What Are Preserved Lemons And What Do They Taste Like?

Lemons are one of the most ubiquitous ingredients in home kitchens. Adding a pop of zesty, acidic brightness to both savory and sweet dishes, they're invaluable in a wide variety of cuisines and cultures. Preserved lemons, however, amplify the natural flavor of the lemon into something totally different. Not familiar with preserved lemons? Look no further!

Preserved lemons are a secret flavor weapon that often goes unappreciated or unused entirely. According to The Washington Post, preserved lemons are used widely throughout North Africa and are especially popular in Morocco. Serious Eats states that early references to preserved lemons go back to the 11th century, and one recipe can be traced back to the 12th century. Preserved lemons are really the sum of no more than lemons, salt, and lots of time. Essentially salt-cured, preserved lemons are beyond versatile: they pair beautifully with briny olives and are typically associated with tagines but also add a deep, unique flavor to cocktail bitters and desserts.

T. Susan Chang beautifully describes the flavor of a preserved lemon in her piece for NPR, poetically stating, "It's mellow yet intensely lemony, with none of the nose-tickling bright, high notes of the fresh lemon. The peel — which is the part you use, usually — is soft to the touch and satiny in the mouth. It's translucent, with a muted yellow luster when you hold it to the light, which I like to do just for fun after pulling out the pulp and rinsing off the salt."

How long does it take to make preserved lemons?

You can certainly buy a jar of preserved lemons from the grocery store, but of course, making them on your own is so much more fun. The Spruce Eats notes that any lemon will do, but Meyer lemons are a favored variety. Making preserved lemons is a bit time consuming, but rest assured that all of that waiting time will be well worth it once you taste the bold, deep citrus flavor. According to a piece in NPR, it won't take less than two weeks and may need a month. However, The Washington Post says that lemons cured for a month can hold up for roughly a year in the refrigerator. Those cured for less time may have a shelf life of around six months. So we think that's a pretty great tradeoff.

The method for making preserved lemons is as simple as can be: cut the lemons, pack sterilized jars with prepared lemons and juice along with salt (and in some cases, other aromatics and additions), and then let the whole mixture do its thing. The Kitchn notes that some optional flavor boosts include cloves, coriander seeds, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, dried chiles, and bay leaves. After a few weeks, they're ready to go — and you can even eat the rind!

No matter if you're enjoying homemade or store-bought, preserved lemons are an amazing way to bolster the flavor of almost any recipe.