I’ve met people who dislike berries, or don’t care for apples, but I don’t know a single soul who doesn’t love Meyer lemons.
Intensely fragrant, just a whiff of their lemony floral scent makes my mouth water. And their flavor is much more complex and sweet than regular lemons. They just make everything better.
Sadly, though, Meyers aren’t too plentiful in Portland. Oregon’s winters are just too cold to grow them commercially. But every January brings a fresh crop up from California, ready to be juiced into vinaigrettes, tarts and cakes, or sliced and baked along with fish or chicken. This is when I stock up, putting them to use however I can, and freezing ice cube trays of juice so I’ll always have some at the ready.
But there’s another way to preserve the lemons, and it produces an entirely different result. Just pack the fruit in a jar with a bunch of salt, refrigerate for a few weeks, and you end up with lemon umami.
Preserved lemons are an age-old ingredient of Moroccan, Middle Eastern and Indian cooking. As the lemons ferment in the salt, they get silky and soft, and their flavor changes and deepens, the tart notes underscored by a complex funk.
I used to think preserved lemons had to be reserved for Moroccan cooking, but they’re far more versatile than that. Yes, they add bright complexity to a savory-sweet tagine of meat and dried fruits (like this one), but they’re just as delicious chopped and added to salad dressings, sauteed vegetables, pilafs and simple pan sauces. I love adding them to mix of white beans and kale.
Although it’s more traditional to use thicker-skinned lemons for preserving, thin-skinned Meyers still work beautifully. But no matter which variety you choose, don’t procrastinate. If you want a jar of preserved lemons ready in time for Valentine’s Day, you’ll have to get started today.
Preserved Meyer Lemons
Makes 1 pint
You can keep these super simple — just lemons and salt — or add a few whole spices for even more complexity. Just be sure to use a sterilized jar (see note) and make sure the lemons are completely covered in salty juice. You can use the brine anywhere you want a hit of salty acid, so don’t throw it out when you’ve used up all the lemons. To use the lemons, you can scrape off the mushy flesh and either discard or stir it into the dish, but the peel is the real prize. Just chop or slice as you see fit.
5 to 6 Meyer lemons
Freshly squeezed lemon juice
Optional spices: peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon stick, coriander seeds, bay leaves,
Cut the lemons in quarters from top to bottom, but not all the way through. Spoon about a tablespoon of the salt into the lemon, rubbing it into the flesh, then squeeze the lemon back together.
Sprinkle another tablespoon of salt into the bottom of the sterilized jar. Add the salted lemons, pushing and squishing them to fit tightly, and sprinkling more salt (and spices, if using) between them as you go. As you squish, they will release juices, which is a good thing. If the amount of juice released doesn’t end up covering the lemons, add enough fresh-squeezed lemon juice to cover.
Screw on the lid and let the lemons ferment at room temperature, shaking the jar a couple times a day in the beginning to encourage the salt to dissolve. Wait a month before using. Preserved lemons don’t need to be refrigerated, but you can if it makes your nervous. They should keep for at least 6 months.
Note: To sterilize canning jars, bake in a 250-degree oven for 20 minutes, or boil in a pot of water for 10 minutes.