Lately I have been seeing signs of spring. Plants are flowering all over our neighborhood, and yesterday as I walked by the local park I saw daffodils and magnolias smiling through the rain. I have not lived in a climate this mild for a while, but when you live somewhere as rainy as the Pacific Northwest, any signs that hint at future sunshine are heartening!
This time of year I yearn for sunshine. And sometimes, I have to take my sunshine in forms other than the kind that comes from the real sun. Sometimes a plump cheerful lemon is all I need to gain back my sunny disposition on a damp day. Days that feel gloomy are great days to make lacto-fermented lemons (preserved lemons).
Lacto-fermented lemons are an easy and fun project you can make with your kids. Within three weeks, you can begin to enjoy little bites of lemony sunshine in your salads, on top of fish, chicken, soups, or tucked into savory pancakes… the possibilities are endless!
What are lacto-fermented lemons?
People around the world have been making lacto-fermented lemons since ancient times, as a way to keep the perishable citrus fruits beyond growing season. You may have had a Moroccan Chicken Tagine with lacto-fermented lemons, or been surprised by the salty twinge of a Vietnamese lemonade. Or maybe you’ve enjoyed the spicy preserved lemon condiment that often comes with Indian samosas and naan.
Lacto-fermented lemons are made through a process know as lacto-fermentation. This is done by the anaerobic bacteria, lactobacillus, which convert sugars in the food to lactic acid, which in turn prevents bad bacteria from growing and allows the lactobacillus to flourish. The fermentation process can increase the availability of vitamins and enzymes in a food, and can make a food more digestible. It is for this reason that some people can eat yogurt or drink milk kefir, but cannot drink unfermented milk. Most every culture in the world has traditional lacto-fermented foods, whether they are fish, meat, grain, vegetable, or milk fermentations.
How do you make lacto-fermented lemons?
We fermented our lemons in a salt brine with the juice from the lemons. This is a good way to introduce a nice dose of the good lactobacillus bacteria into some of your dishes. These lemons provide a good salty, lemony, kick to whatever you use them on. In the past I’ve preserved kumquats, bergamot, and limes. All were good and offered a different flavor. Fermented Grapefruit would be good too!
If you make these, you can have sunshine in a jar any day that you choose!
- Salt (non-iodinated salt is preferable here. If you use iodinated salt there is no harm, just know that the ferment may form a white cloudy liquid as the iodine precipitates out of solution. There is no harm in this, it’s just not as pretty).
- Lemons, preferably organic (pesticides can prevent the fermentation process by killing off the good bacteria).
- Glass jar with a lid (cleaned and well rinsed to remove all soap, you can sterilize the jar by pouring in boiling water and letting it sit until it cools to room temperature – be sure it is a jar that can handle hot water without cracking. Any pickling jar or pyrex container will work).
- Filtered water at room temperature.
- Wash lemons well with water. You can spray them with vinegar water and let them sit two minutes before rinsing if you want to be sure they are clean.
- Cut a small part of the tip off the lemon where the stem attached, to create a flat surface.
- Cut the lemon into quarters without cutting all the way thought so that you have a lemon that is attached at the bottom, but separated into 4 sections. I cut my lemons here into halves and then quartered them (see photo).
- Add a tablespoon of salt to the bottom of the jar.
- Salt all of the exposed fruit surfaces of the cut lemon.
- Place the salted lemon halves into the jar until full or until you have the desired amount. We preserved 2 lemons in an 8 ounce jar.
- Use a pestle or spoon to squish down the lemons into the bottom of the jar. Eventually the lemon juice should cover the lemons. If not, more lemons can be squeezed to add enough lemon juice to cover. Alternately, white vinegar can be added, or simply add salt water (1 cup of filtered water plus 2 teaspoons salt).
- At this point spices can be added to your jar. Common additions include bay leaf, chili flakes or fresh chilis, garlic, mustard, pepper, ginger, cardamon pods, cloves, etc. There is no end to the possibilities and it all depends on your personal tastes. Have fun and experiment. I also like the lemons just plainly fermented without any added spices. The clean lemony taste it refreshing.
- Place the lid on the lemons and invert the jar a few times to distribute any undissolved salt. Then let the lemons settle and push them down below the level of the liquid.Leave the lemon jar on the kitchen counter to lacto-ferment for about 3 weeks. It is best to invert the jar and mix the lemon and juice every day or so. Be sure the lemons are submerged in the liquid after each mixing.
- If the lemons keep floating up to the top of the liquid, place a non-metal glass or ceramic lid or small dish on top of the lemons to keep them submerged. I often use a Weck glass jar lid from a smaller jar to keep the lemons below the liquid.
- If the lemons do float to the top and mold begins to grown on the exposed surface, simply scrape off the mold and throw it away, then submerge the lemons. As long as the lemons are submerged in the briny lemony liquid, no mold should be able to grow. The submerged environment is anaerobic (without oxygen) and will contain good lactobacillus bacteria that will outgrow any harmful bacteria.
- As the lacto-fermentation process proceeds, you will notice that the liquid in the jar will thicken. This is normal and indicates that the lacto-fermentation is moving along.
- After 3 weeks, taste your lemon rind and if it’s salty and sour all at once, you’re good to go! You can start chopping it up and adding it to salads and other dishes. The lemon juice can be used as well – spooned over fish or chicken, or added to salad dressing. Both the rind and juice are especially good uncooked because they contain the live bacteria that benefit our guts!