Sassy, salty preserved lemons belong in your pantry. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post.
Lemons are flavour powerhouses. Their bright and acidic juice can enliven all kinds of dishes. The zest can deliver a concentrated punch of citrus, as well as a delicate, almost floral scent.

Preserved lemons, however, take the ubiquitous fruit to another level.

They're especially popular in Middle Eastern, Indian and North African food, though the cuisine often most associated with them is Moroccan.

"I'd go so far as to say that preserved lemons are the most important condiment in the Moroccan larder," writes Paula Wolfert, one of the foremost experts on the country's cuisine, in "The Food of Morocco." They are just what they sound like: lemons cured in a salty brine.

When Wolfert was first introducing American home cooks to Moroccan cooking, preserved lemons were an exotic novelty. Now, they're much easier to find - and you can use them for a whole world of dishes. Here are some tips.

Acquiring

The beauty of preserved lemons is that no matter where you are, you can get them - so long as you're willing to make them yourself. If you make your own, you can tuck in spices as well. Try Meyer lemons when they're in season. 

Wolfert says they get very soft in preserving, though your standard (Eureka) lemon will do. Expect the month-cured preserved lemons to last about a year in the refrigerator, about half that time for the quick variations. You can buy preserved lemons at well-stocked grocery stores, as well as markets specializing in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African cuisines.

Prepping

Whether your preserved lemons are homemade or store-bought, you should first rinse them under cold water to remove excess saltiness. Wolfert says she typically uses only the rind of preserved lemons, though she sometimes includes the pulp in marinades. Plenty of recipes call for the whole lemon, however. You can let your preferences on texture and appearance dictate what you decide to do.

Using

First thing first: "Fresh lemons are never an adequate substitute" for preserved, Wolfert writes. "The taste, texture and aroma of preserved lemons are unique and cannot be duplicated by other means." The reverse is true: "Pluck one from the jar, rinse it off, and add it to everything that calls for lemon - and everything that doesn't," Clara Inés Schuhmacher says on Serious Eats.

The Washington Post