Like Salt, Only Better

There are dozens of posts out there about preserved lemons, so to avoid redundancy I thought I’d take the idea one step further and share an idea I had a while back. Preserved lemons are an item that my pantry is never without. They’re easy to make and keep forever, and their bright, unmistakeable flavor is essential to a variety of dishes, particularly Moroccan. What I love about them is that to the nose, they smell candied; it’s impossible to tell that it’s salt that has concentrated their flavors rather than sugar. That sweet, lemony aroma permeates any dish they’re added to, but when the lemons are gone the salt that worked its osmotic magic on them has accrued a great deal of interest in the process. This may already be a thing, but I haven’t heard of it before: preserved lemon salt.

The process is easy. Wash and quarter organic lemons and pack them in a jar with salt and lemon juice and such spices as you are inclined to add. I like clove, star anise, cinnamon, and black pepper. Between the salt and the acidity, nothing at all is going to grow in there and over time they turn into homely brown crescents with a intense and powerfully illuminating lemon flavor. It works with other citrus just as well; I have done the same thing with limes and yuzu to excellent effect. Cover the jar, making sure the lemons are submerged in the liquid, and leave it in a cupboard for at least a month.

To use them, scrape the pulp off the peel and discard it. Mince the peel before deploying in soups, stews, tagines, vinaigrettes, or anything else. Rinse them first if you want, since they’re very salty. As your jar nears the bottom, make another one.

And once you’ve used the last sticky, slimy, fragrant wedge of glory from the first jar, pour the lemony brine through a strainer onto a silpat and pop it in a low oven or dehydrator (or out on the porch or in your car in summer) until the moisture evaporates.

Give the fully dried out salt a bit of a grind to powder it, and put it in a spice jar. The spices and residual lemon solids in the brine will caramelize if you dry it out hotter than a dehydrator (I did this in the oven at about 150˚) which adds another layer of flavor. I also ground this up with a little plain sea salt to tone the flavor down a bit. Other spices and herbs can also be added to obtain a custom mix.

The uses are infinite: sprinkle it on a chicken before roasting, cure gravlax with it, make brine for olives, hit some scallops with it before you sear them hard. Use a bit as finishing salt on lamb or fish, or sprinkle a little bit on top of lemon squares or tarts to give them a sublime salt caramel vibe. It plays superbly with ras-el-hanout or 5-spice in rubs. It’s a fabulous ingredient, and it makes something sublime out of the drab goop that we might otherwise pour down the drain; as with fermented pickle brine and whey, the byproducts of these techniques are often worth the effort all by themselves.

14 comments to Like Salt, Only Better

  • Another idea for me tostel now that Myer lemons are in season.

  • Eve

    color me impressed. great idea!

  • I made some a couple years ago, and wanted to love them but didn’t for some reason. I dutifully tried to make myself like them, tried them over and over, and finally let them just sit in the back of the fridge for more than a year. When I was in a fit of cleaning this fall, I finally ditched them, they were still fine I think, but had turned that caramelly brown. How come whenever I see something through your eyes, it’s better? How come I dumped those silly lemons?

    I’m inferring you don’t refrigerate them, is that my problem?

  • Have you tried smoking that shit? (And I do mean in a pipe. That looks just like the bathtub crank I used to cook up.) I want a full experience report, stat.

  • When you get them at Kalustyans they have nigella in them I think… maybe sumac…lovely orange bits… maybe faux saffron. Whatever they stay a golden color…never seen them brown before! I’ve made them often (resort to Kalustyans when I’m in a hurry). Nearly out now… will give this a try.
    You are a wise monkey!!

  • nina

    not sure I agree with this statement, “to the nose, they smell candied” but I also don’t put cloves in mine. However, I think this is a genius post, really cool idea. Thanks!

  • Love it! I never toss my preserved lemon juice, though, and I’m sure you never have either. I pour it in stuff. It’s salty, tart syrup, great in almost everything.

  • Peter

    David: Mine are still tiny, but I have plans for them.

    Eve: You should try it.

    Rebecca: I don’t know; they definitely don’t need to be refrigerated. Maybe you just don’t like them. A little goes a long way.

    Andrew: I’ve had your bathtub shit, and it’s nowhere near this lemony.

    Deana: Saffron is a good idea, as is sumac. Must try that.

    Nina: To mine they do. Very candied.

    Julia: The syrup is good, but for some reason I like to dehydrate it more.

  • felice

    Congratulations from Singapore !! Enjoyed your blog & feel so much
    enriched. Thank you for sharing..
    My late grandmother used to preserve lemons too, she kept them for
    years and they get even better according to her, as far as soothing
    a sored throat ..It really did work.

  • This looks like a little effort for a long way – looks like it lasts and has innumerable uses in the kitchen. Heck, you could even give it in a pretty spice jar as a unique homemade gift to a fellow cook!

  • Peter

    Felice: That’s an interesting idea. I bet they would be good for a sore throat.

    Cheoy: It’s true. They last forever and make great gifts.

  • Oh my goodness. I’ve read about this before but have not tried it. Now I must. Love the look of that baked brine.

  • Brilliant! What I love so much about the various blogs I follow/ stumble upon is how they can open up a new way of thinking about ingredients and ways to use them. My city’s trees are loaded right about now. I’ve made a few pints of preserved lemons in the past. I’m curious how much salt (kosher salt?) you use for say a pint or quart of them.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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