Making preserved lemons at home is a simple and economical way to have a constant supply of an intensely lemon flavour for your cooking – all you need is lemons and salt!
Citrus season is in full swing here in the Land Downunder and because there are huge amounts of exceptional quality lemons, oranges and mandarines available in the stores, on roadside stalls and in back yards in most parts of the country – I’m making preserved lemons. Commercially, Australia produces over 600,000 tonnes of citrus per annum, with 76% of it being oranges and, because of our wide range of climates in this big country, we are able to grow citrus from winter through to summer somewhere or other!
Orange and lemon trees used to be almost standard in Aussie back yards and we are in the fabulous position of being in possession of two of the most brilliant lemon trees in the Adelaide area. These trees consistently yield high loads of good quality lemons with the bare minimum of care and water, providing luscious, juicy, golden fruit for me and pretty well anyone else that I can get to take them!
Lemons can be, and in this house are, used almost daily in the kitchen. Whether it is baked into something sweet, sliced up into a gin and tonic, squeezed over some fish, as part of a salad dressing, in mayonnaise, squeezed into vegetable water to stop cut and peeled veggies from oxidising, in jugs of drinking water or squeezed over smelly fingers after dealing with onions or garlic, the fruit, rind or juice of the versatile lemon is something that we rely on all year round.
Citrus fruit has been around for a very long time and the lemon is believed to have originated in Kashmir, making its way to China by 2000 BC, from there to Persia and on to the Mediterranean where it was first grown in Genoa in the 15th century. Romans used to use lemons to keep moths away from their clothes, lemons were served with fish in the middle ages as the juice was thought to dissolve any bones that were inadvertantly swallowed and by the mid-18th century lemon juice was being used to prevent scurvy in sailors.
Lemons are used a lot in my favourites – Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking – and pickled lemons are commonly found in North African foods. Preserved lemons have a very intense flavour and are a wonderful way to add an extra zing to salads, couscous, rice and, of course, any chicken or fish dishes.
With the huge popularity of Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks, demand for preserved lemons has increased and it’s possible to pay a small fortune to buy a jar of them, but it is dead simple and much cheaper to do it yourself. I like preserving lemons in two different ways – either straight up pickling them in salt and lemon juice, or preserving them in oil.
Producing your own preserved lemons in salt and juice is simple, but the quantities will depend upon how many lemons you have, the size they are and how big your jars are. You might need to wing it a bit with this recipe, but just remember to use plenty of salt – when you think you’ve used too much, add some more – and store them in the fridge, you should be fine. If any mould should grow on the fruit (and I must say that this has never happened to me), discard the jar.
- Lemons - as many will fit in your clean, scalded jars, plus extra for juicing
- Fresh squeezed lemon juice
- Table salt - lots
- Scald whichever clean jars you intend to use with boiling water. They need to be very clean, but probably not sterilised - the lemons are so salty and acidic that almost nothing will grow in them.
- Wash your lemons, then quarter them from top to bottom (not sideways), but keep most of them intact at the bottom. Place in the jars, filling the opened insides with loads of salt. fill any gaps or spaces in the jars with loose quarters of lemons, packing tightly by pressing them down (I use the handle of a wooden spoon to squish them down very firmly) and adding plenty of salt around each piece and in between layers.
- When your jar is as completely full as you can get it, pour in fresh squeezed lemon juice to cover fruit, chuck in some more salt and seal.
- Leave the jars out for a day or two, to let the fruit settle. Open them and top up with more juice so the fruit is covered again, then reseal.
- Store in the refrigerator for 6 weeks. To use, remove however much fruit you need, discard the fruit pulp - you do not use this - rinse the lemon peel to remove excess brine, pat dry with paper towels, then chop up and use as desired.
The second method uses olive oil to preserve them. Wash and slice the lemons thinly, layer in a colander and sprinkle with salt; leave to stand overnight. The next day arrange the slices in a sterilised jar, sprinkling a little paprika or a bay leaf, between layers. Cover with olive oil, seal and leave for 6 weeks before using. With this method both the rind and pulp can be used, as can the now intensely flavoured oil. The olive oil I used for the pictured lemons is a very green local oil – I can’t wait to try it in my cooking!