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September, 2010

The Many Shades of Lime

By Dennis Linden

The simple squeeze of a lime can be such a powerful culinary tool. In a drink, the fruit adds that dash of zest that refreshes perfectly, be it iced limeade or a more adult libation.

As a cooking ingredient, limes and some varieties of lime leaves lend a complementary flavoring to a gamut of dishes from main entrées to salsas and desserts. One can use the taste variances that seasonal lime varieties offer throughout the year to manipulate the flavor of a dish from sweet to sour or vary the balance between the two. An important ingredient note: Avoid using an aluminum pan when cooking with limes; the fruit’s acid reacts with the aluminum, creating an off-flavor and a grayish color. While the list below contains some of the most popular commercially grown lime varieties available in the marketplace throughout the year, be prepared for a search mission to find them. Try upscale markets that offer a large selection of specialty produce. Also, in these competitive times customer service means everything, so do not be afraid to ask your local produce department manager to order some of these unique varieties. The distribution pipeline for perishable produce is an amazingly responsive network. If the item is grown commercially and allowed in this country, it is a quick phone call away for most retailers, large or small, to a wholesaler like Melissa’s. In fact, just ask your local grocer to call Melissa’s and we’ll take it from there!
Organic Limes
Persian Limes [aka Tahitian Lime] This is the variety that U.S. consumers are most familiar with at retail and is a hybrid of the much older Key Lime. The Persian lime took several centuries to spread from ancient Iran through the Mediterranean and then on to Brazil, Australia and finally Tahiti. South Pacific trade ships delivered saplings to California in the 1880s. By the end of World War I, the Persian/Tahitian had replaced the Key Lime in popularity as a commercial crop, though there was some market resistance. Canadians, for instance, took a long time to accept it because they were accustomed to the more flavorful Key Lime. The fruit is usually seedless, has a light-green to yellow pulp that is tender and acidic, yet lacks the distinctive aroma and bold flavor of the Key Lime. Persian limes are generally available year-round, and peak in volume and taste from May through August.

Key Limes
Key Limes are much smaller than Persian limes, nearly round, very thin-skinned and usually have a few seeds. Green key limes are actually immature fruits, prized for their acidity. They are aromatic and very juicy, with a stronger and more complex acidic flavor than Persian/Tahitian lime. Juice content is very high, well over 40%. As they ripen to a yellow color, the acid content diminishes greatly, resulting in a sweeter fruit. The name Key Lime is a reference to the Florida Keys as it has been a common crop in Haiti since the early 1500s, though the fruit’s origins can be traced back thousands of years to cultivations in the Indo-Malayan region. Also known as Mexican lime and West Indies lime, peak season for this fruit is June through August; however, the variety is available year-round from Mexico.

Kieffer Limes
Kieffer Limes are extremely fragrant and really indispensable in Thai cooking. Actually, the fruit’s leaves and peel have culinary value; the juice is not generally used in cooking because its perfume can overpower a dish. Kieffer leaves impart a unique, sweet, lemon-lime scent and flavor that is very distinct when added to soups, salads, curries and stir-fry dishes. The peel is even more richly aromatic than the leaves, with an exotic flavor unlike any other citrus. Kieffer Lime peel is the basic ingredient in Thai curries that make their flavors unique and distinct from Indian curries. This variety is available September through late December.

Sweet Limes
Sweet Limes have a unique flavor because they have less acid than any other variety. This fruit is thought to be a cross between a Mexican lime and the sweet lemon. That heritage is certainly apparent in its naturally mottled yellow-green skin. As the name implies, this lime is extremely sweet, aromatic and juicy when ripe. As a common crop in India, the variety is eaten out of hand, like an orange. The lack of acidity in this sweet citrus makes it a flavorful sauce ingredient that complements meat and poultry dishes. Sweet Limes are seasonally available from September through January.

Limequats are a cross between a kumquat and a lime making them bitter-sweet. The rind is fragrant and fairly thin, covering an acidic interior and is entirely edible. When the fruits are green, the juice tastes like a lime. When the rinds turn yellow, the juice tastes more like a lemon. Like a kumquat, the rind is thin and sweet. Although the Limequat can be served fresh and mixed in salad, it is mostly cooked into a sauce or preserve. This fruit makes an excellent marmalade. Limequat season is July through October.