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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.
The good news is that 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 and instructions below show just how easy it is to make preserved lemons so you can use them in dishes such as Moroccan Roasted Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Olives.
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 probably 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, unadulterated 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 from top to bottom without cutting all the way through.
Pry the wedges open, but be careful not to detach the wedges. Generously fill each crevice with coarse kosher salt, then close the lemon as much as possible.
Step 3 – Pack Those Lemons Into a Jar
Transfer the salted lemons to a clean jar that’s barely large enough to hold 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 new fresh lemons (or however many lemons will fit) and pack them into the jar with the others. 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. This is a good thing!
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 the 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 deep 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 them.
Aged Preserved Lemons
If you’re buying preserved lemons in Morocco, you’ll notice that some are bright golden yellow in color while others are quite dark, almost to the point of taking on a brownish hue.
The dark preserved lemons have been aged longer, are much softer in texture, and more mellow in flavor. Below you can see some aged preserved lemons as sold in a Moroccan market.
Which to use is a matter of personal preference. If I have aged preserved lemons on hand, which I usually do, I’ll reach for them first.
Aged preserved lemons are so soft that they might fall apart when using them in cooking. It’s best to add them to the pot only for the final few minutes of reducing a sauce or to place them on the serving dish as a condiment.
Brighter yellow preserved lemon wedges tend to stay intact when added to the pot and they make a beautiful, colorful garnish. You’ll often see Moroccan dishes adorned with strips of preserved lemon rind, such as this Moroccan Mallow Salad.
Either type of preserved lemon can be used in your cooking. You can age your own lemons as long as you like.
Once your homemade preserved lemons have aged sufficiently, be sure to try them in one of the most classic and famous Moroccan dishes: Chicken with Preserved Lemon and Olives.
Moroccan Preserved Lemons Recipe
- 10 fresh 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 released 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, you can 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 small 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.
Nutrition information is provided as a courtesy and is only an estimate obtained from online calculators. Optional ingredients may not be included in the nutritional information.
About the Author
Christine Benlafquih is Founding Editor at Taste of Maroc and owner of Taste of Casablanca, a food tour and culinary activity business in Casablanca. A long time resident of Morocco, she's written extensively about Moroccan cuisine and culture. She was the Moroccan Food Expert for The Spruce Eats (formerly About.com) from 2008 to 2016.
Monday 14th of November 2022
Hi Christine, thank you for your recipe! I lived in Morocco for 16 years and am homesick for the food. Hoping to make lemon olive and chicken with these. Do u have a good harira recipe? I lost mine. Thank you!!
Monday 14th of November 2022
Hi Mary. I hope your preserved lemons turn out well. And here's my harira recipe.
Sunday 28th of August 2022
I add them to a green salad. Amazing! I think adding very finally diced to deviled eggs would also be delicious
Tuesday 31st of May 2022
Can the lemons be cut all the way into quarters? I am wondering why they aren't. Is it for aesthetics, or some other purpose?
Tuesday 31st of May 2022
That's a good question. One guess is that it keeps the lemon flesh in direct contact with salt while they macerate, but it seems likely that cut lemon wedges would preserve just fine since the salt and juice will combine to make a brine anyway. I might try it the next time I make preserved lemons.
Monday 28th of March 2022
Thank you for posting this recipe. I live in southern Spain and have a lemon tree and also a lemonquat (small lemons which we even eat raw, finely sliced, in salads). When in Morocco we always bought the preserved lemons and used them in many dishes. They are one of my favourite souvenirs! Especially because they are so nice and yellow! My own lemons will always turn brownish with time, even when kept in the dark. Is there a special ingredient used in Morocco to keep the yellow colour? I hope you will still see this question that I have not found an answer to for years......
Monday 28th of March 2022
Hi Barbara. The preserved lemons will turn quite dark the longer they age. I've added two images to the post which show this. As long as your own darkened preserved lemons don't taste or look moldy, they should be fine to use. I actually prefer the flavor of dark, aged lemons in my own cooking but bright yellow preserved lemons look prettier as a garnish.
Wednesday 17th of November 2021
Hello, thanks for the recipe. I made them and the dishes taste awesome now. The questions I have: do I use the whole lemon or just the peel?, after they are done, can I chop the lemons and transfer to a smaller jars to give them as a gift or they need to be left whole and together in the big jar?
Wednesday 17th of November 2021
You'll see different cooks doing different things. For tagines and stews, I use quartered wedges with the pulp still intact (I remove the seeds). The more aged the lemons, the less time they need to be in the reducing sauce to impart their flavor, so they should be added only at the end. As soon as enough lemony, salty flavor is in the sauce, you can remove the preserved lemons and add them back to the dish as a garnish at serving time. Sometimes the pulp of very aged preserved lemons just falls apart, so you can scrape it off and discard it (or reserve to chop and add to salads, marinades, etc.,) and use only the peel. And sometimes we finely chop the preserved lemon peel to use in salads and other dishes, but I personally don't usually enjoy the lemons that way.
I'm not sure that I'd chop the preserved lemons before giving them as a gift. Do you mean quarter them completely? In any event, you can transfer the preserved lemons to smaller jars to share with others, but since they've been disturbed, I recommend storing in the fridge. You can also plan from the beginning to make multiple small jars for gift giving, then the lemons can continue to age in a cupboard even after you give them to someone else.