Salt Your Lemons Tonight for a Punchier Dinner Tomorrow

The briny-tangy-floral funk of true preserved lemons takes weeks to develop. This shortcut condiment approximates those flavors in a day.

Published Feb. 16, 2023.

There are a handful of condiments I try to never run out of. Mayonnaise—homemade or otherwise. Lao gan ma (chili crisp). Good, strong Dijon mustard. Tajín. Texas Pete. Lime pickle. Preserved lemons.

But I plow right through the preserved lemons. Not just because I cook a lot of tagine (which I do) but because their intensely citrusy, floral pungency has so much range beyond their native cuisines of North Africa and the Middle East. Whatever needs a jolt of fruity, funky, salty acidity—sauces, seafood, grain bowls, sandwich fillings—preserved lemons just work. Which is why I occasionally run out. 

Sign up for the Cook's Insider newsletter

The latest recipes, tips, and tricks, plus behind-the-scenes stories from the Cook's Illustrated team.

It’s easy enough to make your own, but it takes time—6 to 8 weeks. After curing that long, the rind softens and the lemons take on this uniquely bright, funky flavor.

But if you need them for, say, tomorrow night’s dinner and your local market doesn’t stock them, you can approximate their punch and soft texture with this done-in-a-day facsimile. It’s based on a version from Jeff Cerciello, chef at Los Angeles’s Farmshop

Just as with real preserved lemons, you simply slice or chop these up, rind and all, and stir them into the food. 

Secrets to Approximating Real Preserved Lemons in a Day

These lemons lack the intensity of the real deal but still boast plenty of complexity thanks to the following three tricks. 

  1. Thinly slice the lemons. This maximizes their surface area so that salt and sugar can penetrate more quickly.
  2. Add sugar. A little bit of sweetness helps offset acidity and bitterness.
  3. Add oil. Oil helps soften the pith.

24-Hour Preserved Lemons

Makes 1 cup 

Total Time: 10 minutes, plus 24 hours curing 

3 lemons, rinsed 

3 tablespoons sugar 

3 tablespoons table salt

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil 

1. Slice lemons thin crosswise. 

2. Toss lemons with sugar and salt in bowl. Stir in oil. 

3. Transfer lemons to bowl or pack into jar, cover, and refrigerate for at least 24 hours or up to 2 weeks. 

4. Chop or mince lemon as desired.


24-Hour Preserved Lemons

You can buy preserved lemons at well-stocked grocery stores, Middle Eastern markets, specialty food stores, or online, but they are also easy to make at home.
Get the Recipe

Preserved Lemons

Lemons that have been preserved in salt have a bright citrus flavor, balanced by brininess and sourness, that can add depth and nuance to all sorts of dishes, perhaps most famously to Moroccan tagines.
Get the Recipe

Moroccan Fish Tagine

With its vibrant colors, punchy flavors, and straightforward technique, a tagine is just the thing to perk up mild white fish.
Get the Recipe


This is a members' feature.