What Are Preserved Lemons? 4 Ways to Use Preserved Lemons

Moroccan preserved lemons are a flavor powerhouse, offering both the tart acidity of fresh lemons and a salty, tangy funkiness coaxed out during the curing process.

What Are Preserved Lemons?

Preserved lemons are a pickled condiment consisting of lemons cured in salt and various spices. While traditional recipes only use salt to ferment the lemons, modern variations incorporate sugar or fresh lemon juice, spices like black peppercorns, coriander seeds, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, turmeric, and dried red chilies or red pepper flakes. Styles of preserved lemon vary around the world, from North African-style lemons to spice-laden Indian pickled lemons.

You can use any lemon variety to make preserved lemons, with varying degrees of sweetness or bitterness, depending on the thickness of the rind and characteristics of the fruit itself. Meyer lemons, with their thin, aromatic skins, are a popular variety for preserving. You can preserve small lemons like Moroccan doqq or boussera varieties whole, but you’ll need to cut larger Eureka lemons into quarters to fit the curing vessel.

What Do Preserved Lemons Taste Like?

Preserved lemons have a tangy, umami, not-quite-sweet, fruity bite that satisfies two essential elements of cooking at once: salt and acid. Both the preserved lemon peel and flesh are edible.

Originally developed to extend the use of lemons past their season or ripeness, preserved lemons are now a sought-after ingredient in their own right. The bitter pith and rinds soften under the influence of salt, and the flesh and juice turn syrupy, transforming an already versatile lemon flavor into something more dynamic.

4 Ways to Use Preserved Lemons

Preserved lemons are a prominent ingredient throughout Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. While the condiment is most often associated with Moroccan chicken tagines, there are plenty of ways to incorporate preserved lemons into your everyday cooking:

  1. As a condiment: In some households, chopped preserved lemons are part of the standard line-up of condiments that accompany many meals. Slice up a few segments and place them in a bowl for easy sampling. You can also mix the condiment into accompaniments like olive tapenades and raita, an Indian yogurt relish, or pair it with the fresh chopped herbs in salsa verdeor chimichurri.
  2. As a garnish: Top toasts and tartines with a drizzle of olive oil and finely minced or thinly sliced pieces of preserved lemon, where their tart, salty flavor brightens creamy, savory ingredients like mashed avocado or soft cheese, like ricotta. Or, use them to garnish a serving of hummus, a Middle Eastern chickpea dip.
  3. As a seasoning: Add brightness to salad dressings and vinaigrettes, soups and stews, and marinades. You may need to adjust the amount of salt in the rest of the recipe, as preserved lemons will increase the saltiness in their own way. Taste and adjust as needed.
  4. In cocktails: Use preserved lemon as a garnish in a cocktail or add some of the pickling liquid to mixed drinks like Bloody Mary, which works well with a punch of funk and salt.

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