Preserved lemons lend a distinctive flavour to North African dishes. They take about 4 weeks to mature and can keep for a year. Only the skin is used - the pulp is scooped out and thrown away. You can use small limes with thin skins or ordinary lemons with thick ones. There are three common ways of making them.
1) Lemons preserved in salt and lemon juice
In this method, considered most prestigious, no water is used. 65g (2½oz) of salt is required for 500g (1lb) of lemons. This works out at about 75g (3oz) or 4 tablespoons of salt for 4 lemons.
4 lemons (choose them with thick skins)
4 tablespoons of salt
juice of 4 more lemons or more
Wash and scrub the lemons. The classic Moroccan way is to cut each lemon in quarters but not right through, so that the pieces are still attached at the stem end, and to stuff each with plenty of salt. Put them into a glass jar, pressing them down so that they are squashed together, and close the jar. Leave for about 3 - 4 days, by which time the lemons will have released some of their juices and the skins will have softened a little. Press them down as much as you can and add fresh lemon juice to cover them entirely. Close the jar and leave in a cool place for at least a month, by which time the lemons should be ready. The longer they are left the better the flavour. (If a piece of lemon is not covered it develops a white mould which is harmless and just needs to be washed off.) Before using, rinse to get rid of the salt.
2) Lemons pickled in brine
This is the same procedure as above, but instead of adding lemon juice, cover the lemons with brine, adding 2 tablespoons of salt to warm water. Lemons prepared in this way take longer to mature. Some people pour a little oil on top as a protective film.
3) Lemons boiled in brine and preserved in oil
With a sharp knife make 8 fine - superficial, not deep - incisions into the lemon skin from one end of the lemon to the other. Put the lemons in a large pan with salted water (the same proportion of salt as above - for instance 8 tablespoons for 8 lemons) to cover. Put a smaller lid on top of them to keep them down as they float, and boil for about 25 minutes or until the peels are very soft. When cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh, pack the skins into a glass jar and cover with sunflower oil or light vegetable oil.
The recipes above have been taken from a cookery book entitled, "Tamarind and Saffron Favourite Recipes from the Middle East" by Claudia Roden. We have preserved lemons using the first recipe (Lemons preserved in salt and lemon juice). We found the recipe was very easy to follow and the preserved lemons tasted wonderful.
Figure 1: Preserved lemons on sale at a fruit and vegetable market in La Goulette.