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Key lime: Handle with care

Paired right, the versatile little citrus punches up an otherwise ordinary dish. Pie is a natural, of course, but also consider scones, marinades and even ceviche.

November 04, 2009|Noelle Carter

At first glance, Key limes are hard to resist. Bright green, shading to lemon yellow, smooth, compact and tiny, they're adorably cute -- yeah, cute, just like a little puppy. It's hard not to want to snatch a bag or two along with your other groceries.

Of course, once you have gotten them home, you have to use them. You can break out the cocktail shaker -- a no-brainer -- Key limes have often been referred to as the "bartender's lime," and they readily complement a whole host of libations. But then what? Fix margaritas for a small party and you may still be left with several cute little limes, sitting sadly alone on your counter like a tragic still life. What to do?

You might be tempted to substitute them for the larger limes, lemons or even some other citrus in a recipe, but be careful, because these cute little puppies pack a powerful bite.

Pair them with the right ingredients, however, and they can brighten an otherwise ordinary dish, adding depth and dimension. Give them a little room and they can add wonderful complexity, shining as a main flavor, highlighting a layered harmony, even working as a seasoning. They've got a wonderful personality if you just get to know them.

Like all members of the citrus family, Key limes have a definite acidity. They're tart, sharp and incredibly sour, even more so than other limes -- they're almost borderline bitter. Key limes are extreme. And despite their yellowish cast, don't confuse them with lemons.

But after you get over the initial acidity, you might notice the herbal notes -- Key limes have their own harmony going on -- a bouquet almost. They're not a one-note fruit.

The key to cooking with them is balance. Because their flavor and nose are so assertive, Key limes don't always go well with other flavors. They won't readily share the stage. You really need to fine-tune to get a good balance.

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Lime differences

There are differences between Key limes and the limes we find in stores (commonly called "Tahitian" or "Persian," even though they are not grown in Iran). Key limes (also called Mexican or West Indian limes) are the most common lime found throughout the world; the U.S. is the exception in preferring the Persian lime.

That's largely due to an accident of history. Key limes were commercially produced in Florida back at the turn of the last century, but the crop was wiped out by a hurricane in 1926. When the growers replanted, they chose the Persian lime, which is more disease-resistant and heavier bearing, though Key lime trees can still be found in many residential backyards.

Along with cocktails, probably the most popular way to use Key limes is in the eponymous pie. About the only thing everyone agrees on is that it includes Key lime juice, but that's where the agreement ends. Most recipes combine the juice with sweetened condensed milk (some devotees swear by Borden's, now marketed as Eagle Brand) and egg to form a rich custard. After that, almost anything goes. It can be spooned into either a graham cracker or pastry crust, and topped with either meringue or whipped cream.

Many older recipes do not call for baking the custard even; the lime juice alone thickens the mixture over time to "set" the custard.

Cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum takes the pie in a different direction, which I like better. She lightens the custard with a bit of Italian meringue. Not only does it improve the texture, but it also helps distinguish the flavors on the palate, brightening the lime. The custard is baked in a classic graham cracker crust (baking helps to thicken the texture and firm up the slices) and topped with the remaining meringue, which is baked just long enough to slightly brown the edges.

Incidentally, Beranbaum prefers the Persian lime for the pie. She says the Key lime's "bitterness seemed to penetrate the sweetness." I prefer the punchiness of the Key lime.

The recipe is simple. Probably the hardest part is waiting long enough for the pie to chill sufficiently to eat.

One quick note here: You can't bottle fresh flavor. Packaged Key lime juice may look easy, but it tastes like the shortcut that it is. Generally made from concentrate and treated for preservation, it lacks punch and often has metallic undertones.

Anyway, it's not hard to find fresh Key limes in most Mexican markets (technically, they have a season, but they're grown in so many places that you can find them year-round). Look for limes that are heavy for their weight, green shading to yellow (yellow signals ripeness, and makes for a slightly less tart lime). Store them at cool room temperature because refrigeration can speed decay.

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Sweet or savory

It seems, more often than not, that Key limes (and limes in general) appear in sweet recipes, but they can be just as great in savory dishes.

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