Need a (Vegan) Boost of Umami? Add Preserved Lemon!

updated May 2, 2019
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

It’s easy to find umami sources in the world of meat and dairy, where ingredients like anchovies and Parmesan cheese can be added to give savory fullness to dishes that taste a little flat. There are vegan sources for umami too, but our list is missing one of my favorite ingredients for adding a jolt of rounded flavor: preserved lemons.

I’ve been finding ways to incorporate preserved lemons into my cooking for years, ever since friends of mine started giving out annual jars made with the fruits of their astoundingly productive Meyer lemon tree and I fell in love with their salty, bright, pickled taste.

But I didn’t realize the true umami potential of preserved lemons until I was faced with an insipid chickpea salad I had made for a vegan potluck. Normally, I would add a handful of grated aged cheese to round things out, but that obviously wasn’t an option. Preserved lemon to the rescue, whizzed to bits in a mini food processor with a little olive oil and fresh lemon juice. The finished salad was as good as any non-vegan version.

But the fun doesn’t stop at legumes, or at North African cuisine, where preserved lemons are commonly used. Add the chopped rind to simple pasta dishes, grains, vinaigrettes, or relishes. Used sparingly, it adds a depth that isn’t immediately recognizable, but is very good indeed.