Salty, salty lemons
January 28, 2009 5:24 PM   Subscribe

Should preserved lemons look like this?

I made preserved lemons for the first time and I'm worried about them. I tossed them with salt, packed them in jars, added lemon juice, capped the jars, and let them set on the counter for 3 days before refrigerating for a week. I opened a jar up and some gas escaped, so I looked at the 2nd jar and saw that the top was bulging. Also, the lemon juice was thicker and it felt possibly a bit slimy between my fingers. This made me immediately think bacterial growth, but I've never made preserved lemons before so I wanted to check if this is normal or not.
posted by TungstenChef to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Did you sterilize the jars?
posted by Andrhia at 5:33 PM on January 28, 2009

Did you heat the lemons to kill all bacteria before putting them in the jars?
posted by Argyle at 5:45 PM on January 28, 2009

Or, to be a little more helpful:

"Look closely at all jars before opening them. A bulging lid or leaking jar is a sign of spoilage. When you open the jar, look for other signs such as spurting liquid, an off-odor or mold."

"Hold the jar at eye-level. A flat or bulging lid means it has not sealed properly. A properly sealed lid should dip down slightly in the centre."
"Foods that have botulism do not always look or smell spoiled. Do not taste any food that you think may have spoiled. If your food has foamed, smells “bad” while cooking, or the container has a bulging lid, throw it out right away. "
posted by Andrhia at 5:52 PM on January 28, 2009

I made preserved lemons for the first time and I'm worried about them. I tossed them with salt, packed them in jars, added lemon juice, capped the jars, and let them set on the counter for 3 days before refrigerating for a week.

That's not enough to prevent rotting.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:02 PM on January 28, 2009

Response by poster: Andrhia & Argyle - These aren't canned, it's a traditional Greek method of preservation by salt and acidity. So bacterial growth is unlikely but possible, I just need to know what the finished product is supposed to look like.
posted by TungstenChef at 6:02 PM on January 28, 2009

It definitely sounds like it spoiled in some fashion. I would think that the acidity (we're talking about lemons here) and the salt would make growth of botulinum bacteria a simple impossibility. So I think it's likely some other form of spoilage. On the other hand, botulism is seriously f***ing scary, so I personally wouldn't take any chances. A preposterously tiny amount can kill you dead dead dead. dip your finger into the lemons to taste a little to see if they're bad and it's gross so you spit it out but then you show signs of botulism and end up at the hospital and to check the diagnosis they take a little of your blood and inject it into mice and that amount kills the mice.
posted by madmethods at 6:10 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Could they possibly have fermented? If not I'd trash that stuff. As Madmethods said above, botulism is a scary thing.
posted by Max Power at 6:17 PM on January 28, 2009

Most recipes I see for preserved lemons call for sterilized jars. If you didn't use a sterilized jar, then yes you could have gotten some spoilage. The point is fermentation, but controlled fermentation.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:36 PM on January 28, 2009

Best answer: Here is the Google books rendition of the Moroccan preserved lemons recipe from Linda Ziedrich's The Joy of Pickling. It sounds a lot like what you did, except she covers the lemons with a layer of olive oil and lets them sit on the counter for 3 weeks.

She also has a recipe for Russian brined lemons, which sit in fridge in a crock for 2-3 weeks.

The preservation in both of these recipes depends on growth of micro-organisms (mainly bacteria, I'd guess) which are present on or in the lemons when you buy them, so the sliminess doesn't bother me.

The gas does a little, though. Please let us know what happens; I've been meaning to try preserving lemons for years now.
posted by jamjam at 7:02 PM on January 28, 2009

I gotta say that a bulging lid is almost universally a BAD SIGN.
posted by disillusioned at 8:41 PM on January 28, 2009

Response by poster: jamjam got it exactly right as confirmed in this eGullet thread. The thickening of the brine is normal but the gas production isn't, so this batch is going into the trash.

For you folks with food poisoning fears, thanks for your concern for my health, but this is a safe and time-tested method of uncooked food preservation similar to crock-fermented pickles or sauerkraut. The high acidity and salt prevent pathogenic bacteria from growing. Botulism can't tolerate a pH below 4.6, and lemon juice is between 2 and 3 so it ain't gonna happen.
posted by TungstenChef at 9:14 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Chef, it sounds like you're experienced with natural fermentation, so I'm not sure why you think the bubbles in preserved lemons are a problem. I just made my first batch of preserved lemons, and after several weeks, they were slightly bubbly, just like all natural ferments. I didn't think twice about it, made a chicken tagine with them that was Out. Of. This. World. -- and lived to tell the tale. Sorry you threw yours in the trash!
posted by ottereroticist at 9:23 AM on January 29, 2009

You have the right idea, but your method is too . . . minimal.

Obviously, make sure the surface of the lemons are clean and washed well in water. And the jars you use are clean and sterile. To make sure, pour boiling water into them while finalising the preparation as well.

You need plenty of salt! Cut the lemons into quarters and then massage the salt vigorously into the skin and the flesh, squeezing out as much lemon juice as you do. Use more salt. Rub. Caress. Pummel. With lots of salt.

Don't skimp when adding the lemon juice and then seal in your sterile jars. Pack the lemon quarters tightly in the jar and set aside. I turn the jar regularly and leave it for at least 6 weeks (unrefrigerated) before use.

Don't be afraid of the amount of salt you use, and ensure that the lemons are completely covered before setting aside.

The contents will 'slime up' a bit, this is normal. You'll rinse off the slime, excess salt and the flesh in fresh water before use. You'll be left with preserved lemon peel which is perfect for a tangine or any other dish which requires salty, lemony deliciousness.
posted by Flashduck at 1:51 AM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

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