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How to Make Moroccan Preserved Lemons

How to Make Moroccan Preserved Lemons

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If you’re going to be cooking Moroccan dishes with any regularity, even if only occasionally, you’ll want to keep preserved lemons on hand.

The good news is that they’re surprisingly easy and inexpensive to make at home, requiring only two ingredients—fresh lemons and coarse salt—and just a few minutes of active prep time.

The photos and instructions below show just how easy it is to make preserved lemons!

Step 1 – The Lemons

The varieties of lemon used to make Moroccan preserved lemons are called doqq and boussera. Both are round in shape, golden yellow to yellow-orange in color, thin-skinned and fragrant.

Boussera, which sports a flat apex and prominent nipple, is the variety shown here.

A large wooden cutting board sits beneath a decorated plate full of lemons. Some of the lemons are directly on the cutting board. Next to them are a knife and a bowl of coarse salt.

Boussera is a variety of lemon used to make Moroccan preserved lemons. Photo: Christine Benlafquih | Taste of Maroc

Outside of Morocco, you’ll probably find Meyer lemons to be the best choice. If Meyers aren’t in season, look for Eureka.

Otherwise, use whatever variety can be found. Most supermarket lemons, however, will be more acidic, larger in size, and thicker-skinned than the Moroccan varieties.

I’d suggest buying around 10 to 12 lemons if you’re making preserved lemons for the first time, but there’s no set quantity. Wash them well before proceeding.

For every 10 lemons, set a few aside, then get to work with the bulk of them.

Step 2 – Salt, Salt and More Salt

Salt is the key to making simple, unadulterated preserved lemons. You salt the lemons. The lemons release their juices. And voila—you have lemons pickling in their own juices. It’s truly that simple.

To get the pickling-preserving activity started, you need to cut the lemons into four attached wedges. Do that by slicing the lemons from top to bottom without cutting all the way through.

Photo from above of two lemons which have been partially cut to make four attached wedges. The lemons are next to black knife on a wooden cutting board.

Cut the lemon into four wedges. leaving them attached at the base. Photo: Christine Benlafquih | Taste of Maroc

Pry the wedges open, but be careful not to detach the wedges. Generously fill each crevice with coarse kosher salt, then close the lemon as much as possible.

A close-up photo of hands and a lemon on a cutting board as someone adds salt to the lemon to make preserved lemons.

Fill the crevices of each lemon with salt. Photo: Christine Benlafquih | Taste of Maroc

Step 3 – Pack Those Lemons Into a Jar

Transfer the salted lemons to a clean jar that’s barely large enough to hold them. Purists will insist on using a glass jar but the plastic jar I used here worked fine.

Photo showing a quart-sized plastic jar with heavily salted fresh lemons packed tightly inside. The lid is off the jar, which is sitting on a wooden cutting board. A decorated plate with lemons is in the background.

Pack the salted lemons into a clean jar. Photo: Christine Benlafquih | Taste of Maroc

The most important factor aside from the jar’s cleanliness is size. The goal is to eventually have tightly packed lemons covered in juice.

If there’s too much room in the jar, the uppermost lemons might rise to the surface once they soften. Long term exposure to air is a no-no, so select a jar that truly requires packing and squeezing those lemons into place. That squeezing helps release some of the juice from the onset, which is a good thing.

Once the lemons are packed as tightly as possible, cover the jar and set it aside for a few days.

Step 4 – Add More Lemons as Room Allows

After a few days, the salted lemons will have begun to soften and macerate, creating more room in the jar.

Salt one or two new fresh lemons (or however many lemons will fit) and pack them into the jar with the others. Cover and set the jar aside for a few days, repeating the entire process until the jar is as full as it can be.

An open jar almost full of salted lemons sits on a cutting board. Three more lemons, partially cut into attached wedges which have been dredged with salt, sits next to the jar.

After several days there will be room to add more salted lemons to the jar. Photo: Christine Benlafquih | Taste of Maroc

This is what the jar looked like three days later. The lemons had compressed and released quite a bit of juice. I was able to squeeze in another three salted lemons.

Step 5 – The Waiting Game

When no more lemons can be added, cover the top layer of lemons with salt.

Make sure all lemons are tightly packed and submerged in juice. If they’re not, compress them further and add enough freshly squeezed lemon juice to cover them.

Overhead photo looking into the mouth of a jar packed with salted lemons, which have macerated and filled the jar with juice.

