Preserved Lemons

If you’ve followed the HGN Blog for some time now, you maybe noticed my love for lemon. From the delicate shavings of zest to its fresh tart juice, lemon is a kitchen constant, bringing life and character to savory dishes, sweet treats and everything in between. Learning the technique of preserving lemons took things to a whole new level.

Before the advent of modern refrigeration, consistently hot and arid regions of the world turned to simple, ingenious preservation methods to deal with a scarcity and short lifespan of fresh ingredients. In areas surrounding the Mediterranean, one of the first on record is brining lemons in a mixture of salt, their own juices and a bit of water. This process not only increases “shelf-life,” it also yields softer fruit with far less of the usual puckery bite, offering a wider variety of culinary uses.

If there’s one thing I love more than lemons, it’s kitchen frugality!

Preserved lemon prep_HGN

Preserved lemons are a staple in Middle Eastern and North African cuisines, and thus are easily procured from Mediterranean and some Asian markets. You can also find them at specialty food stores, and even at the larger supermarket chains. But they typically aren’t cheap.

Save your money and a trip — it’s easy to make your own preserved lemons at home.

The process does require a bit of advance planning to allow for about two weeks of rest. Other than that, the prep is quick, the tools required are few, and the ingredients list is short.

Preserved lemons jar_HGN

For one small batch: a sharp knife, a clean pint jar with a tightly sealing lid, a small bowl, small saucepan, 2 large lemons, 2 tablespoons kosher salt, and water. You have all of those at home right now, don’t you?

Even though preserved lemons are more of a condiment than a food you snack on or otherwise eat in large quantities, their health-promoting benefits are many. Of particular interest is the fact that the entire lemon, not only the juice, flesh and outermost portion of the skin, can be eaten, providing even more valuable nutrition.

What’s in it for me?

Lemons are high in vitamin C and potassium. In addition to its importance for immunity and skin health, vitamin C has potent antioxidant properties to neutralize free radicals and protect cells and blood vessels from damage and inflammation, while potassium stimulates brain and nerve function and helps control blood pressure.

Studies have shown that regular moderate intake of soluble pectin fiber — found predominantly in the peel — promotes long-lasting fullness, can lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and decrease risk of atherosclerosis, heart disease and diabetes.

Limonene is a type of phytochemical (beneficial plant compounds) concentrated in citrus fruit. Limonene is currently being studied for anti-carcinogenic properties, specifically its potential ability to prevent growth and spread of human colon and breast cancer cells.

Don’t feel pigeon-holed to Moroccan tagines, Middle Eastern stews or other Mediterranean-inspired recipes. Preserved lemons will impart a bright, salty complexity and whole new depth of lemony tang to any dish that needs a bump of flavor.

After my batch finished preserving a bit ago, they were featured in vinaigrette, a truly unique and delicious tomato salad, and have a date with pizza later this week. For more background and tips on how to put them to use in your own kitchen, head to NPR. Then, head to the kitchen and set in on your own preserved lemons to keep the spirit of Mediterranean Diet Month alive throughout the year!

Cheers, Heather

Tell me… Are you familiar with preserved lemons? Any unique uses to share?

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Preserved Lemons
 
Prep Time
Cook Time
Total Time
 
Author:
Recipe Type: Fruit, condiment, preserving
Makes: 2 preserved lemons
Ingredients
  • 2 large lemons, cleaned very well under hot water with a scrub brush, patted dry (see HGN Notes)
  • 2 Tbsp kosher salt
Method
  1. Heat 1 cup of water in a small saucepan on the stove. Once boiling, remove from the heat and set aside, covered, to keep the water hot.
  2. In the meantime, roll your lemons on the countertop with your palm, pressing firmly to help release their juices. Use a sharp paring knife to slice off a bit of the stem end from each lemon to create a flat, stable surface with which to work. Now stand one of the lemons on its flat end, and make a cut down the middle, stopping when you are about 1/2-inch from cutting all the way through. Turn the lemon 90 so the cut is horizontal/parallel to you, and make another cut, stopping 1/2-inch from the bottom -- essentially creating an "x" in the lemon. Squeeze the lemon over a small bowl to gather its juices, being careful not to tear the quarters apart. Repeat these steps with the second lemon.
  3. Stand your "x"-cut lemons on their flat ends, open them up slightly, and pour 1/2 Tbsp of salt into the middle of each. Don't worry if some of it spills out. Pack your two salted lemons as snugly as possible into a clean pint jar. You might need to use a the end of a wooden spoon or small rubber scraper to really jam them in there.
  4. Once your lemons are comfy and cozy in the jar, add the remaining 1 Tbsp salt, and press down on the lemons to release some of their juices. Pour the reserved juice in the bowl over top, adding more as much of the hot water needed until the lemons are fully covered, leaving 1/2-inch of headspace at the top of the jar. Press down one more time, wipe the rim of the jar and affix the lid.
  5. Label your jar with the date, or make note of the prep date somewhere you'll remember it, and leave the lemons alone sitting on a small plate (it may leak some liquid -- this is normal) for 2 weeks in a cool, dark place. Invert the jar a couple times every few days to redistribute the juices and salt, and move it into the refrigerator after 1 week. You can tell when they're ready when the peels appear translucent and smell citrusy-sweet.
  6. Preserved lemons will keep, refrigerated, for at least 6 months and up to 12 if care is taken to ensure they remain submerged beneath the brine. As a best practice, use a clean utensil to remove the lemons, and when returning unused portion to the jar. And always give them a quick rinse under cool water to remove excess salt prior to using.
HGN Notes
Some recipes suggest seeking out the more expensive Meyer lemons, and others will suggest using only organic lemons (because you eat the peel). Use either if you wish. I always use -- and have fantastic results with -- conventional lemons that are well scrubbed and washed under hot water. If you want to take it a step further with the conventional version, you can soak them for a few minutes in a vinegar-water solution, scrub, then rinse and dry well before proceeding with the recipe.

Your preserved lemons will gradually get softer and darker as the months pass. Do not be alarmed; this is normal.

As noted in the recipe, you should always rinse the portion you need prior to using. This will eliminate some of the salt. If the flavor is still too strong after rinsing -- or if you are on a low-sodium/sodium-restricted diet -- you can further decrease the salt content and taste by removing the flesh and blanching the peel in boiling water for 10 seconds prior to use.

Recipe adapted from ____.

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6 comments

    • Heather Goesch, MPH, RDN, LDN says:

      A nutrient-rich diet is an incredibly important part of cancer treatment and recovery. While preserved lemons do offer a variety of health-promoting qualities, specialized oncology nutrition is not my area of expertise. My recommendation is to seek the advice of an oncology certified registered dietitian and your care team to help you make informed choices about your specific nutritional and foods safety needs.

      You might also try posing the question to the Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Thanks for reading and writing in — sorry I couldn’t be of more direct help!

      To your health, Heather

    • Heather Goesch, MPH, RDN, LDN says:

      I wasn’t aware of such a thing until doing some Google-ing just now — apparently you can do a sweeter version. Though I will say that despite these being preserved in salt and juice alone, as mentioned above they do become less sour/bitter than plain lemons, with a faint sweetness in the background. It’d be fun to try the other way, too. Thanks for cluing me in!

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