If you’re going to be cooking Moroccan dishes with any regularity, even if only occasionally, you’ll want to keep preserved lemons on hand. They’re surprisingly easy and inexpensive to make at home, requiring only two ingredients—fresh lemons and coarse salt—and just a few minutes of active prep time.
The photos below show just how easy it is to make preserved lemons. A printable recipe follows the tutorial.
Step 1 – The Lemons
The varieties of lemon used to make Moroccan preserved lemons are called doqq and boussera. Both are round in shape, golden yellow to yellow-orange in color, thin-skinned and fragrant. Boussera, which sports a flat apex and prominent nipple, is the variety shown here.
Outside of Morocco you’ll find Meyer lemons to be the best choice. If Meyers aren’t in season, look for Eureka. Otherwise, use whatever variety can be found. Most supermarket lemons, however, will be more acidic, larger in size and thicker-skinned than the Moroccan varieties.
I’d suggest buying around 10 to 12 lemons if you’re making preserved lemons for the first time, but there’s no set quantity. Wash them well before proceeding. For every 10 lemons, set a few aside, then get to work with the bulk of them.
Step 2 – Salt, Salt and More Salt
Salt is the key to making simple, unadultered preserved lemons. You salt the lemons. The lemons release their juices. And voila—you have lemons pickling in their own juices. It’s truly that simple.
To get the pickling-preserving activity started, you need to cut the lemons into four attached wedges. Do that by slicing the lemons top to bottom without cutting all the way through. Pry the wedges open and generously fill each crevice with coarse kosher salt.
Step 3 – Pack Those Lemons Into a Jar
Transfer the salted lemons to a clean jar that’s barely large enough to hold the them. Purists will insist on using a glass jar but the plastic jar I used here worked fine.
The most important factor aside from the jar’s cleanliness is size. The goal is to eventually have tightly packed lemons covered in juice. If there’s too much room in the jar, the uppermost lemons might rise to the surface once they soften. Long term exposure to air is a no-no, so select a jar that truly requires packing and squeezing those lemons into place. That squeezing helps release some of the juice from the onset, which is a good thing.
Once the lemons are packed as tightly as possible, cover the jar and set it aside for a few days.
Step 4 – Add More Lemons as Room Allows
After a few days the salted lemons will have begun to soften and macerate, creating more room in the jar. Salt one or two fresh lemons (or however many lemons will fit) and pack them into the jar. Cover and set the jar aside for a few days, repeating the entire process until the jar is as full as it can be.
This is what the jar looked like three days later. The lemons had compressed and released quite a bit of juice. I was able to squeeze in another three salted lemons.
Step 5 – The Waiting Game
When no more lemons can be added, cover the top layer of lemons with salt. Make sure all lemons are tightly packed and submerged in juice. If they’re not, compress them further and add enough freshly squeezed lemon juice to cover them.
Close the jar, place it in a cupboard, and leave the lemons to cure for at least one month or for as long as a year. Thicker-skinned lemons will take longer to cure than thin-skinned varieties.
The longer preserved lemons are left to age, the more mellow in flavor, darker in color, and softer in texture they will become.
Step 6 – Homemade Preserved Lemons
Here are the lemons seven months later. Quite dark. Very mellow. Very awesome. Now that I’ve opened the jar, they’ll go into the fridge because I don’t want them to soften beyond this. Plus, the fridge avoids worry of mold now that I’ll be poking into the jar occasionally.
You don’t need to age the lemons to this degree of softness. They will indeed be ready to use after just a month or two, in which case they’ll be firmer in texture and will more closely resemble the lemons in the photo at the top of the page.
Don’t worry if an oily looking layer shows up on the top of the brine. It’s perfectly normal and isn’t cause for concern unless mold is present. Rinse the lemons before using to clean them of the brine and excess salt, but be forewarned—preserved lemons are by nature salty, and that saltiness will be imparted to any dish calling for them. Take that into account when seasoning stews, sauces, or salads.
Leaving Preserved Lemons Whole
If you visit Morocco, you’ll notice that the preserved lemons sold in shops and souks are usually left whole. If you prefer that to the attached-wedge method, be sure that you have a thin-skinned variety of lemon such as the doqq, boussera or Meyer mentioned above.
Make a slit or two in each lemon near the nipple. Pack them into a clean jar with lots of coarse salt between lemons. Every few days, compress the lemons to make room for another lemon or two, until no more lemons can be added and the top lemons are completely submerged in lemon juice brine. Set the jar in a cupboard and allow time for the lemons to cure and soften. This will take a bit longer than the wedge method since less of the lemon is exposed to the salt. I’d suggest allowing at least two months before using.
Homemade Preserved Lemons Recipe
- 10 lemons, for preserving
- 2 additional lemons, for juicing (if needed)
- 1 cup coarse salt, preferably kosher
- 1 clean jar, barely large enough to accommodate 9 or 10 compressed lemons
- Wash and dry 7 or 8 of the lemons. Partially cut through them from top to bottom to make four attached wedges.
- Generously fill the crevices of the cut lemons with salt. No need to measure the salt, just use a rough tablespoon or so.
- Squeeze the salted lemons shut and pack them into the jar. Wedge them in as tightly as possible so they can't move around. Some juice will be squeezed out in the process.
- Close the jar and set aside for a few days. The lemons will slightly soften and more juice will be released.
- After that time, add as many more salted lemons as will fit into the jar. (This can be repeated in a few days if room allows.) Be sure the lemons are so tight that they won't dislodge as they soften.
- When the jar is as full as it can be with tightly packed lemons, add some salt to the top of the jar. If all lemons aren't submerged in liquid, top them off with fresh lemon juice.
- Close the jar and place in a cupboard to cure for at least one month or as long as a year. The longer they sit, the darker and softer they'll become.
- Once opened, store the lemons in the fridge. Rinse off excess brine before adding the preserved lemons to dishes.
- Salt is an approximate amount. You may or may not use all of it. As the lemons macerate, the salt combines with lemon juice to make a brine.
- In Morocco, preserved lemons are made with indigenous varieties called doqq and boussera. They are round, thin-skinned and sweeter than everyday lemons.
- Outside of Morocco, select Meyer lemons. If they're not in season, then Eureka.
- You can settle with whatever variety of lemon is available at the supermarket, but common varieties of lemon will be more sour. Plus, their thicker skin will take longer to cure.
- If using a Moroccan variety, you can leave the lemons whole. Make a deep slit near each lemon's nipple. Pack into the jar as described above, adding ample salt between layers of lemons. Once no more lemons can be added and the whole lemons are submerged in lemon juice brine, allow them to cure for at least two months before using.