Best Preserved Lemon Substitute (+ Alternatives)

This quick preserved lemon substitute recipe, based on Ottolenghi’s cheat’s preserved lemons, makes the best all-around substitute for preserved lemons. Or try one of the no-cook preserved lemon alternatives.

I adore all things citrus. And salty, mouth-puckering preserved lemons are pure citrusy goodness. But what if you can’t find any in the grocery store?

Salt-preserved lemons are very easy to make at home. The only ingredients you need are lemons, salt and lemon juice. But, unfortunately, you also need time. The salted lemons require at least four weeks to mature in lemon juice.

Luckily, this cheat’s preserved lemon is the ultimate quick preserved lemon substitute. It’s tart, savoury and complex – just like Moroccan preserved lemons. The easy recipe is adapted from the brilliant “cheat’s preserved lemon purée” in OTK: Extra good things by Yotam Ottolenghi and Noor Murad.

Top down close-up of a ceramic bowl with preserved lemon substitute and a gold spoon.

Best lemons for preserved lemon substitute

My favourite preserved lemons are the Moroccan-style Beldi lemons preserved in their own juices with salt. The lemons are small and round with thin, fragrant skin and sweet flesh. Preserved Beldi lemons have an almost lemon candy-like flavour.

Unfortunately, Citron Beldi (or Doqq lemons) are not widely available outside Morroco. 

In the US, Meyer lemons work well for any homemade preserved lemons, including this cheat’s preserved lemon recipe. Meyer lemons are a cross between lemons and mandarins. Their skin has floral hints, while the flesh is sweet yet distinctly lemony.

I also love the seedless LemonGold variety we get around here – they are juicy and sweet. And with seedless lemons, there is no need to fish out any pips.

But you can also use the standard Eureka or Lisbon variety. And add a few strips of mandarin zest or a teaspoon of mandarin juice if you wish to add some citrus sweetness.

Preserved lemon substitutes

Traditional Beldi preserved lemons have an almost exaggerated candy-like lemoniness. The punchy, salty globes elevate any dish with their distinctive citrus kick.

Some recipes call for only preserved lemon skin. Other recipes require whole preserved lemons, chopped or sometimes puréed with the syrupy lemon juice. Whatever the recipe requirements, there’s a suitable alternative below.

Try any of these preserved lemon alternatives:

  1. Quick cheat’s preserved lemon
  2. Lemon paste with salt
  3. Lemon zest, juice and salt
  4. Easy salted lemon rind 
  5. Dried lemon zest with salt flakes

While these substitutes will certainly see you through your recipe today, I urge you to try homemade preserved lemons if you are unfamiliar with them. Why not start today?

In the meantime, try this cheat’s preserved lemon for your salty lemon fix.

1. Cheat’s preserved lemon: The best preserved lemon substitute

It’s the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen geniuses who first introduced me to this fantastic substitute for preserved lemons. This recipe is adapted from their “cheat’s preserved lemon paste” from OTK: Extra Good Things by Yotam Ottolenghi and Noor Murad.

It is quick and easy to make. And it hits all of the preserved lemon spots – a salty, tart, lemony mix of flavours.

A small ceramic bowl with slices of cheat's preserved lemon with a gold tablespoon surrounded by whole lemons.

How to make quick preserved lemon substitute

To get that soft, gelatinous texture of preserved lemon skin, we boil the fresh lemons in lemon juice.

Grab two small lemons or one large one. Trim the ends off the lemon and cut it into thin wheels, about ⅕ inch (½ cm).

Lemon slices in a glass bowl in direct sunlight viewed from above. Two smaller glass bowls contain lemon juice and salt.

Remove any lemon seeds and add the lemon slices to a small saucepan for which you have a lid.

Add a heaped teaspoon of salt for every small lemon.

Cover the slices with a third cup of lemon juice (80 ml), roughly the equivalent of two to three small juiced lemons.

Sliced lemons with lemon juice and salt in a stainless steel pot viewed from above.

Place the pot with the lemons over medium heat. And as soon as the lemon juice starts to simmer, turn the heat down to the lowest setting and cover it with a lid.

Cook the lemons for 12 to 14 minutes – gently stirring halfway through. The lemon juice will reduce to a thick syrupy consistency as the lemon slices soften.

Slices of fresh lemon cooked in lemon juice and salt for 14 minutes in a saucepan, viewed from above.

Keep an eye on the pot. If the pan dries up, add a splash of water. It can turn into a disastrous black goo if you burn it. (I may have forgotten to set a timer once when I made this, so just take my word on this one.)

2. Lemon paste + salt: A great preserved lemon purée alternative

Lemon paste is a convenient way to add sweet, bright, citrus flavours to desserts and savoury recipes. It has a thick gooey consistency. However, it is significantly sweeter than preserved lemon purée.

Add one teaspoon of salt for every tablespoon of lemon paste. This salted lemon paste makes a fantastic alternative to preserved lemon purée. 

Use the salted lemon paste as a direct substitute for preserved lemon purée.

