Ask Peter: Preserved lemons
I have often read recipes that use preserved lemons and I have tried several times to preserve them with no success. I cannot get the lemons to stay submerged enough to cover them with liquid — they always pop up. Then they go mouldy! And do you use a mix of lemon juice and water? Thanks for your help, I really enjoy your column. Michele
Funnily enough, earlier today I’ve just been trying to get the correct balance of preserved lemons in a new springroll at Kopapa here in London. The filling contains sliced grilled chicken thigh, diced roast chorizo, halloumi and grilled capsicums. Head chef Jon and I felt it would benefit from some diced preserved lemon to give it a kick — not too much that every mouthful has some, but also not too mean that only every 10th bite has any — it’s a fine balance. At Kopapa we buy smallish Moroccan lemons (smaller than limes, actually) that don’t have a thick skin, so we dice the whole lemon instead of just using the skin and the salty sourness is absorbed into the rest of the ingredients. If we had plenty of shelf space we’d preserve our own, but unfortunately London kitchens, which are generally in a basement, don’t afford such a luxury.
Regarding how you’re making yours, I’m not too sure why there would be floating lemons, floating so much that you can’t top them up. You must never, ever dilute the lemon juice with water. Lemon juice won’t go “off” as such, especially when mixed with so much salt. The minute you dilute it, you increase exponentially the chance of a rogue bacteria deciding it can breed in this milder environment.
The classic basic recipe is this:
Sterilise a top quality preserving jar that has a perfect seal on it, i.e. don’t use the same sealed jar you and your great-grandmother have been bottling tomato sauce in for the past 60 years unless the lid and seal are near enough new and reliable.
Choose really good quality untarnished lemons — ideally these should be un-waxed (if you can’t get them un-waxed don’t worry too much, but do try). Wipe them firmly with a warm, damp, clean cloth. Cut any branch off so no “wood” is attached.
Cut them downwards into quarters, from the tip towards the stem end, but keep them in once piece —don’t cut all the way through — leave around 1cm of stem end to hold them together. Pack a generous tablespoon of coarse salt (not fine) into the middle of each lemon, holding them over a bowl as you do it so as not to lose the salt.
As you finish, pack them firmly, one by one, into the jar, trying to squash them into all “corners”, which will be hard if the lemons are too firm. If your lemons are huge then obviously it’ll be hard to fill a small jar, so choose a compatible size of lemon and jar.
Once all lemons are in and the jar packed, sprinkle another 2 tablespoons of coarse salt over the top and pour on enough fresh lemon juice to come to the rim of the jar. Tap the jar gently but firmly on a bench laid with a triple-folded tablecloth (to prevent it cracking) to remove any air bubbles.
Seal the jar tightly and place in a cool dark place for four weeks. During that time, gently turn and shake the jar every four or five days to expel any further air bubbles and top up with fresh lemon juice if needed, as air will escape from within the flesh and rind of the lemons, causing a space above the liquid which could bubble and spoil.
Once the month is up, I tend to test the top one and if I’m happy, then I keep the jar in the fridge until the lemons are used up. They should keep 10-12 months.
If you don’t have four weeks to spare, you can approach preserving in a slightly different way. Sterilise the jar and wipe the lemons as above, making sure no wood is attached. However, don’t cut into quarters but instead slice into rounds ½ cm thick and place in a bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of coarse salt per lemon, toss it all together and pack into the jar as tight as you can. Add the extra salt and top with lemon juice, seal, store in a cool place and top up with juice if needed. These lemons should be ready in around two weeks, so long as they were ripe and juicy to begin with.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.
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