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preserved lemons

When winter hits, full force, my foodie mind turns to sunny foods. Bowls and platters of brilliant fruits (and vegetables) plucked straight from a Gauguin painting. Perfume-y spices from Morocco and India. And flowers, bright boisterous flowers dropping sunny pollen on the table.

Because that’s what my mind turns to, you’ll be seeing quite a few sun-drenched recipes here for the next couple months. Foods from Morocco, Spain, India, Provence, Italy, and  some island nations. I’m no authority on any of those cuisines – I simply know how I choose to cook, and how I love to eat, and I can’t resist the sharing when I stumble upon something wonderful.

A number of dishes will call for preserved lemon. For those of you unfamiliar, here’s what some chefs had to say about this well-loved and versatile condiment (also referred to as lemon confit):

 “…salt-preserved lemons have a strange and delectable flavor that utterly mystifies.”  [Nancy Harmon Jenkins, The Mediterranean Cookbook]

“…refreshing, tangy, essential to the cooking of tagines…well worth making your own….Be as liberal as you like, tossing them in salads and scattering them over your favorite tagines.” – [meat or vegetables stews] [that from Ghillie Basan, author of Tagine – Spicy stews from Morocco  and Flavors of Morocco]

Laura Calder, author of French Taste and delightful host of her own show on the Cooking Channel says:  “I don’t make tagines that often, so I have started flinging the lemons into other dishes… [Doesn’t that remind you a bit of Julia Child?] …Diced preserved lemon (and it’s actually the skin of the lemon you eat, not the flesh) is great with fish fried in butter or thrown in with nice fat chops to make a slightly exotic supper in a pan; it also perks up vegetable dishes.”

And here’s what Dorie Greenspan, author of the glorious cookbook, Around my French Table, has to say: “…soft…sharp…salty flavor…good with chicken and with meaty fish, like tuna and swordfish, they’re also wonderful with bitter greens and even beets.” 

Chef Eric Ripert of New York City’s famed Le Bernardin restaurant – “I add lemon confit to so many dishes—from broiled fish to pork and beans.”  He blends his lemon confit with butter to add a pleasantly pungent flavor to broiled fish. Before broiling, he’ll dot the fish with some of the lemon butter, then serve with more of it on the side.

~ ~ ~

You can of course find jarred preserved lemons already made – in some better-stocked grocery stores, gourmet shops or in Moroccan food markets. It’s very simple to make your own though, and inexpensive. Plus it kind of satisfies some pioneering itch inside, keeping your eye on that jar of lemons as they soften and mellow and transform themselves for your table. If you’re making your own, it does take about a month for them to fully “mature” – but they’ll last for perhaps a year in your refrigerator once done.

Preserved Lemons – or Lemon Confit

NOTE on the lemons: Because it’s only the rind you’ll be eating, it’s important (I think) to start with organic lemons.

  • 10 organic, unwaxed lemons (I prefer the smaller, thin-skinned, juicy and sweet Meyer variety)
  • 10 Tablespoons sea salt
  • the juice of 3 to 4 lemons, though possibly more (this juice doesn’t get used until day 3 or 4)


  • OPTIONAL: I like to add to each jar 1 or 2 bay leaves, several allspice berries, and 5 or six pink (or several black) peppercorns.

Wash (and then dry) your lemons and sterilize a quart-sized jar and lid.

(You have options on how to cut the lemons. Cutting in half cross-wise, or making longitudinal cuts from the top to about ¾ of the way to the bottom. I now prefer the latter way, so I’ll give instructions accordingly, though the photo below doesn’t agree.)

Cut the stem end and tips off of each lemon, top and bottom, avoid cutting into the lemon’s flesh. Standing the lemon on its bottom edge, slice from the top  ¾ of the way down, as if you were going to cut into quarters, but leaving the base intact.

Stuff a whole tablespoon of sea salt into each lemon. Pack the lemons, right side up, into the sterilized jar, pressing as you need to in order to get them to fit. (The quart jar will obviously accommodate fewer lemons if using a larger variety than the Meyer.) Seal the jar and store in a cool place (not necessarily  the refrigerator) for 3 or 4 days in order to soften the skins.

After 3 or 4 days, with the lemons now somewhat softened, press them down until they’re even more tightly packed.  Squeeze the remaining 3 or 4 lemons and pour their juice over the salted lemons until they’re completely covered. Reseal the jar.  (I like to put a piece of parchment paper between the jar and lid so that the salt doesn’t corrode the metal cap.)

