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Jun 29, 2012 02:42 AM

Salt-preserved lemons and food safety?

I tried to preserve some lemons a few weeks back, cutting them into fourths, putting salt in them, putting salt at the bottom and top of the jar I placed the lemons in and covering with lemon juice. I left it out for a day or two and then in the fridge, where it's been since.

I have a concern about the fact that the directions called for the lemons to be fully submerged in juice the whole time. I think part of the lemon at the top of the jar might not be fully submerged. Does this pose a health risk?

I've always been terrified of trying canning because of fear of botulism. And I don't know if this poses the same type of risk if not done properly? I could just scrap the whole thing and start again if there's any chance of that. Especially since I just had a case of shellfish poisoning this week I'm not too keen on the idea of taking a chance with other food.

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  1. Yes, the lemons have to be submerged for the preservation to work properly. Weigh them down with a small saucer or dish or similar.

    for canning, get your hands on a current copy of the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving -- Amazon has it here: or it's usually available at Target or Wal-Mart.

    It's also here:

    This is pretty much the Bible of home canning and preserving. Follow the directions carefully, and you should be fine.

    1 Reply
    1. re: sunshine842

      So, maybe I should start over? Most of them are fully submerged but not the top one. Would it be fine to eat the others, or does this mean I need to start again with a new batch? Thank you.

    2. It helps to use a canning jar with "shoulders." Those edges help hold the lemons down. If you notice them not covered as you use them and pull the lemons out, just add more lemon juice.

      1. bythebay, I would certainly relax a bit about the preserved lemons; think about it - you can leave an unsalted lemon on the counter for days, and in the fridge for a couple weeks without being poisoned - so why would adding salt poison you suddenly?

        I have taught Moroccan cooking for 8 years, and have made preserved lemons for many more. I usually leave my newly packed jars on the counter for several weeks, turning them every couple days to re-distribute the salt. I store them in a cool basement, and only put in the fridge once opened and I start to use the contents of the jar. This is because I am then changing the ratio of salt each time I take out a lemon, and add back fresh juice (and a couple teaspoons of kosher salt as well) to keep the remaining lemons covered.

        Yes, keep your lemons fully covered in salted fresh lemon juice, but no - you should not have trouble with botulism. The salt ratio is SO high in this product that bacteria would have a very hard time getting started - even if you did not refrigerate until you were using the jar.

        29 Replies
        1. re: gingershelley

          I didn't think it was the salt adding the problem but the fact that they'd been cut open for 3 weeks. Isn't that different than leaving a lemon uncut in the fridge for 3 weeks?

          What is the reason for needing to keep them fully submerged? Is it a health/safety reason? Mine definitely are not 100% submerged. Next time I'll weigh it down with something or use a jar with shoulders as suggested but for this time it's been about 3 weeks with the top one not totally submerged. So, still safe?

          1. re: bythebay

            You have two very inhospitable environments. Salty and acidic.

            1. re: scubadoo97

              Scoobadoo - tho you mean inhospitable to bacteria, correct? Not to ok lemons?

            2. re: bythebay

              This is a really corrosive environment. Sometimes the jar lids are negatively affected. I've been putting a layer of plastic wrap over the jar before screwing on the lid.

              1. re: bythebay

                Out of curiousity, do these lemons get added to a dish that is going to be cooked/subjected to high temperatures in a tagine?

                1. re: Rella

                  The problem with heat is it doesn't get rid of toxins produced by certain bacteria and will not kill botulism spores but the high acid and salt will really keep most things from growing in there including botulism

                  1. re: scubadoo97

                    I was of the opinion that killing botulism took 25 minutes of boiling.
                    However, I don't take that chance, myself.

                    But my several jars in the refrigerator for maybe a year, the top 1/2-inch has no liquid. I had great hopes to use these, but they still are there taking up space. What-to-do, what-to-do.