When no more lemons can fit, top them off with more salt and lemon juice to cover. Photo: Christine Benlafquih | Taste of Maroc

Close the jar, place it in a cupboard, and leave the lemons to cure for at least one month or for as long as a year. Thicker-skinned lemons will take longer to cure than thin-skinned varieties.

The longer preserved lemons are left to age, the more mellow in flavor, darker in color, and softer in texture they will become. This is a good thing!

Step 6 – Homemade Preserved Lemons

Here are the lemons seven months later. Quite dark. Very mellow. Very awesome.

Now that I’ve opened the jar, they’ll go into the fridge because I don’t want them to soften beyond this. Plus, the fridge avoids the worry of mold now that I’ll be poking into the jar occasionally.

Several preserved lemons in a decorated dish on a wooden cutting board. The lemons have been cured a long time so are dark golden in color and soft in texture.

Homemade preserved lemons aged until dark and mellow. Photo: Christine Benlafquih | Taste of Maroc

You don’t need to age the lemons to this degree of softness. They will indeed be ready to use after just a month or two, in which case they’ll be firmer in texture and will more closely resemble the lemons in the photo at the top of the page.

Don’t worry if an oily looking layer shows up on the top of the brine. It’s perfectly normal and isn’t cause for concern unless mold is present.

Rinse the lemons before using to clean them of the brine and excess salt, but be forewarned—preserved lemons are by nature salty,  and that saltiness will be imparted to any dish calling for them. Take that into account when seasoning stews, sauces, or salads.

Leaving Preserved Lemons Whole

If you visit Morocco, you’ll notice that the preserved lemons sold in shops and souks are usually left whole.

If you prefer that to the attached-wedge method, be sure that you have a thin-skinned variety of lemon such as the doqq, boussera, or Meyer mentioned above.

Close-up photo showing hands and a knife inserted into a lemon.

If you want whole preserved lemons, cut a slit rather than wedges. Photo: Christine Benlafquih | Taste of Maroc

Make a deep slit or two in each lemon near the nipple. Pack them into a clean jar with lots of coarse salt between lemons.

Every few days, compress the lemons to make room for another lemon or two, until no more lemons can be added and the top lemons are completely submerged in lemon juice brine.

Set the jar in a cupboard and allow time for the lemons to cure and soften. This will take a bit longer than the wedge method since less of the lemon is exposed to the salt. I’d suggest allowing at least two months before using them.

Whole preserved lemons and wedges of preserved lemon in a decorated ceramic dish.

Moroccan Preserved Lemons Recipe

Christine Benlafquih | Taste of Maroc
Two simple ingredients and a few minutes of your time are all that's needed to make homemade preserved lemons. In Morocco, we use salt and lemons only and do not traditionally add embellishments such as cinnamon, bay leaves or other spices and herbs. 
Leave the lemons to cure for a month or longer before using. The longer they sit undisturbed, the more mellow and intense in flavor they become.  
See the notes for advice on which lemon varieties to use.
4.75 from 4 votes
Prep Time 10 mins
Curing Time 30 d
Total Time 7 hrs 22 mins
Course Spices and Condiments
Cuisine Moroccan
Yield 10 preserved lemons
Calories 6 kcal

Ingredients
 
 

  • 10 fresh lemons, - for preserving
  • 2 additional lemons, - for juicing (if needed)
  • 1 cup coarse salt, - preferably kosher

Equipment

  • 1 clean jar, - barely large enough to accommodate 9 or 10 compressed lemons

Instructions
 

  • Wash and dry 7 or 8 of the lemons. Partially cut through them from top to bottom to make four attached wedges. 
  • Generously fill the crevices of the cut lemons with salt. No need to measure the salt, just use a rough tablespoon or so. 
  • Squeeze the salted lemons shut and pack them into the jar. Wedge them in as tightly as possible so they can't move around. Some juice will be released in the process.
    Close the jar and set aside for a few days. The lemons will slightly soften and more juice will be released. 
  • After that time, add as many more salted lemons as will fit into the jar. (This can be repeated in a few days if room allows.) Be sure the lemons are so tight that they won't dislodge as they soften.
    When the jar is as full as it can be with tightly packed lemons, add some salt to the top of the jar. If all lemons aren't submerged in liquid, top them off with fresh lemon juice. 
  • Close the jar and place in a cupboard to cure for at least one month or as long as a year. The longer they sit, the darker and softer they'll become.
    Once opened, you can store the lemons in the fridge. Rinse off excess brine before adding the preserved lemons to dishes.

