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The Best Preserved Lemon Substitute | 8 Alternatives You Should Know

The Best Preserved Lemon Substitute; 8 Alternatives

Are you yearning for a recipe that calls for preserved lemon but can’t find a jar in your pantry? Learn the best preserved lemon substitute here.

My secret to delicious savory dishes is a jar of preserved lemons. I always have this flavor-boosting ingredient in my pantry, but there will always come a time when I can’t find it in stores. It’s frustrating because this condiment pumps up the flavor of any dish, from pasta to stews and salads.

When you find yourself in a pickle, like me, you can rely on a preserved lemon substitute.

The quickest way is to grab a stalk of lemongrass or grate some lemon zest. You can also try to find a jar of lemon or tamarind paste in the grocery store. If you have extra time, you can make sauteed fresh lemon, salt-preserved lemon skins, or use any of these combos: lemon juice + sea salt flakes or Meyer lemon + sea salt flakes.

Before I teach you how to substitute each of these items, let me give an overview of preserved lemons first.

What Is Preserved Lemon?

Preserved lemons are simply lemons cured in salt for an extended period. The salt will mellow out the flavor and texture of the peel, making it more citrusy and less tart without a hint of bitterness. The texture becomes soft, ready to crumble with just a bit of pressure.

This condiment has been popular in South Asia and North African cuisines. Using just a little amount adds a savory tang to many dishes, like dressings, stews, and sauces. Unlike pure lemon juice, preserved lemon is slightly savory with a hint of salty umami due to its long fermentation process.

Besides its great wonder in the kitchen, preserved lemons offer a load of nutrients like vitamin C, probiotics, and fiber. These nutrients boost your immunity and improve gut health. Another benefit of preserved lemons is their longevity, as they can last in the fridge for up to a year.

You can buy preserved lemons online or at any specialty food store. If you can’t find one, then try any of our preserved lemon substitutes below.

Best Preserved Lemon Substitute

Without any further ado, let’s get to know your options when you run out of preserved lemon in the kitchen.

1. Lemongrass

Lemongrass

I have a particular fondness for lemongrass because it makes my dish especially fragrant. When I need a quick preserved lemon substitute, I grab a stalk of this shrub-like herb to impart a lemony flavor to stews and soups. Compared to preserved lemon, lemongrass has the same citrus flavor but with a more floral perfume minus the acidity.

Lemongrass is a popular ingredient in tropical countries like Indonesia and India. It’s a common addition to savory dishes, but lately, I like adding it to desserts.

To use lemongrass, remove the lower bulb and stiff outer leaves. You’ll need the main stalk, which holds the most flavor and aroma. Cut the stalk into pieces, bend them together, and then slightly crush them to release the flavor.

For every ½ rind of preserved lemon required in a recipe, substitute one stalk of lemongrass. Make sure to cook the lemongrass thoroughly for 5-10 minutes when used in soups. Don’t forget to remove the stalks before serving.

2. Sauteed Fresh Lemon

Sauteed Fresh Lemon

I’m not a big fan of the nose-tickling brightness of fresh lemons. Another way to tame the intense tartness of fresh lemons is to saute them. 

Sauteed fresh lemons have a mellow yet prominent lemony flavor, almost like preserved lemons. They caramelize, providing a new dimension of flavor that’s sweeter and less pungent. Regardless of the taste evolution, I still notice the lemon’s citrus character.

Choosing the right lemon is crucial. Opt for the thin-skinned variety, like Meyers. Season the lemon slices with pepper, salt, and sugar to boost the lemon’s natural flavor. 

Saute the lemons in a very hot pan to achieve that lovely, golden caramelization. Simply brown the lemons until they’re as soft as their preserved counterparts. 

Remember to keep away from aluminum cookware because it reacts with highly acidic food, like lemons.

Once you finish sauteing the lemons, substitute them in the same amount as preserved lemon in the recipe. Caramelized sauteed lemons taste good in almost everything, from salads to stews and dips.

3. Salt-Preserved Lemon Skins

Salt-Preserved Lemon Skins

When making lemonade, I always end up with lots of peels. Most recipes I encounter call for preserved lemon peel because the pulp can be too mushy. So, what better way to reduce kitchen waste than to use lemon skin to substitute for preserved lemon?

Salt-preserved lemon skin is a lot simpler than preserved lemons. You don’t need to use lemon juice because salt alone can do the trick. The salt removes the bitterness of the lemon rind and the pith. 

Because of the lack of liquid, salt-preserved lemon skin may look drier than preserved lemons. The flavor also will be a little milder.

To make this recipe:

  • Cover the bottom of the jar with salt, around 3cm thickness. 
  • Flatten the lemon peel and sprinkle it with salt. 
  • Put salted skins in the jar and seal it for about six weeks.