                    1. re: scubadoo97

                      I have added pictures that show two batches of preserved lemons, one January 2011, the other is March 2012. I did the turning thing as called for for some time, then I put them in a downstairs refrigerator and they have never been used or opened since, probably not even turned upside down in months.

                      The pic with the two jars is January 2011; the picture with the 3 jars is March 2012. Several of the jars have no liquid on the top.

                      Rasputina, DH is looking at the pickle-it jars and is ready to order if there is no catch; i.e., exhorbitant shipping charges. Thanks so much.

                      1. re: Rella

                        Rella, having the volume of liquid go down in your UNOPENED fresh jars is not the same as not having them filled to start, as your pickling ratio is correct within the jar, also - being refrigerated, your productis beyond reproach with all that acid and salt.

                        Only thing that happens if there is 'air surface' at this point for you, is your top layer of lemons can darken. Simple oxidation, nothing dangerous.

                        Eat your lemons and tell me how! I love a preserved lemon laid down for 6 months, like your January's - those are SO much better than a few weeks:)...

                        1. re: gingershelley

                          "Eat your lemons and tell me how! I love a preserved lemon laid down for 6 months, like your January's - those are SO much better than a few weeks" - ok, this is good to know, that i should really leave them in much longer!

                    2. re: Rella

                      I can't exactly remember the recipe I was going to use them for off-hand but it's meant to go on fish.

                      1. re: Rella

                        Sometimes, rella - in fact mostly, are cooked in a dish. But, I also use preserved lemons raw in vinaigrette, on fish, in a kale salad; most recently in an asparagus risotto (WFD thread)....

                        I have never worried, after seeing how Moroccan women handle them in their kitchens - in desert heat, and often less than fab cleanliness conditions....

                      2. re: bythebay

                        bytbay - I would probably think your top lemon is not going to 'cure' quite properly, since it is not fully submerged (and I would take pains to submerge next time so you don't lose product), but in my world, I would probably use the bottom half of that lemon, and certainly never worry about the rest of the jar.

                        Much Salt. Much Acid = tough for issues to develop. People have been salting foods for 1,000+ years to keep them. 'Nuf said....

                        1. re: gingershelley


                          My mother in law showed me how she salts limes. Same principle. She's been doing it for decades. Seeing how she's done it, she doesn't actually always have the limes below the surface of the liquid, but she might use way more salt than you would expect. She never has a problem with her limes.

                          I would think it would be plenty cautious enough to discard the portion of the lemon that's above the surface of the liquid but keep the rest.

                          ETA: Oops. Just noticed it's an old thread. People have, no doubt, moved on.

                          1. re: LMAshton

                            I have a jar on the go now-salted Lemons never get told.

                      3. re: gingershelley

                        Can you recommend any reputable online resources for making preserved lemons? I'd really like to try it! Thanks!

                        1. re: ette

                          Well, ette, I humbly submit some may not find me to be 'reputable', but I think lot's of CH'ers would.... here is a link to a thread on Moroccan cooking that includes my recipe for preserved lemons.


                          I love the trick of freezing the lemons to jump-start the process. A charm, for sure. Learned this from Paula Wolfert at a seminar in Spain about Moorish cooking (Muslim Spanish/ North African food).

                          I trust this method, and have had many positive comments from student's and friends for over ten years on it. Let me know if you have any questions.

                          1. re: gingershelley

                            Thank you for the link. I hope to be trying one of your favorite recipes someday - it's on my list - Moroccan Chicken Tagine with preserved lemon and prunes. I have 3 books of Paula Wolfert and I'm just going to have to jump in sometime.

                            1. re: gingershelley

                              Thanks very much! Reputable indeed :)

                              1. re: ette

                                Very kind of you to say so, Ette. I hope so! My students seem to think so, as well as any number of people who have eaten my food - tho always more to learn - and share - just as I do from all you fellow CH'ers!

