Preserved Lemons

I love preserved lemons. They’re like a sour, citrus salt kick, ready to be eaten straight out of the jar or tossed into salads. They’re also very easy to make, but you have to be patient and trust in the anti-microbial powers of salt.

What you’ll need:

3–4 lemons
beaucoup de kosher salt
more lemon juice
a sterilized pint jar
in an ideal world: a plastic lid (I’ll explain why below)

What to do:

Take your lemons and make 8 or so longitudinal cuts. You want to go almost to the tips, but not quite, so they’re still connected. Do this over a bowl so you can collect the juice. Next, rub the cut flesh with kosher salt. I’m talking lots of salt here. Now stuff the lemons into the jar. (As an aside: it’s not clear to me why you have to sterilize the jar, seeing as how you’re rubbing your fingers all over the lemons and then have to smoosh them to fit. But all the recipes say to do this, so I’m just the messenger.) Pour the newly collected lemon juice, plus the juice from at least one other lemon, into the jar. It might not be full, but that’s OK: the lemons will release more liquid as they age. Screw on the lid.

Now you wait. Just sit it on the countertop, or in a cabinet, and let it ferment for at least a couple of weeks. If, after a few days, it isn’t full of liquid, add more lemon juice. If your house is cold, like mine has been, it might take up to a month before they’re done. Turn the jar upside down every once and awhile (and put a plate underneath it so it doesn’t leak). Then start tasting. If when you bite into one it still puckers your mouth, it’s not quite done. It should be very salty, and tart, but not overtly citrusy.

If you want to get fancy, add some peppers or spices to the jar.

Now, an obvious question is: Why is this safe to eat? And, Do I need to refrigerate this? And, what’s with the plastic lid? The third question is the easiest. The liquid is very acidic, and a regular metal canning lid will eventually rust. That doesn’t mean you can’t use one, but be aware that you probably won’t be able to reuse the lid. The second question is a definite maybe. Some people do, some don’t; I do, to stay on the safe side. The answer to the first is the crux of most food preservation. The combination of salt and high acidity (from the lemon juice) discourage the growth of bad bacteria, allowing the tastier kinds to flourish. If you don’t use enough salt, or enough lemon juice, or your kitchen is too hot, you might get mold. If, when you open the jar, it smells bad, or the the lemons appear slimy, throw it out and try again. And in fact, this is why you shouldn’t add water to the jar if it needs more liquid: the water will dilute both the percentage of acid (from the lemon juice) and the salt in the solution.

So remember: salt is your friend!

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