Dear Xanthe: 'Why haven't my homemade preserved lemons produced much liquid?' 

Our expert is on hand to handle your culinary conundrums. This week, it's all about preserved lemons and pickled onions...

Preserved lemons make a lovely present – but getting the salt content right is the key to success
Preserved lemons make a lovely present – but getting the salt content right is the key to success Credit: Haarala Hamilton

Dear Xanthe 

I love cooking with preserved lemons, so thought I’d have a go at bottling them myself, just using salt and lemons. Most of them look OK and the Kilner jars have filled up with brine, but two of them haven’t made much liquid and what there is looks thick and syrupy.

Can you throw any light on this please? I’m planning to give some as Christmas gifts.

NS, Devon

Dear NS

Preserved lemons are brilliant little torpedoes of flavour to keep in the fridge, so homemade ones make fantastic presents. For the definitive answer to your query, I consulted the great Thane Prince, author of several books on preserving.

“Ideally, the lemons should be pretty much covered in liquid,” she says, “although the odd corner sticking out doesn’t matter. When you pack the lemons into the jar, with salt they release their juice. Sometimes it’s enough, but sometimes lemons aren’t quite juicy enough, in which case you can add some water. Some recipes ask you to top up with lemon juice, but plain water is absolutely fine; it doesn’t have to be lemon juice.

“The important thing is that there must be enough salt, so tip up the jars and give them a shake daily for a couple of days. You must always be able to see a layer of salt crystals at the bottom – otherwise the solution isn’t concentrated enough.

The jar isn’t heat sealed like a jar of jam, so you can always open it and add more salt. With your syrupy jars, I’d recommend adding water to the jar to cover, then shaking it up and adding salt until it won’t dissolve any more.”

To make preserved lemons, Prince cuts lemons each into six slender wedges and packs them into sterilised clip-top jars, layering them generously with salt, and finishing with a layer of salt. For a 500g jar, you’ll need around six lemons (depending on the size) and 125g salt. Keep the jars in a dark cupboard for three months before using, turning them daily. Store in the fridge once you start using them.

Dear Xanthe 

I decided that I would like to pickle some onions, and all the recipes I have found mention putting the onions in brine. This came as a surprise to me as I cannot remember my late mother doing this. Can you tell me what the advantage is to brine the onions, and can I bypass it?

JR, via email

Dear JR

What a fine thing a sour, earthy pickled onion is. Brining the onions for 24 hours before pickling removes some moisture and is vital if you like them crunchy.

It’s said that dry brining – liberally salting the peeled onions, rather than soaking them in brine – makes them crunchier still, although I haven’t tried it. Do let me know if you try it. It may also draw out some of the sulphurous compounds in the onion, making them a bit sweeter.

 

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