                          2. re: gingershelley

                            Okay, I'm a bit worried. I successfully made half a dozen batches of preserved lemons but I ran out of juice for the last jar so it sat on my counter packed with 3 salted lemons maybe 1/3 full of juice for about 2 weeks before I got around to adding enough lemon juice to fill it. Is this okay? When I opened the jar it made a kind of vacuum packed popping sound but not quite as dramatic. I'm wondering if leaving the lemons so long without submerging them is unsafe.

                            1. re: Cakebaker255

                              I was in a similar situation, but for about three days, when I was able to top off. That batch is now about 6 weeks old, but I haven't tried them yet. I will try them in the next week. If I don't post back here soon after, DON'T EAT YOURS!!!

                              I kid, I kid!

                              1. re: Shrinkrap

                                Eek! I'll be anxiously awaiting your reply!! Seriously, I wouldn't be terribly worried about 3 days. My recipe says to leave them in the jar overnight and then add the juice the next day. One day, three days, who's counting?

                                1. re: Cakebaker255

                                  I have made them with no added juice. No problem. The salt is the preservative, not the juice.

                                  1. re: JMF

                                    Do you leave them whole or are you slicing and stacking? Are they packed tight?

                              2. re: Cakebaker255

                                Air (and the bacteria in it) is the culprit, so the liquid forces out the air in your preserve.
                                If ever in that sitution again just use mixture of lemon juice and water. Others up thread say they have used water.

                                1. re: foodcompletesme

                                  Hmm....the water surprises me. My recipe says to make sure water does not get into the jar! There was plenty of air in the jar with the lemons as they are quartered but still whole.

                            2. Thanks everyone. Maybe to be safe I won't take the chance. It's probably just fine but who knows. I'd rather be safe than sorry especially after my recent bout of bad food poisoning. I'm in no hurry so I can try another batch soon and make sure it's fully submerged this time.

                              8 Replies
                              1. re: bythebay

                                There are several instructions for making these lemons, and differences in preparation. I found it so confusing.

                                One thing that was so different and I've seen only one mention is to wash the lemons and let them sit in water for 3 days (on the counter,) changing water each day. It didn't say the reason, but I assume that it softened up the rind before pushing them into the jars. The recipe said to push them down into the jar with one's hands or tools, and that gives more juice.

                                The first time I did it, I didn't have enough juice and had to juice a number of more lemons, but this method saved me cutting up and wasting more lemons just to get the juice because the pushing down created more juice than just placing them in.

                                I mean: push them hard.

                                1. re: Rella

                                  Rella, just freeze your lemons overnight and then take out. Once theydefrost, they become very soft and easy to jam into a jar.

                                  1. re: herby

                                    Wow! Thank you! Yes, that's a apt word, "Jam them in."

                                    I'm going to post a couple of pictures later today of my preserved lemons for critique, and see what gingershelley thinks about them and others can see.

                                    1. re: herby

                                      Plus 1 +1! herby! This is how I teach all my Moroccan cooking students to do it - freeze overnight and proceed from there...

                                      Soaking room temp lemons in tap water on the counter sounds awful - and very bacteria attracting!

                                      1. re: gingershelley

                                        "Soaking room temp lemons in tap water on the counter sounds awful - and very bacteria attracting!"

                                        Tap water sounds awful to me, too.

                                        I used up a good deal of precious distilled water. First I have to reverse osmosis our water, then it goes to the water distiller. The water was transferred to a container to keep all of them under water, water changed each day for 3 days. Lots of water used.

                                      1. re: scubadoo97

                                        Just want to confirm, are you replying "good technique" referring to the soaking and/or freezing; i.e., on or the other or both. Thanks.

                                  2. Solution, use the pickl-it. I tried making preserved lemons using a canning jar and keeping them submerged was a PITA. I ended up with mold. I've since switched to using the pickl-it system for all my lactic acid fermentation and it works great. I have no financial stake in their company, I just enjoy their product.


