What you’ve got here is called preserved lemons. Technically, they aren’t really preserved yet, as that takes time. But in a few weeks/months, a variety of fabulous chemical reactions will take place inside the formerly sour or boring fruit that you see before you.
Since time immemorial, we’ve trusted preserved lemons to do basically everything important to human life: mow the lawn, harvest the pumpkins, feed the infants, and mow the lawn a second time because holy buckets did you really just put a fruit in charge of your landscaping? You’re nuts.
Anywho, preserved lemons are a mainstay of Moroccan cuisine and are often found here and there across North Africa and the Levant (Lebanon through the Sinai Peninsula), showing up in traditional dishes like tajines or couscous. But preserved lemons are so much more than that.
When you age a bright, spicy, sour, yellow fruit in a wildly acidic salt brine for a long while you end up with something much more than the sum of its parts. Preserved lemons capture the very best parts of “lemon” as we know it but without any of the mouth-puckering sourness. In fact, they offer a very special treat in the form of the mysterious 5th sense: umami.
Sweet, sour, bitter, salty: these are the taste groups that we know and love. But umami, the 5th group, is what ties them all together. Umami is meaty, brothy, savory, comforting, and pleasant, and helps make imbalances across the other tastes unimportant. Think deeply cooked mushroom soup, bone broth, monosodium glutamate, black garlic, or slow-roasted root vegetables.
Why on earth would umami show up in a salt-aged lemon, you ask? I have no idea – I’m not a scientist. What I do know is that it’s tasty as all get out. As in I regularly drag half a lemon out of the jar, scrape out the interior fruit and membranes, wash the rind, pat it dry, chop it up into small bits, and chew them very slowly. What a treat.
I’ve made these preserved lemons classically with salt, albeit a wild admixture of kosher salt, smoked salt, Maldon flakes (which earned a Royal Warrant on their 130th birthday in 2012), Breton Celtic sea salt, and basic Morton non-iodized sea salt, plus a bit of sugar along with solid additions of bay leaf, cinnamon, and whole white or black peppercorns and coriander because that’s what I like and I am the boss here. They’ll be ready to use on March 1st (if you got them at Christmas) at the earliest. It takes a long while for everything to process itself.
It’s important-ish to keep the main body of the fruit below the fluid level; in these jars, it’s a mix of lemon juice and…lemon juice. It leaches out due to the salt/sugar maceration and is added, sparingly, by hand from bottled lemon juice when needed. From time to time, crack the lid and gently push the lemons down under the surface level. If you want to get super-attached to your lemons, you can poke a bamboo or steel skewer down along the sides to remove any lingering air bubbles.
In the interim, you can certainly store your jar in the warmest part of your fridge or the coolest part of your house. There aren’t many dangerous microbes that can thrive (or even survive) in this stuff, so don’t worry about botulism. Like most food products that don’t rely on extremely low temps for preservation, you’ll definitely know if your lemons shouldn’t be eaten because they’ll be criss-crossed with hairy filaments and will ANGRILY STOMP AROUND YOUR KITCHEN SCREAMING “IS DEATH MY PURPOSE?!” UNTIL THEY COLLAPSE AND DISINTEGRATE IN A TERRIFYING PUDDLE OF GOO.
When they’re ready, the lemons will be quite soft and very obviously changed. I typically do not use the fruit itself; rather, I scrape that part off from the rind, which is super-easy once they’ve had time to sit in the jar and think about their life choices. Many recipes call for and are rewarded by adding the whole lemon, but I haven’t removed the seeds and they aren’t totally destroyed by the ageing process so if you’re worried about chewing one up (they’re like lightly-roasted pumpkin seeds in texture), feel free to discard the fruit.
After a longer time, the fluid around the lemons will congeal and make semi-snotty globules. This is normal, or so says the leprechaun who sold me my first batch. It’s easily washed away with water.
Honestly, you can put preserved lemons on or in almost anything. We particularly enjoy them diced and spread on pizza (even frozen ones), diced and mixed into simple (or not so simple) salads, diced and thrown into grain dishes, or thinly-sliced (you thought I was going to say diced, didn’t you?) and rolled into sushi. They are nothing if not versatile.
The best path forward is to visit Google and search “preserved lemon recipes” or “use preserved lemons”. You’ll find loads of great recipes and whole lists like “Here’s What to Do With the Preserved Lemons That Your Mad Scientist Relative Gifted to You At Christmas”.
If you have any questions, do let me know. If you enjoy the lemons, I can send a quick primer on how to make more – it takes mere minutes of active preparation – so that you never run out. If you don’t enjoy the lemons, keep your damn mouth shut because I don’t want to hear it. Just pretend that they’re excellent and instead use them to strip paint or polish your car.