With easy access to fresh lemons, we don’t often consider preserved lemons. But they offer such a unique flavor that works perfectly in many dishes. So what exactly are they? Lemons are cut and pickled in a brine of water, lemon juice, and salt; and allowed to ferment in a jar at room temperature for weeks or months. Both the pulp and the peel of the preserved lemons are used and valued as a key ingredient in sauces and vegetable dishes that require a more subtle flavor than fresh lemons, or need a bridge to connect two otherwise disparate flavors.
Originating from the northwest region of Africa known as the Maghreb, preserved lemons have spread, to become an indelible part of the cuisine of all nations bordering the Mediterranean. A somewhat late arrival to the Mediterranean than most iconic ingredients of Mediterranean cuisine, lemons arrived in the west by way of Roman traders with India in the 1st century AD. The temperate climate of the Middle east was perfect for growing lemons. It is not entirely clear when preserved lemon became its own unique foodstuff. It likely originated somewhere in the region of Morocco, and spread from there.
Spain, France, Italy, and Sicily later adopted preserved lemons and used them in ways to suit their own regional flavors and styles. Lemon Confit is widely used in Southern French cooking to flavor fish, poultry, and to compliment salads, sauces, and stews. You can find preserved lemons in Mediterranean Jewish dishes, often prepared with cinnamon, peppercorns and other spices.
Try minced preserved lemons on a fresh salad, or use them to infuse your next batch of vinaigrette. Try them on grilled or poached fish, or add them to a marinade for chicken. You will be amazed at how a small amount of preserved lemon can marry flavors and mellow out strong seasonings in a sauce, rub, or dish.
You can also enjoy healthy benefits of eating preserved lemons. Like all citrus, preserved lemons are an excellent source of Vitamin C, and the brining process adds electrolytes, which is great for hydration.
Preserved lemons are widely available in Mediterranean and Asian grocery stores. If you can’t find them easily, or prefer a specific lemon variety you swear by, you can make them yourself.
1 O’Niel, //www.nytimes.com/1999/03/07/magazine/food-curious-yellow.html
2 Davidson and Jaine, Oxford Companion to Food