                                    14 Replies
                                    1. re: rasputina

                                      Thanks for your link. I am wondering if the hold-it-in-place thingie is plastic; i.e., plastic is against the brine.

                                      1. re: Rella

                                        No it's glass.

                                        here is the link to their parts page where they describe the materials used in the pickle-it


                                        1. re: rasputina

                                          Dear Rasputina,
                                          DH and I just spent a long time on the phone listening to this wonderful lady talk about pickling. We bought a vegetable trio bundle, and a condiment trio bundle.

                                          She says to use Nature's Cargo salt, but when I go to Amazon, that is a bath salt

                                          She said a Celtic salt will mold because it is wet, however, this bath salt says Celtic.

                                          She also said I can use a light pink Himalyan salt.
                                          What do you use?

                                          1. re: Rella

                                            I bought this pink himalayan salt from Amazon and I've been using it for my brines. It works great.

                                            My husband just started eating the red sauerkraut I started back in March and loves it. I'm going to have to start a larger batch soon so we don't run out.

                                            1. re: rasputina

                                              Thanks. She said to use the light pink. What I have now is Old Thompson fine grind and it is a light pink. I'm not sure I've ever seen it any darker. But I'm glad to know that this is what you buy and it works. I think I'll start with a 2 lb. order. Actually she doesn't call for adding a lot of salt, I don't think. What poundage do you order.

                                              Do you mean 'red' cabbage? I had no interest really in making sauerkraut although I do like it, but the thoughts of making a kraut out of red cabbage sounds fantastic.

                                              1. re: Rella

                                                yes I made the 'kraut with red ( purple) cabbage. I only bought 1 lb of the salt initially to try it, and yes you aren't using a lot of salt. For example, she recommends 3 tablespoons of salt for every 5 lbs of sliced cabbage. This was my first batch using the pickle-it and I used the 1 liter jar, I'll use one of my larger ones for the next batch though. I used the graph on her website and weighed the salt in grams based on the weight of the cabbage that would fit in the jar. IIRC it was maybe 2 teaspoons salt for the 1 liter jar.

                                                Also remember that you don't want to use chlorinated tap water in lactic acid ferments.

                                                1. re: rasputina

                                                  Thanks again. I have a bit of salt on hand, so I'll wait for an order.

                                                  Tap water at my house is a no-no. First we reverse-osmosis it, then we distill the RO water. Thanks.

                                                  1. re: Rella


                                                    Genuine question there....RO is far more pure than standard filters....I honestly don't know what's left to remove by distillation.

                                                    1. re: sunshine842

                                                      Because RO doesn't take out 100% minerals and impurities, and I want to take out 100% impurities. Hope this answers your question.

                                        2. re: rasputina

                                          Pickl-it! What an awesome product! Love it when someone makes a great product in response to market need... hope those guys make a Bazillion$ from that product!

                                          I will buy some for pickles and sourkraut, etc., but see no need for preserved lemons. the salt ratio and acid is SO HIGH that they won't go bad. Trust me. I don't refridgerate mine until I pop the top of a jar... sometimes (hopefully!) at least 6 months after preparing. I have a very cool basement 'cellar' type room I keep my wine, winter produce and canned items in (and my nascent duck prosciutto!), and have never had a problem with preserved lemons, except for lid rust from all the acid, or if - like Rella - sometimes there is a bit of evaporation and the top of the jar's liquid receeds a smidge - then the top of the lemons turns brownish from oxidation at the top of the jar. Just discard. Rest of the jar is a dream....

                                          1. re: gingershelley

                                            My canning jar attempt at preserved lemons grew mold, I'd rather use a product designed for lactic acid fermentation and have consistent results without wasting a batch.

                                            1. re: rasputina

                                              Rasputina, I can see why you like those pickl-it! products. I am going to get some as well, and join you for some of my condiments, etc:)

                                              1. re: gingershelley

                                                I'm waiting to see your posts as well. Starting a new food project is always exciting.