    Voila. Make lots of tagines! Bismillah,

    Kitty Morse

  32. I have been wanting to try this! Do you have any idea where to find those resealable swing top jars that you used in this entry?

    B

  33. I am a canner “LOVE”doing it. Makes me feel good when I get praises about my goods,
    but when it comes to cutting things and leaving them in one piece “FORGET IT”. I found a solution for it.I save all lids that will fit my canning jars so I don’t have to leave canning lids and rings on them in refrigerator. Peanut butter lids work great, put cut end of lemons or onions in lid, cut until you get to rim of lid.You now have a onion blossom or a quartered lemon in tack.Hope this helps others.

  34. I just discovered Pickled Lemons by Ziyad – I don’t know how similar they might be to your recipe (they’re pickled in vinegar – much like a dill pickle), but my favorite way to eat them is right out of the jar! : )

  35. I’ve made lemon pickle with salt and oil from Julie Sahni’s seminal book. They’re heavily spiced (asafoetida!! among other things) and we eat them with curries and dhal. We’re down to the bottom of the jar now, so maybe I will think of salad dressing – that’s a good idea.

  36. Just did this with half a dozen Meyer lemons, which I bought because I’ve only seen them at my grocery store here in BC once before, and they were a good price. Not sure what I’ll end up using them for, but I’m sure I’ll think of something.

  37. Have a big jar of my first attempt at preserved lemons on the counter as I type. I’m curious about the variation in technique in different recipes, however. You’ve suggested leaving it out for 4 days, other recipes say leave out for 4 weeks! I guess the idea with the longer version is that there won’t be much more fermenting once you put them in the fridge. Any thoughts? Is this one of those things where it’s more about getting to the flavor you like, rather than a hard and fast technique?

  38. Soo…we made salt-preserved lemons a couple of years ago (seriously). Obviously, we don’t go through them very quickly. Now that they are a couple of years old (and have been in a cupboard, not the fridge, most of that time), we aren’t even using them. Do you know any ways of verifying whether they are still safe to eat? I’d love to use them up, but am hesitant to do so.

    Clarification: I’m not really squeamish about “past date” food, and have been known to shave the mold off of cheese and just eat the good parts, so it’s not really an issue of it being “old” food. It’s mostly a question of whether or not there’s some nasty bacteria in there.

    • If they are free of mold and smell tart and briny, they should be okay to eat. With the amount of salt you add to preserved lemons and the fact that they are highly acidic, the chances of anything truly unsafe developing are extremely slim. If you’re at all uneasy about them, try incorporating them into a cooked preparation. The heat will give you extra insurance of safety.

  39. Oh my deliciousness! I made these a few weeks ago and just tried them for the first time last night…I have a new favorite thing! I used chopsticks as “spacers” when I was cutting the lemons so I didn’t cut all the way through on accident. First use of my tasty preserved lemons was to dice up one wedge and mixing it with olive oil, pepper and Parmesan cheese as a sauce for ravioli. Yummy!!!

  40. I was given a box of I believe Meyer lemons. They are the last of the lemons on the trees for the
    season. They are soft. Can I use these for the preserved lemon recipes? Please advise.
    Thanks

  41. I usually use kosher salt for almost everything including past lemon preserving, but I have a nearly full box of pickling salt, do you think using it to preserve Meyer lemons would be alright? Thanks.

  42. Hi, I’m wondering if you can give me advice on my first jar of preserved lemons. I washed my lemons, sterilized the jar etc before using. Added salt, topped with additional juice. Things weren’t quite submerged, so I topped off with more lemon juice. As they settled, there was still some on top poking out without liquid etc, so I threw in some more salt for good measure. I’m seeing a bit of, shall we say cloudiness, in the liquid and I’m wondering if that is to be expected? The lemons don’t look like an off color or spoiled, and I’m wondering if the slightly funky ‘thickness’ to the liquid is normal. I thought maybe I didn’t get enough liquid in to 100% submerge everything & that had caused it, but the more I’m reading about it I’m thinking maybe that’s exactly what is supposed to happen? I had gray sea salt on hand so that’s what I used and I’m thinking the minerals in that may be part of the appearance.

    • Cloudiness and some thickening of the liquid is totally normal. And certainly, the mineral content in the salt you used is also adding to the opacity. It sounds like it’s going exactly as it should!

  43. Nonna (Italian Grandmother from Northern Italy) always put a blended dollop on her toast in the mornings.Sometimes it went on pancakes and such. If she wanted is sweetened (which wasn’t often) she would had a small amt of honey.I am her child LOL. I quit making them when the kids left home. Might make a small jar for the memory.

  44. You suggest kosher or sea salt for these recipes. I am in possession of 50 lbs of Morton table salt. Do you think I could use it for this? *frantically looking for ways to use table salt*
    Thanks!

    • It’s fine to use that table salt. Just know that there’s a small chance of some discoloration as a result of the anti-caking agents in that salt. It’s not dangerous, though.

  45. I made the preserved lemons and am really excited to try a new preservation method. But I have a question. Other recipes tell you to leave the lemons out for 3-6 weeks on your counter before refrigerating them! They talk about a fermentation process that gets going. If you only leave them out 3 days that won’t happen.
    Have you ever left the citrus out longer?

    • Jill, you can really choose how long you leave them out on the counter. Some people like to keep them out until until the salt dissolves and the citrus softens a little. Other people leave them out much longer. It just depends on how funky you want the flavor to get (longer fermentation time equals a funkier flavor). These days, I typically leave mine out for a couple weeks before moving them to the fridge.

  46. Do the lemons have to be almost quartered? Can they be sliced (thick or thin)? or any variation of cutting them up? Every recipe I come across says to do it this way but I can’t find a reason. Does the configuration have something to do with the fermentation process?

  47. When you put the jar in the fridge after 3-4 days on the counter, do the lemons need to be covered in juice? I have a lot of juice but they are not completely covered. And if I need to top it off with other juice, can I just use organic lemon juice? Thank you!

  48. Is it possible to can these in a water bath? Or is that even necessary? I’d like to give these as Christmas gifts, but I don’t have space in my fridge for a dozen or more jars of preserved lemons. Thank you!

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