I “learned” to bake last year, by which I mean I no longer fly past any recipe that calls for flour. Now, while my eyes still grow wide and I stop breathing as I read through a recipe containing flour, I read through the recipe. Then I actually make the thing with flour. And my blood pressure still rises and I swear and things go wrong, but all of that to a lesser degree. Most importantly, I sort of understand baking now, why things are rising, falling, spreading, puffing up, become dense, shattering and collapsing at just the right moment, and that was where I wanted to get to with my baking experiments. I’ll continue to bake, perhaps more than ever before, but this year I choose to demystify…

fermentation.

You either got really excited just now or removed this site from your RSS feed. If you’re still hovering over the delete button in consideration of the latter, wait for a minute! Sure, you’re sort of right to wonder why people want to eat something politely named stinky tofu, and fine, you haven’t tried natto but even the sound foreshadows the “no thanks” with which you might refuse it, but you love Morrocan tagine, right? And realize the quoi in its je ne sais quoi is the preserved lemon, right? You order extra pickles on your burger sometimes, and like pickled radishes with your falafel or lime pickle with your curry, yes? And even if none of these apply to you, look up “fermented salsa” in your browser, like right now. Seriously. People are losing their minds over the stuff. You want to get in on that, at least, I know it!

And for those of you who have been meaning to make everything from kimchee to kombucha for ages, we’re going to do this right. As with the le sauce baking academy, I promise to research the hell out of the method and the recipes out there so we understand fermentation, but mostly so that we’ll end up with the most ridiculously delicious, complex, in-your-face brined delicacies ever.

I was so damn excited to preserve my first batch of lemons earlier this week–but they’re not going to be ready for 30 days! Make this your weekend project, so we can suffer together, please? By the first weekend in March, we could be making the most awesome vegetable tagine together. See you soon with another real pickle.

Preserved Lemons
(Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, Via Epicurious)

Wolfret’s Notes on this recipe… “The important thing in preserving lemons is to be certain they are completely covered with salted lemon juice. According to the late Michael Field, the best way to extract the maximum amount of juice from a lemon is to boil it in water for 2 or 3 minutes and allow it to cool before squeezing. With my recipe you can use the lemon juice over and over again. (As a matter of fact, I keep a jar of used pickling juice in the kitchen, and when I make Bloody Marys or salad dressings and have half a lemon left over, I toss it into the jar and let it marinate with the rest.) Use wooden utensils to remove the lemons as needed. Sometimes you will see a sort of lacy, white substance clinging to preserved lemons in their jar; it is perfectly harmless, but should be rinsed off for aesthetic reasons just before the lemons are used. Preserved lemons are rinsed, in any case, to rid them of their salty taste. Cook with both pulps and rinds, if desired.”
And on safety… “To sterilize a mason jar for the lemons, place it upside down in a steamer and steam for 10 minutes. Using tongs (wrap the ends in rubber bands for a better grip), remove the hot jar and dry it upside down on a paper towel-lined baking sheet in a warm oven. To sterilize the jar’s top, boil it in water for 5 minutes, then remove with tongs.When you’re ready to use a lemon, remove it with clean utensils to avoid contaminating the inside of the jar with bacteria. This way, the remaining contents of the jar will not need to be refrigerated.”

5 lemons
1/4 cup salt, more if desired

Optional Safi mixture:
1 cinnamon stick
3 cloves
5 to 6 coriander seeds
3 to 4 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
Freshly squeezed lemon juice, if necessary

EQUIPMENT:
Shallow bowl
Sterile 1-pint mason jar
Sharp knife

If you wish to soften the peel, soak the lemons in lukewarm water for 3 days, changing the water daily.

Quarter the lemons from the top to within 1/2 inch of the bottom, sprinkle salt on the exposed flesh, then reshape the fruit.

Place 1 tablespoon salt on the bottom of the mason jar. Pack in the lemons and push them down, adding more salt, and the optional spices between layers. Press the lemons down to release their juices and to make room for the remaining lemons. (If the juice released from the squashed fruit does not cover them, add freshly squeezed lemon juice — not chemically produced lemon juice and not water.*) Leave some air space before sealing the jar.

Let the lemons ripen in a warm place, shaking the jar each day to distribute the salt and juice. Let ripen for 30 days. To use, rinse the lemons, as needed, under running water, removing and discarding the pulp, if desired — and there is no need to refrigerate after opening. Preserved lemons will keep up to a year, and the pickling juice can be used two or three times over the course of a year.

Yield: Serves 6; makes about 1 1/2 cups