When Life Gives You Lemons...
  • ..make lacto-fermented preserved lemons!*

Image Lemons

I wasn’t planning on bringing home 15-pounds of organic lemons, but the price – $3.99 for 5 pounds – made them irresistible! Now was as good a time as any to experiment, recreating traditionally-preserved lemons, a flavor we discovered in Sorrento.

I had always thought preserved-lemons were only a decorative item, adding a splash of color to American-Italian restaurants, and nothing more.

Boy, was I wrong!

Lemon Epiphany

It took a trip to Sorrento, and a tasting sample offered by a shopkeeper – lovely little puffs of still-warm bread, slathered with a thick-layer of farm-fresh butter, laced with preserved lemon zest – for me to see the light.

It was a lemon epiphany event! Salty, sweet, bitter, sour – every flavor imaginable, danced across my tongue, a surprised, “Oh!”, escaping my lips.

The shopkeeper tapped a large, lemon-filled jar – there must have been 40 or more lemons floating in brine – with his modern microplane zester. “Most think these lemons, swimming in this very special brine in here, yes? That they are bella. They’re not for looking. They’re for touching. So you take home. You touch. You eat. You enjoy.”

Preserving Lemons was Practical

Popular throughout Italy and northern Africa, preserving the season’s harvest, a rich source of Vitamin C.

When it comes to making food, preserved lemons add a lively flavor-note from appetizers to desserts. Preserved citrus fruit have always been popular in the Pacific Rim, commonly salt-cured and eaten as a condiment, a technique which I’ll detail in another article. My purpose for this article will be Moroccan and Italian brined lemons.

  • Research Food Origins to Discover Traditional Recipes*

When researching recipes, it helps to first study the foods origins, in this case, the history of the lemon, which turns out to be a bit of a mystery…

The lemon’s origins are mysterious…attributed to many places. Some have speculated China, yet there’s no recorded history before the 10th century when two bottles of lemon juice were presented as gifts to the emperor, implying a degree of rarity. Lemons were featured in Pompeii, Greece and Rome wall-paintings and mosaics around 185BC, but none offers ideal growing conditions. The mystery remains.Cheap Eats

Image Moroccan Spices Researching traditional lemon-preservation methods turned out to be even more mysterious than the origins of the lemon!

First, I weeded out 99% of the recipes, most of them using modern, wasteful notions that the flesh and lemon juice should be thrown away! Others mentioned boiling the rind for 30-minutes in order to “soften” it, something that spontaneous lacto-fermentation will do very naturally, keeping all the nutrients alive!

I culled the possible recipes down to two traditional, viable options –

  • Italian – whole, raw lemons brined in salted lemon juice
  • Spiced Moroccan – basically, the Italian fermented lemons, kicked up a level, adding whole spices: bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, allspice, and coriander seed, mirroring spiced Moroccan foods


Names are sometimes confusing…

Image fermented lemons If you decide to strike out on your own, hunting down traditional lacto-fermented preserved lemons, they are known by a wide variety of names –

  • Naturally-preserved
  • Brined
  • Salt-preserved
  • Cured
  • Salt-Cured
  • Naturally-fermented
  • Pickled
  • Confit – A French term used for the preserving of meats or fruit

Those that utilize a brine, such as my recipes, create flavors reminiscent of the liquor, Limencello – sour, more mellow then fresh, without the alcohol taste.

When I asked my 14-year-old why the fermented lemons had become her favorite lacto-fermented food, she said,

“When you first bite in to the lemon slice, it has a surprising taste, different than what you’d expect. It’s tangy but sweet, all at the same time, with a bitterness that almost burns, although it is satisfying. I love it!


Lisbon, Eureka or Meyer?

Image Lemon Over 90% of the lemons grown and sold in the United States are the thick-skinned “Lisbon and Eureka” varieties. They ship well, store well, and have what we’ve grown to know as the classic lemon flavor.

Purists claim that Meyer lemons are the only appropriate lemons to lacto-ferment. My first problem is Meyer lemons aren’t really lemons, but instead, a cross between a lemon, mandarin or orange. They’re not as acidic, but instead, mild compared to Lisbon or Eureka.

While Meyer lemons (as well as limes and grapefruit!) would be fun to lacto-ferment, and probably wonderful for making a classic Italian gelato, I’m going to stick with the more common, easier-to-find, bigger-flavor true-lemons for that bright acidic, salty, full-flavor note available in all portions or combinations of its components, including –

  • slices of flesh and rind
  • zest from rind
  • whole rind
  • flesh only
  • juice
  • Combination of all of the above!

I fully expect my 3-liter Pickl-It, packed with over 16-lemons, will last for well over a year, unless, of course, the 14-year-old discovers where the Pickl-It is hidden.

Recipe: Pickl-It Lacto-fermented Lemons