Again, store in a cool place for about a month, gently turning the jar upside down (and then back up again) every 4 or 5 days or so. (If you forget for a while, no worries. But do make sure that the lemons are covered with lemon juice.)

When ready to use, remove the flesh from the rind and discard. Rinse the preserved rind well, and use however your wild imagination (or recipe) directs you. We love these at our house – I can’t wait to hear what you have to say!

ps – best to use a clean utensil when fishing out your lemons so as not to introduce any “unwanteds” into the mix. Just be sure to keep lemons covered with lemon juice and these will last perfectly for quite a long time.

one last ps – one of the commenters suggested these as a food gift. i love the idea an thought you might too!

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wow, these look amazing! I have heard a lot about preserved lemons, but haven’t tried cooking with them yet, this recipe might inspire me to try making some.

    January 6, 2012
  2. What beauty! We must try. You make your argument with such joyous verve. How I love, too, the way you mix the seasonal with the unexpected, surprising “out of season” lift. Yay for lemons in January!

    January 6, 2012
    • You know Ashley….I mostly try to cook with seasonal foods, but in the dead of winter I can’t resist cooking them in sunny ways. Maybe it’s just a trick my mind pulls, but hey, I’m fooled.

      January 6, 2012
  3. I saw these used on a cooking show but missed the segment in which they were made. The next time I see Meyer lemons, I just might give this a try. Thanks for today’s lesson. 🙂

    January 6, 2012
  4. What a gorgeous, lush and inspiring post today, Spree! Your photos and your writing just elevates my spirits! I’ve never made Lemon Confit but your instructions will make it so easy for me to do so. Would boiling jars be necessary or could I just run them through the dishwasher??

    January 6, 2012
    • Smidge, so kind of you to say! As to your question, I simmer my jar and lid in a pot, but dishwasher-clean is absolutely fine. The more important thing (and I’ll add a ps to my post) is to use a clean utensil when fishing the lemons out, and to keep the lemons submerged in juice. You don’t want to introduce nasties into your pretties. That being said, it’s highly unlikely that you’d ever see mold or signs of spoilage on these. They hold up Very well. I hope you try! 🙂

      January 7, 2012
  5. I really should get down to making some – we have a lemon tree in the garden which flowers every new moon so we have a constant supply of fresh lemons all year round (and extras to give away!) but some recipes really do need the special flavour that comes from a preserved lemon. beautiful!

    January 7, 2012
    • I don’t generally envy, but Chica I do envy you your lemon tree! I vividly imagine what unending joy I’d get from such a tree! I kid you not! I’d be out there every day with an apron or a basket to drop the fresh-plucked fruit into; or I’d be burying my nose in those fragrant blossoms (a scent I adore!); or I’d be eyeing their little buds, willing them to grow. I suppose it’s almost pathetic how much I would love your lemon tree! But, oh, I would!

      January 7, 2012
    • I envy your lemon tree too!

      January 7, 2012
      • settleandchase #

        Me tooo!!! 🙂

        January 19, 2013
  6. Just how I make them, I cannot imagine my fridge without a jar ready to liven up a salad. cous cous, dressing, fish, the list is endless. Always welcome as a gift for any foodie. Are there any books on preserved lemons – if not there should be! Nice high key images 🙂

    January 7, 2012
    • Funny Lesley, when I wrote this post, I almost knew you would make them! 🙂 And you’re so right! With such pretty jars (antique and otherwise), what a lovely gift this would make! Love the idea. Friends and family out there, please pretend to be surprised!

      January 7, 2012
  7. I’m sold. These look just fantastic!

    January 7, 2012
  8. I’ve never even considered making this, but I have to say that I adore your photography in this one. It’s usually great, but the colour of the lemon shines through amazingly – so impressive, I’m a little in awe.

    January 7, 2012
    • Frugal, thanks for the compliment, but it’s true, Meyer lemons simply Are amazing!

      January 7, 2012
  9. I do love preserved lemons! Enormously versatile, beautiful to look at, and they bring a terrific element of the exotic (and a little surprise, sometimes) to nearly any dish where they appear. Succulent!

    January 8, 2012
  10. settleandchase #

    Even more sold – seems like just the thing to make in the depths of winter, to remind you of Summer flavours, colours and scents!

    January 19, 2013
  11. SOUNDS YUMMY! thank you for such unique ideas!!

    June 23, 2021

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