If you’ve ever asked yourself (or the internet) “What is the difference between regular limes and Key limes?” it’s as likely to have been in frustration as in mere curiosity. We’ve all been there before: You’re in the grocery store with your shopping list, ticking off ingredients as they go into the cart when you realize that the next item you need isn’t there. They don’t carry it, or they’ve run out of stock. The other store is like, a 20 minute drive away…Surely this similarish-sounding ingredient will work? Especially, you figure, if the two look and smell more or less alike; perhaps they even belong to the same family. What difference will it really make?
Well, in the case of “regular” limes vs. Key limes, the truth is, not a ton. Of course there’s more separating the two than meets the eye, but the differences are fairly minute and, indeed, the two can often be used interchangeably in recipes without risk of total disaster. Though, naturally, it stands to reason that Key Lime Pie is not Key Lime Pie without the use of its namesake citrus. So, let’s break it down.
What’s in a name?
First things first: What we here in the States think of as “regular” or “conventional” limes, are actually technically called Persian limes or Tahitian limes (Citrus latifolia). Funnily enough, they’re actually much less common worldwide than the Key lime, which is also known as the Mexican lime or West Indian lime (Citrus aurantifolia). The latter’s Florida connection dates back to the turn of the last century, where they were commercially produced until a hurricane in the late 1920s pretty much wiped the crop out. Following that, production largely switched over to the more efficient and disease-resistant Persian variety. While many residents in the Key region still grow the eponymous trees on their property, most of the Key limes you find in stores here are sourced from Mexico.
Melissa's Fresh Key Limes, 5 pounds for $21.20 on Amazon
If you can't find them in stores, try Amazon.
How are Key limes different from regular limes?
Smaller though they may be, Key limes are actually known for having a bolder, slightly herbal-floral aroma and packing much more of an acidic punch than their Persian brethren. Aesthetically, they also tend to have a more yellow-ish tint to their green, the feel of the rind is a little more leathery, and inside, you’ll find significantly more seeds. Which brings up the subject of work: There’s no denying that Key limes require a lot more of it—especially when you consider yield (not a lot) versus the cost (sometimes up to two or three times more than a Persian lime).
Nellie & Joe's Famous Key West Lime Juice, $2.48 at Walmart
You can also buy Florida Key lime juice in bottles.
What other types of limes are there?
Another type of lime that turns up a lot in Southeast Asian recipes are makrut limes (also commonly called kaffir lime, though that name is offensive to many and best avoided, as it may be derived from a racial slur or at least sounds a lot like it); these limes (Citrus hystrix) are easy to spot by their bumpy, wrinkled skin. Makrut lime leaves may be easier to find than the fruit itself, especially in Asian grocery stores; they lend a floral, citrusy fragrance to Thai dishes that’s like a combo of Persian lime, lemon, and orange essence. The actual fruit isn’t very juicy, but the zest can be used like the leaves, to infuse flavor into soups, sauces, and curries.
You might also see calamansi (Citrus mitis) in an ingredients list for a Filipino dish, and it sometimes goes by the name Philippine lime or golden lime—but it’s not actually a lime at all. (Besides which, these small, thin-skinned citrus fruits don’t travel well, so they can be hard to find, but if you do get your hands on some, expect a taste somewhat like a sour orange.)
So, can you substitute one kind of lime for another?
When it comes to Key limes and conventional limes, yes! Despite their differences, the fact of the matter is they each have their merits in the kitchen, as these ten recipes demonstrate (and the Key lime recipes will be just as good if all you have is Persian limes).
No, not that daiquiri. While the icy, sugary frozen version will always hold a place in our spring-break-beach-loving hearts, it just can’t compare to the perfection of a classic daiquiri. Made up of just three simple ingredients—white rum, simple syrup, and fresh lime juice—this hard shaken sweet-tart refresher is guaranteed to become your summer (ok, year-round) staple. Get our Perfect Daiquiri recipe.
Looking for a (genuinely tasty) healthy snack to keep around the house for when those cravings attack? These crunchy-tangy-spicy poppers deliver the satisfaction of a much more sinful munchie. Get the Chili-Lime Roasted Chickpeas recipe.
Make like the song and put the lime in the coconut (milk) for this classic Thai soup. The citrus’ sharp, acidic profile cuts through the sweetness of the rich coconut milk and helps play up the sour-savory umami flavors of the fish stock and mushrooms. Get our Thai Coconut Chicken Soup recipe.
Often when lime is called for in a recipe, it’s as a secondary seasoning or garnish. Less common are recipes like this one, where the juice and zest of the citrus are featured prominently in several elements of the dish. Get our Grilled Chile Salmon with Lime Crema recipe.
Ambitious baker alert! Finally, a lime-centric dessert thinks outside the curd. This show-stopper of a dessert infuses lime zest into classic vanilla sponge cake, offering a subtle, refreshing tang to balance out the juicy sweetness of blackberry buttercream. Get the Blackberry Lime Cake recipe.
Key lime and pie are inextricably linked. In most people’s minds, the former hardly exists without the other. But, hey, if you’re going to get pigeonholed for something, it may as well be as one of the country’s most iconic and beloved desserts. Get our Key Lime Pie recipe.
Of course, if you love the flavor of this classic dessert but want to shake up the format, this clever recipe breaks out of the pie mold by presenting the curd base as a sweet dip for cookies and graham crackers. Get the Key Lime Pie Dip recipe.
Related Reading: Easy & Delicious Dessert Dip Recipes
If you’re filled up on pie (props to you and your willpower), opt instead for a dessert that emphasizes the lightness and freshness of the citrus. This tart, cooling sorbet is the perfect post-backyard-barbecue palate cleanser. Just be forewarned that juicing that many little Key limes is going to take some elbow grease. Get the Key Lime Sorbet recipe.
The intense, acid-driven profile of the Key lime is a nice foil to the natural oceany sweetness of scallops. Bright and aromatic with just the right kick of spice, this is a quick, easy summer starter. Get the Easy Key Lime Scallop Ceviche recipe.
Search for Key lime cocktails and more often than not a Martini-version of the pie will pop up. But if getting drunk on dessert isn’t exactly your thing, this simple cooler offers a lighter, more poolside-friendly alternative. Get the Key Lime Cooler recipe.
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