3. Lemon zest, juice + salt: Perfect for salad dressings

While this combination lacks the complexity of mature preserved lemons, it’s a zesty, salty, fresh lemon mix that makes a great quick-and-easy substitute for preserved lemons in salad dressings and marinades.

Grate lemon zest into a small bowl with a Microplane (or use a box grater). Squeeze the fresh lemon juice into the bowl and add a teaspoon of sea salt.

Make this mix fresh as needed. But you can store leftovers in the fridge for a week.

4. Lemon rind + salt: A great alternative for preserved lemon peel

Some recipes require only the peel of the preserved lemon. And if you are looking for an easy replacement for preserved lemon peel, try this method for salted lemon rind.

Use a sharp pairing knife to remove the fresh lemon peel with a little bit of the white pith.

Roughly mince the lemon rind with a knife. And sprinkle the minced lemon peel with sea salt. Use about half a teaspoon of salt for each lemon you peel.

Use your fingers to gently massage the salt into the lemon rind. Leave the lemon skins to absorb the salt for at least one hour. Overnight in the fridge is even better.

Keep the salted lemon skins in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week.

5. Dried lemon zest + sea salt flakes: Zesty lemon sprinkles

Salted lemon zest lacks the complexity of well-aged salt-preserved lemons. But it’s a quick and easy finishing salt that adds a savoury lemon twist to your dish.

It works best for recipes that require a topping of minced preserved lemon.

You can use fresh lemon zest, but I often have dried (or drying) lemon zest ready. 

Mix two parts lemon zest and one part sea salt flakes for a punchy citrus salt. Sprinkle it over dishes that need that savoury lemon kick of preserved lemons.

How to use preserved lemon substitutes

Quick cheat’s preserved lemon is the best all-around substitute for preserved lemon. Spoon the whole slices over grilled meat or vegetables, or roughly chop it first.

Use chopped slices of preserved lemons to substitute the preserved lemon skins in this charred broccolini with preserved lemon dressing recipe.

You can also blitz it into a purée for a quick preserved lemon purée substitute (or use lemon paste with sea salt). Use the preserved lemon paste substitute in salad dressings like this kale and quinoa salad with chickpeas, avocado and puréed preserved lemon dressing.

Or mix it with tahini for a quick lemon tahini dressing.

It’s easy to make preserved lemons at home. And they last up to a year in the fridge. The only downside is that the lemons rest for at least four weeks. 

So go ahead and get started on your homemade preserved lemons today.

But, in the meantime, use this quick and easy cheat’s preserved lemon recipe to satisfy your preserved lemon urge straight away.

Top down close-up of a ceramic bowl with preserved lemon substitute and a gold spoon.

Quick Preserved Lemon Substitute Recipe

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5 from 12 votes
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This recipe makes the best preserved lemon substitute. It is salty and savoury with that complex candy-like lemon flavour of Morrocan preserved lemons.
And it's ready in less than 30 minutes – much quicker than the weeks required for preserved lemons. Why not make a double batch while you're at it?
This cheat's preserved lemon recipe makes about a ⅓ cup of preserved lemon substitute.
Recipe byAdri
Servings: 5 tablespoons
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients
 

  • 2 small lemons (or 1 big one), ends trimmed and sliced thinly (120 grams)
  • cup fresh lemon juice, from 2 to 3 lemons
  • teaspoons salt

Instructions

  • Pick out and discard any seeds from lemon slices. Then add the lemon slices, juice and salt to a saucepan for which you have a lid. Place it over medium heat. As soon as the lemon juice starts to simmer, turn the heat down to the lowest setting and cover it with a lid.
  • Cook the lemons for 12 to 14 minutes – gently stirring halfway through. The juice will reduce to a thick syrupy consistency as the lemon slices soften.
  • Allow the quick preserved lemons to cool to room temperature.

Notes

  • Keep an eye on the pot during cooking. If it dries up before the lemons are soft, add a splash of water and continue cooking.
  • Store the quick preserved lemons in a clean airtight container in the fridge for up to a month. Gently press the lemon rind down to submerge it in the lemon juice. Use clean utensils (not fingers) to remove the lemon slices from the jar.
  • For preserved lemon pureé substitute, use a stick blender to blitz the cooked lemon slices into a pureé, along with the salty liquid. Or use a mortar and pestle to bash it into a paste.
  • Take a heaped tablespoon of this cheat’s preserved lemon to substitute one preserved Beldi lemon.
 
This substitute recipe is an adaptation of the “cheat’s preserved lemon paste” in OTK: Extra Good Things by Yotam Ottolenghi and Noor Murad.

2 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    Hi, have just made this from Extra Good Things then discovered your blog. The Cheat’s Preserved Lemon is an epic discovery and I know it will be a permanent fixture in my fridge. Have you tried freezing small quantities of it yet?

    1. Hi Mary!

      How great is Extra Good Things? I adore everything in there and it fits my style of cooking perfectly. I love a great condiment.

      I have not tried freezing this in small quantities yet. But it’s a great idea, I will try it with my next batch and update the content of this post. Though I’m certain it will freeze well if you purée it first.

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