Rinse or soak the salted skin for 30 minutes before tossing the thin slices into the dishes. Use about a 1:1 ratio in dressings, stews, and tagines. This pickled version will stay on the counter or fridge for longer.

4. Tamarind Paste

Tamarind Paste

Another way to add a sour note to sweet and savory recipes is to use tamarind paste. This paste comes from the ripe tamarind fruit. You can buy premade tamarind paste in Asian food stores, but I like to make it myself.

  • First, peel the tamarind fruit and remove the seeds. Soak the pulp in hot water for about an hour to soften, then squeeze. 
  • Strain the pulp to remove any debris or stones. Keep going until you see a clean, thick paste. 
  • Boil the filtered paste for five minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Cool and transfer to a jar, then store in a cool, dry place. This concoction will last for several months.

Don’t forget to stir the contents before adding to recipes. I like to dilute the paste with a bit of water to thin it out and mellow out the sourness. As you know, tamarind paste is thicker and tastes sourer than preserved lemon, making it one of the best cane vinegar substitutes.

If you don’t like the sharp flavor of tamarind, add a bit of sugar. The recommended ratio is 1:1.

5. Lemon Paste

Lemon Paste

I use lemon paste when I run out of preserved lemons for salad dressings. It’s basically the same thing because a commercial jar of lemon paste uses preserved lemons with fresh lemon juice and brine. 

The mellow yet citrusy taste is quite similar to preserved lemons. However, the paste’s texture is a lot smoother than its preserved lemon counterparts.

Making your own preserved lemon paste is easy. Simply puree preserved lemons in a blender for about 20 seconds. Add avocado oil to make the texture creamier. This mixture should last in the fridge for up to six months or even longer in the freezer.

Fresh lemons will also work if you’re in a pinch. This paste won’t give the same citrusy, floral aroma that preserved lemon offers, but it’s still a great preserved lemon alternative

Simply boil thin lemon slices with salt and lemon juice. Add a tablespoon or two of maple syrup to replicate the slightly sticky consistency of preserved lemons. Once done, puree in a blender until smooth.

Lemon paste works in almost any recipe, from sauces to stews and salads. Use a 1:1 ratio.

6. Lemon Zest

Lemon Zest

Lemon zest is a fantastic alternative if you have many lemons sitting in your pantry, just like me. It will bring a different form of lemony aroma to your dish, but it’s good if you’re pretty short of time. Also, the citrus flavor will have a more intense citrus flavor but with a slight hint of bitterness.

The zest is the yellow outermost part of the lemon’s skin. To remove the zest, simply grate it. Be careful not to include the white pith because it tastes very bitter.

To get the good zest, you must have the best lemon zester with razor-sharp blades. When grating, I noticed that some of the zest sticks to the grater’s holes. To solve that problem, then cover the grater’s side with plastic. In that way, you can simply shake the zest off the plastic wrap.

Use the lemon zest as a preserved lemon peel substitute in soups, salads, and sauces. When a recipe calls for one rind of preserved lemon, use one teaspoon of lemon zest. Keep in mind that a medium-sized lemon may generate one tablespoon of lemon zest.

7. Lemon Juice with Sea Salt Flakes

Lemon Juice with Sea Salt Flakes

Another ingenious way of replicating the tangy, salty flavor of preserved lemons is to use a combination of lemon juice and sea salt flakes. Lemon juice alone has a more intense citrus flavor and aroma than preserved lemons, so we’ll add sea salt to mellow it out.

This type of substitute for preserved lemons has incredible alkalizing effects on the body. It improves the absorption of minerals in the body and helps boost the immune system. 

Sea salt flakes aren’t just your ordinary table salt. They have this unique, flat shape that bursts with a bright, salty flavor. I love to taste the salt flake’s delicate crunch to my salads, therefore I keep some of them undissolved.

Simply combine half lemon juice with half sea salt as a preserved lemon substitute. You can add more lemon juice or salt to suit your taste, but the ½:½ ratio is pretty close to the flavor of preserved lemons to me. 

Substitute a tablespoon of the mixture to every rind of preserved lemons required in a recipe.

8. Meyer Lemon and Sea Salt Flakes

Meyer Lemon and Sea Salt Flakes

These two ingredients are actually the base ingredients of preserved lemon. If you can wait for three weeks, you can make preserved lemon from scratch from these two ingredients. The longer the fermentation time, the softer the skin and the more flavorful.

I love Meyer lemons because they barely have any pith. These lemons also look vibrant with their rich yellow-orange color.

