Key Lime vs Lime: Is There Really a Difference?

Key lime pie is a summer essential—but can you make this dessert with regular limes? Let's take a closer look at Key lime vs lime.

Limes are a summer staple. Just a splash of this tart juice is all you need to bring out the bright flavors of salads and sooth the savory notes in grilled food. Not to mention, lime can be refreshing in cocktails, limeade and desserts!

But what if your recipe calls for Key limes—and you can’t find them at the grocery store? Is it okay to use regular limes instead?

The Difference Between Limes and Key Limes

What Are Key Limes?

Key limes—also known as Mexican limes or West Indies limes—are small, spherical limes that grow in tropical and subtropical regions. They’re light yellow (not green) when ripe and contain more seeds than regular limes. Their skin is also very thin, which means they don’t store well. It’s best to keep them out of the fridge and use them within two days of purchasing.

Key lime juice is prized for being tart and super-aromatic. You can use them in place of regular limes in any recipe, but they’re an ideal choice for sweetened-up desserts like Key lime pie, cupcakes or thumbprint cookies.

These limes might get their name from the Florida Keys, but they’re grown all of over Florida and in some areas of California. They only grow in the U.S. between June and September, though. In Mexico, they enjoy a year-round season, but their delicate nature means transporting them to the U.S. can be challenging.

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What Are Limes?

The limes you’ll find at the grocery store are called Persian limes or Tahiti limes. These larger limes are oval-shaped, dark green and juicy. Each lime contains two to three tablespoons of juice (compared to Key lime’s two to three teaspoons). Their thick skin helps them keep longer than Key limes, and they’re good for about a month in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.

Persian limes are acidic with a tangy flavor, but they lack the floral bouquet that accompanies Key limes. They’re a great substitute for vinegar in marinades or homemade salad dressings, and their juice and zest boost other flavors in savory recipes like lime-chipotle carnitas.

Mexico and Brazil grow most of the world’s Persian limes, but they’re also grown in the U.S. in Florida. Because they have thicker skin, they’re easier to ship, so you’ll find them available year-round.

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The Final Word

There is a slight flavor difference between Persian limes and Key limes. But when baked into a dessert like Key lime blondies, it’s hard to tell the difference. So if you can’t find Key limes, go ahead and use Persian limes. You’ll still wind up with a delicious summer pie. Just try to avoid pre-squeezed, store-bought juice; its flavor pales in comparison to the freshly-squeezed product.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.