Sep 01, 2017

Let’s Talk About Limes

By MaryAnn Miano

Lovely limes have their own distinct citrus taste, and they truly stand out among the grapefruits, oranges, mandarins, tangerines, and lemons of the world. They are the most prominent citrus fruits in tropical climates and have one and a half times as much acid, weight for weight, as a lemon.

It is hard to judge when the lime was first taken into cultivation, since the oldest surviving documents don’t distinguish it clearly from other citrus fruits. It seems the lime was not known in classical times. We do know that limes originated in the region of Malaysia and were carried to Europe by the Arabs. They were cultivated in Italy and Spain. These tasty green orbs were better suited in hotter climate, so the cultivation did not last for long in those countries.

Soon after discovery of the New World by Europeans, the lime was introduced along with other citrus fruits, and limes quickly became abundant in the West Indies and Central America, especially in Mexico. The key lime tree probably first arrived in the Florida Keys in the 1500s with the Spanish. These were the ordinary, small acid limes that were cultivated.

The use of fresh limes in beverages and to flavor sweet items such as sorbet or a mousse, or in key lime pie in the United States, is well-known and becoming familiar as the availability of fresh limes in temperate countries increases. Less familiar is the use of limes, fresh or, more often, dried, in savory stews in the Near/Middle East and South Asia. In Iran, dried limes are indispensable in stews (knoresht), to which they give a pleasantly musty, tangy, sour flavor. Sometimes they are split open, the pips (seeds) removed, and the rest ground up into fine powder to be sprinkled into stews and soups. They can be dried for a short time when they remain pale in appearance for light-colored stews, or for a long time when they become very dark for use in dark-colored stews.

Lime flowers are liked by bees, and the excellence of the honey produced from them is the greatest benefit they offer (although an indirect one). In the 1920s, the Persian lime began to displace the West Indian or key lime on Florida plantations. After a severe hurricane wiped out the key lime plantations in South Florida, growers replanted with Persian limes. The key lime continues to predominate in the rest of the world and is generally considered more flavorful, tart, and aromatic, but the Persian lime is more resistant to cold and insect pests.

Key lime pie is wildly popular here in the United States and is a uniquely American dessert, and we dedicate a day of recognition for the confection on September 26. Key lime pie is the official pie of the state of Florida, and many believe that the first one was created by “Aunt Sally,” who was the cook of a ship salvager and Key West’s first millionaire, William Curry. The traditional ingredients of the pie were easy to access on board a ship, because they were basic and some were non-perishable: canned milk, limes, and eggs. Key lime juice is a pale yellow color that, when combined with the egg yolks for the recipe, results in the yellow pie filling. The pie should never look green!

Seemingly every restaurant in the Florida Keys and Key West serves this wonderful pie. There are numerous versions made throughout the region. When the filling’s ingredients are mixed together, a reaction between the condensed milk and the acidic lime juice causes the filling to thicken on its own without requiring baking (a process called “thickening”). However, we now bake these pies for a short time due to fear of consuming raw eggs. The baking process further thickens the mixture.

Make the following pie to celebrate National Key Lime Pie Day this September 26.




1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

4 large eggs, separated

¾ cup fresh key lime juice (from about 20 key limes)

Finely grated lime zest, for garnish (optional)


Graham cracker crust: 12 graham cracker sheets (6 ounces), broken into pieces, or 1½ cups graham cracker crumbs; 6 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled, plus more for pie plate; 3 tablespoons sugar; pinch of salt



For Graham Cracker Crust

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly butter a 9-inch pie plate. In a food processor, pulse graham crackers until finely ground. In a bowl, combine crumbs, butter, sugar, and salt. Press mixture firmly and evenly into bottom and up sides of pie plate. Bake until lightly browned, about 12 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack.


For Pie

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In a bowl, whisk to combine condensed milk, egg yolks, and lime juice. Pour mixture into baked and cooled crust. Bake pie until center is just set, 15 to 17 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack.

Beat granulated sugar and egg whites in the bowl of a standing electric mixer. Place bowl over (not in) a pan of simmering water, and stir until warm to touch and sugar is dissolved. Attach bowl to mixer; beat on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form and meringue is glossy, about 5 minutes.

Top pie with meringue, and garnish with lime zest, if desired.