Making Your Own Preserved Lemons Is Almost Too Satisfying

Preserved lemons are a marvel of culinary science, turning fresh lemons into something that will last in your refrigerator for a long time. Store-bought preserved lemons (like the ubiquitous Mina) gleam neon yellow in the supermarket but tend to be expensive. Luckily, making your own preserved lemons is so easy and rewarding that, once you try it, you'll never go back.

Some people use salt to preserve lemon juice for months, but it would be a waste not to use the whole lemon for your next fermentation project. Over time, the fragrant exterior part of the peel, which is typically used for lemon zest, will meld into the bitter pith below, which turns from white to bright yellow and becomes soft and edible. At that point, the entire fruit — peel, pulp, and all — can be chopped up whole and added to your dish, but remember to remove the seeds. Once you get the hang of preserving fruit, you apply this technique to other types of citrus fruits, from Meyer lemons to blood oranges, for a unique twist.

How to make preserved lemons

Making preserved lemons is so easy that you don't need a recipe. You only need lemons, lemon juice, salt, and screw-top Mason jars. Clean your lemons, then cut them up whichever way you prefer: You can quarter them, cut them into wheels, chop them into chunks, or divide them in half. The only requirement is that the pulp must be exposed.

Cover the lemons in salt and layer them in the jar, adding more salt as you go along. Once full, pour lemon juice to the top. After you close the lid, make sure the liquid completely covers the lemons. You can add spices like peppercorns or other herbs for flavoring if desired, but the lemon juice and salt are all the preservation process requires. 

Refrigerate your lemons for three to four weeks, and watch them transform into something completely different. When you're done, they'll be ready to use — and you barely had to exert any effort or money to get there. It is the busy human's most simple entry into fermentation.

How to use preserved lemons

Preserved lemons are popular in many Middle Eastern and North African cuisines, particularly Moroccan cooking. Perhaps the most famous way to use preserved lemons is in tagine (a braised meat dish), but this ingredient will add an extra salty, citrusy, umami boost to just about anything. Chop them up and add them to a seafood pasta dish, blend them into a salad dressing, or mix them into David Lebovitz's Lemon-Pistachio Couscous. You can even use them to make a tasty cocktail, like a preserved lemon margarita. Think about it this way: Because of its salinity, adding this ingredient is like salting the rim in advance.

Preserved lemons (or limes) can even be used to make a popular Vietnamese drink called soda chanh muối, a salty drink often used as a Vietnamese home remedy. To make it, muddle a slice or two of preserved lemon in a glass and mix it with sugar and sparkling water to create a saltier version of one of the most refreshing summer drinks.