To make preserved lemons: 

  1. Scrub the skin and cut the tips of the lemon to make it easy to slice vertically. Slice the lemon in quarters, leaving some parts attached to the base.
  2. Break the wedges apart slightly, sprinkle salt onto the flesh, and then close it back.
  3. Do steps 2 to each lemon.
  4. Add salt to the inside of the jar, then put the salted lemons. Press down to squeeze the juice. If there’s not enough juice to cover the lemons, add fresh lemon juice.
  5. Sprinkle salt on top, then seal the jar. Leave the jar fermenting on your countertop for at least three weeks. For the first two weeks, turn the jar upside down once daily.
  6. Once the fermentation process is over, store the jar in the fridge for up to a year.

Get your jar of cured Meyer lemon and substitute it in equal quantities with any recipe that calls for preserved lemon.

How To Make A Quick Preserved Lemon Substitute?

If you can’t wait any longer, you can make preserved lemon in an hour. The key here is to heat the lemons to become tender faster. For this recipe, you only need 15 minutes of preparation time and one hour of curing time to yield two cups.

Ingredients

  • 6 lemons (preferably thinner-skinned Meyer lemons)
  • 6 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 3 cups fresh lemon juice

Equipment

  • Sterilized jar
  • Wooden spoon
  • Knife 

Instructions

  1. Scrub and wash lemons to remove any dirt.
  2. Cut each end of the lemon and slice lengthwise. 
  3. Cut the pith to see the segments and slice crosswise thinly.
  4. Heat all the ingredients in a skillet, occasionally stirring to dissolve the salt.
  5. Cover and simmer until all lemons become tender for about 10 minutes or the skin appears translucent.
  6. Cool and transfer to a jar. Store in the fridge for up to a week.

How To Use Preserved Lemons?

Now that you have a jar of preserved lemons, you can do a lot of exciting recipes. The peel is what’s commonly asked for in recipes, but you can rinse the flesh to remove the saltiness and use it for stews.  From salad dressing to salsas, here are some fabulous recipe ideas you can try.

  • Grain Salads: Everyone loves vegan and gluten-free quinoa salad. The preserved lemon adds a beautiful zing to quinoa grains along with broccoli and avocado. Store this salad without the avocado to keep fresh for up to two days in the refrigerator.
  • Vinaigrette: Not just grains, preserved lemon makes a nice dressing for any salad. Make a vinaigrette of one preserved lemon’s rind, white balsamic vinegar, and honey. This blend will bring a tangy, citrusy flavor to green salads and will remain creamy in the fridge for up to two weeks.
  • Salsa: My favorite dip for fish is this preserved lemon salsa with small capers, dill, and parsley. You only need to use the preserved lemon’s skin to bring that satiny texture to every bite.
  • Pasta: The best way to boost the neutral flavor of your pasta is to add preserved lemon. Toss the chopped preserved lemon into cooked spaghetti pasta and broccolini. You’ll have delicious broccolini pasta in no time.
  • Chicken Tagine: How can we forget the popular chicken tagine with preserved lemons? This Moroccan-inspired stew is loaded with spices to create more complex flavors. To do this, simply marinate the chicken, then slow cook with the preserved lemon and spices until it cooks thoroughly.

FAQs:

1. What is the difference between lemons and preserved lemons?

Preserved lemons have undergone a long curing time to soften the peel, making them more mellow in flavor than fresh lemons. There’s still that intense lemony flavor but none of the bitterness and nose-ticking sourness. Because of salt pickling, the brine offers an umami taste.

2. Why use preserved lemons instead of fresh?

Using preserved lemons is easier than using fresh ones. You don’t need to peel or remove the pith as you would with fresh lemons. Simply drop a whole rind or chop it into tiny pieces into any dish that calls for a high note of lemony flavor.

3. Can I use preserved lemons instead of lemon zest?

Yes, preserved lemons can replace lemon zest in recipes because they have the same lemon essence. However, the flavor and aroma might be slightly more robust, so use sparingly. You can also dry the preserved lemon to get the same texture. 

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Conclusion

At this point, you won’t have a difficult time looking for a preserved lemon substitute for your recipes. My favorite is the Meyer lemons and sea salt flakes because they’re the essential ingredients for preserved lemons. In a pinch, I go for lemongrass and lemon zest to just get the lemon essence.

To ensure an endless supply of preserved lemon, make large batches at home. The shelf life extends up to a year in the fridge when properly sealed.

Let us know your thoughts about this article in the comment section below.

 

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Anya Kaats

Hi! I’m Anya, a San Diego-based Holistic Health Coach and Marketing Consultant on a mission to share good food, health & happiness with as many people as possible. I am a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) and have worked in the natural & organic products industry for my entire professional career with companies such as Suja Juice, Brad’s Raw Foods, and Mamma Chia. While my life may be totally consumed with healthy food now, nutrition wasn’t always a passion of mine.