Limes seem like lemons’ oddball cousins. Small and green (or yellow), they can be overlooked in the fruit bowl. But in a squeeze, they can open a wide world of flavor.
At home in kitchens around the globe, limes add their own distinctive fragrance as well as zesty taste to a wide range of cuisines, from their native Persia and the Philippines to China, India, southeast Asia, Mexico and the Caribbean.
Without lime, 7-Up would be just fizzy lemonade. Limes of all stripes add punch to beer and cocktails (no margarita is complete without a squirt.)
“Most people don’t know anything about limes,” said citrus farmer Chris Strutz, who grows limes at his Strutz Ranch in Sloughhouse. “They may have heard of Persian limes or Key limes, but they don’t really know the difference. They usually want to buy green limes because that’s what they know.”
Limes’ taste and look often seem to be a blend of other citrus, because that’s what they are – hybrids. Unlike oranges or lemons, limes actually aren’t one kind of citrus, but combinations of others. Developed by plant breeders over centuries, several hybrid citrus species (some totally unrelated) are called “limes.” That’s also why lime varieties can look and taste so different.
Persian limes – those round, dark green ones – are the most common. Originally grown in the Middle East, they represent an ancient hybrid, most likely between the tiny yellow key lime and a lemon or citron. (Reflecting lime’s global popularity, this same fruit is also known as the Tahiti lime.)
The most common commercial variety of this lime in the U.S. is Bearss; it’s named for Porterville nurseryman John Bearrs, who developed this seedless lime in his California nursery in the late 1800s.
Almost always sold green, Persian limes actually turn yellow when fully ripe. (Like other citrus, limes only ripen on the tree.) Their skin is thicker and less aromatic than smaller varieties, but their juice is distinctly green.
Key limes, popularized in the Caribbeans, Mexico and southern Florida, are gold-tinged nuggets of sweet-tart flavor. Their juice is yellow, too, which means a real Key lime pie looks more like buttery lemon than any shade of “lime green.”
“People who know what they are really love them,” Strutz said of Key limes, which tend to be sweeter and seedier than Persian limes.
One of the oldest limes, Key limes are believed to be a cross of a wild citrus native to the Philippines and citron. How it got to the Florida Keys needs a world map. The original Key lime likely grew in Southeast Asia, progressed along trade routes to the Middle East, then on to Spain.
Early Spanish colonists brought this little lime with them to the Caribbean, where it escaped into the wild.
Often substituted for Key limes, the Mexican lime has a darker skin and greener juice. Looking similar to Key limes but with green juice, yellow limequats are a cross between a lime (usually Persian) and kumquat.
Prized for its scent as well as flavor, kaffir limes are related to Key lime’s Philippine ancestor. Both its fruit and leaves are used in cooking throughout tropical Asia including India, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia. Its essential oil provides lime’s distinctive fragrance in lime-scented products.
Limes can be difficult to grow in colder climates; the shrub-like trees are very frost sensitive and can be killed by prolonged temperatures under 28 degrees.
But when lime trees are happy and frost protected, they tend to bloom several times a year, yielding fruit year round, too. In California, the lime harvest stretches from May through winter.
That comes in handy this month. National Margarita Day is Feb. 22. Cheers!
Key lime pie (gluten-free)
8 to 10 servings (makes one 9-inch pie)
Serve with coconut whipped cream, whipped cream or sour cream.
Make ahead: The date-coconut crust can be made and refrigerated a day in advance (covered). The pie needs to cool for at least 2 hours, then needs to be refrigerated overnight.
Adapted from “Gluten-Free Girl: American Classics Reinvented,” by Shauna James Ahern and Daniel Ahern (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
1 1/2 cups pitted dried dates
2 cups shredded unsweetened coconut
4 large egg yolks
One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup fresh lime juice, preferably from Key limes
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Place the dates in a bowl; cover with warm water and let them soak for 20 minutes. Drain, squeezing them as dry as you can, then transfer to a food processor, along with the coconut. Pulse until finely chopped; they may form a large ball around the blade.
Press the mixture into a 9-inch pie pan, making sure to distribute it evenly on the bottom and up the sides. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Whisk together the egg yolks and condensed milk in a mixing bowl, then stir in the lime juice and salt, to form a thick and smooth filling. Pour into the chilled crust.
Put the pie on a parchment-lined baking sheet and put it in the oven. Bake until the top is just starting to set, about 15 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack, at least 2 hours. Refrigerate the pie overnight.
Lime coconut sour cream Bundt cake
Prep time: 20 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes (plus cooling time)
After zesting the limes in this recipe, squeeze the juice and reserve for another use. You can also add a bit of lime juice to the glaze. From www.mybakingaddiction.com.