Notes

  • Salt is an approximate amount. You may or may not use all of it. As the lemons macerate, the salt combines with lemon juice to make a brine.
  • In Morocco, preserved lemons are made with indigenous varieties called doqq and boussera. They are round, thin-skinned and sweeter than everyday lemons.
  • Outside of Morocco, select Meyer lemons. If they're not in season, then Eureka.
  • You can settle with whatever variety of lemon is available at the supermarket, but common varieties of lemon will be more sour. Plus, their thicker skin will take longer to cure. 
  • If using a small Moroccan variety, you can leave the lemons whole. Make a deep slit near each lemon's nipple. Pack into the jar as described above, adding ample salt between layers of lemons. Once no more lemons can be added and the whole lemons are submerged in lemon juice brine, allow them to cure for at least two months before using.

Nutrition

Serving: 1preserved lemonCalories: 6kcalSodium: 200mgPotassium: 6mgVitamin C: 2.9mg

Nutrition information is provided as a courtesy and is only an estimate obtained from online calculators. Optional ingredients may not be included in the nutritional information.

Tried this recipe? We'd love to know!Leave a Comment | Mention @tasteofmaroc | tag #tasteofmaroc
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Recipe Rating




Talma.

Tuesday 16th of February 2021

Thank you for posting. I am definitely going to make it. My question is, what exactly do you do with the finished product? Thanks.

Christine Benlafquih

Tuesday 16th of February 2021

Preserved lemons are used as condiments and to add flavor to Moroccan tagines, stews, salads, sauces, etc. For example, we sometimes add a few wedges of preserved lemon to a dish's sauce as it's reducing; the preserved lemons add a unique, mellow, lemony and salty essence to the sauce. One such dish is Chicken with Preserved Lemon and Olives. Sometimes the pulp of the preserved lemon is chopped and added to cold or cooked salads or marinades. Overall, preserved lemons are used frequently enough in Moroccan cuisine that I consider them an essential ingredient to have on hand.

Lynnette Mohr

Wednesday 28th of October 2020

I have done the lemons before, turns out great. However, I was wondering if it is possible to do without all that salt. My brother is very conscious of his salt intake. I assume it would be possible but how long would they last?

Christine Benlafquih

Wednesday 28th of October 2020

Hi Lynette. I'm not certain that you can cut back significantly on salt when making your own preserved lemons and get great results. What your brother could do to reduce salt intake from the preserved lemons is to rinse them before adding to the pot or dish, or use them only as a condiment at serving time. If you want to flavor the sauce of a specific dish, you can add a few wedges to the pot only for the last few minutes of cooking, then retrieve them from the pot and garnish the dish with them. If cooking in a tagine, place the preserved lemon wedges on top of the food rather than down in the base so that extra salt isn't added to the sauce.

S. Banerji

Friday 3rd of July 2020

Can any spices be added to the lemons after salting to give a slightltly exotic flavor? How about whole pepper, coriander and star anise?

Christine Benlafquih

Friday 3rd of July 2020

Yes, of course. I've seen versions that call for cinnamon sticks or bay leaves, and I'm sure a quick search will reveal other additions. However, in every day Moroccan cooking we mostly use lemons that have been preserved with salt alone.

John Denys

Wednesday 5th of February 2020

Thanks for posting this recipe. I tried it and am now waiting for the lemons to be ready.

Christine Benlafquih

Wednesday 5th of February 2020

Hope they turn out well for you! If you're able, please update us with your results.

Kath S

Monday 3rd of February 2020

I wasn't thinking and after I packed as many quartered & salted lemons, I filled the remainder of the jar to cover them with water. It was about a little less than a cup of water. Should I drain all water out of the jar? But then I'm losing some of the salt that's included. I hate to have to throw these lemons away and start over. what can I do?

Christine Benlafquih

Monday 3rd of February 2020

I don't use water (only lemon juice if needed) when making preserved lemons and would worry that the amount of water you used will dilute the natural juices and salt. Perhaps empty out the water and refill the lemons' crevices with salt. Repack into a jar and top with lemon juice and more salt. I can't guarantee that you'll have great results, but I would think that you have a good chance considering you're only only one or two days into the preserving process. Let me know if they turn out okay after all!