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
Zest of 3 medium limes
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup regular or reduced-fat sour cream
1/2 cup sweetened flaked coconut
1 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
5 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Zest of 1 medium lime
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan, set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, cream the butter until smooth.
In a separate bowl, combine the sugar and lime zest mixing together with your fingertips until the sugar is moistened and fragrant. Add the sugar mixture gradually to the butter and beat on medium speed until light fluffy, about 3 minutes. Mix in vanilla.
Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder and baking soda. Add flour mixture to sugar mixture alternately with sour cream, beating until well blended after each addition. Fold in the coconut.
Spoon mixture into prepared pan and smooth the top with a spoon or offset spatula.
Bake 50-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool for 20 minutes on a wire rack. Invert cake onto wire rack; gently remove pan. Cool completely.
Meanwhile, prepare the lime glaze. In a medium bowl, combine all the glaze ingredients and stir until smooth. If mixture is too thick, add more cream 1 teaspoon at a time until you reach the desired consistency. It should be pourable enough so it drips down the side of the cake.
Lime chicken chili soup
Serves 4 or 5
Adapted from recipe by Fort Worth chef Claudia Sheddy.
4 organic or all-natural boneless chicken breasts
Salt, to taste
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 small bunch of celery stalks, chopped
1 onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 poblano pepper, deseeded and chopped
2 liters organic, sodium-free chicken broth
1 cup corn
1 cup hominy
1 cup canned diced tomatoes, juice removed
Avocado slices, for garnish
Chopped cilantro, for garnish
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Season chicken breasts with salt and roast until cooked through. Remove, let cool, and then shred into pieces.
Heat grapeseed oil in a stock pot and sauté carrots, celery, onion, garlic and pepper until vegetables are translucent. Add broth, shredded chicken, corn, hominy and tomatoes and simmer for 30 minutes.
Squeeze the juice from the limes into the soup and season with salt, as needed. Garnish with avocado slices and cilantro.
Pan-seared shrimp with chipotle-lime glaze
Overcooking shrimp is a shame, which is why the folks at America’s Test Kitchen came up with this technique. Residual heat brings the shrimp to the right degree of doneness, in minutes. Serve with a salad of mango, avocado, scallions, jalapeno and cilantro. Adapted from "The Complete America's Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook 2010-2011," by the editors of America's Test Kitchen.
1 1/2 to 2 pounds extra-large (21 to 25 per pound) raw shell-on shrimp (if using frozen shrimp, make sure it is thoroughly defrosted)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 or 2 limes
Leaves from 4 to 6 cilantro stems
1 chipotle pepper en adobo , plus 2 teaspoons of adobo
4 teaspoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
Peel and de-vein the shrimp; leave the tail shells on if the shrimp are to be eaten with hands. Place in a bowl and toss with the salt, pepper and granulated sugar.
Trim off the scallion roots, then cut the white and light-green parts crosswise in very thin slices to yield 3 or 4 tablespoons; place in a medium bowl. Cut the lime(s) in half; squeeze them into the bowl to yield 2 tablespoons. Chop the cilantro to yield 3 tablespoons, then add to the bowl. Mince the chipotle and add to the bowl, along with 2 teaspoons of the adobo and the brown sugar. Mix well.
Heat a tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet (preferably nonstick) over high heat until the oil just begins to smoke. Add half of the shrimp, spreading them in a single layer. Cook for about 2 minutes, until the edges turn pink. Remove the skillet from the heat. Use tongs to flip each shrimp over; let stand for about 30 seconds so that all but the very center of each shrimp has become opaque.
Transfer the shrimp to a large plate. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the skillet; once it just begins to smoke, add the remaining shrimp and repeat the cooking process. After the second batch has stood off the heat, return the first batch to the skillet (combining all the shrimp) and add the chipotle mixture; toss to incorporate. Cover and let stand for about 2 minutes; the shrimp will be cooked through. Divide among individual plates. Serve immediately.
Mexican limeade (limonada)
Makes about 2 quarts
This can be enjoyed over ice or used as the base for mojitos. Note: Limes can vary in acidity, so add more or less water to balance the limeade to taste. Adapted from a recipe on notjustbaked.com.
2 cups fresh lime juice (about 20 Mexican or Key limes, or about 8 Persian limes)
1 1/2 cups cane sugar
8 1/2 to 10 cups water
Place 1 1/2 cups sugar and 1 1/2 cups water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved, to make a simple syrup. Remove from heat, and let cool slightly.
Place the syrup in a large jar or pitcher. Stir in the lime juice and 7 cups of water to combine.
Taste for sweetness. Add more sugar and/or water (just a few tablespoons at a time) to adjust. Serve cold. Store chilled for up to one week.