What Are Limes?

Buying, Using, and Recipes

Whole and sliced limes

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Limes are small green citrus fruits that are very easy to recognize. The most common are Persian limes, also known as Bearss or Tahitian limes. Most of the world's commercially grown lime trees are found in Mexico, the country that also consumes the most limes. Limes are used in cuisines throughout the world. Though many people are familiar with bottled lime juice, using fresh limes can really make a difference in the flavor of your food and drinks. The good news is that limes are available in most markets year-round. There are some tricks you can use to select the best and juiciest limes. Plus, you'll want to know the various ways limes are used in recipes.

What Are Limes?

Persian limes are what most people think of simply as "limes." The limes sold in markets are commonly harvested and sold when they're a dark green color. They turn a light yellow hue as they ripen. When allowed to ripen on the tree (Citrus latifolia), the fruits are even juicier. Persian limes typically grow to 2 inches in diameter and have a rounded, slightly oval shape. It's a seedless variety, and the flesh is a pale greenish-yellow.

Generally, limes simply require a quick rinse before use. The zest may be removed or the fruit cut open and juiced or sliced as a garnish. Limes are typically inexpensive, though the price can vary depending on the season and if there are crop shortages.

How to Use Limes

Limes can be broken down into two main flavor parts: the zest and the juice. To get the zest, rinse the fruit with water and pat dry. Run a microplane or grater over the outer surface, scraping off just the green part of the skin while avoiding the bitter white pith underneath.

To get fresh-squeezed lime juice, cut the lime in half and squeeze out the juice. This can be done by hand or with any variety of citrus juicers, either manual or electric. Maximize the juice yield by using fruit at room temperature. Before cutting it, roll it under your palm on the counter, applying firm pressure for about 10 seconds. The average lime yields 1 tablespoon or between 1/2 ounce and 1 ounce of juice.

Whole limes can also be cut into slices and wedges. Lime garnishes are popular for beverages and some food dishes, including seafood and salads. They bring an extra zest of flavor when squeezed on top of either.

A lime sliced in half on top of a pile of whole limes
Vitalina Rybakova / Getty Images
Grilled salmon steak with lime slices
Andrew Bret Wallis / Getty Images
Still life with fruit cocktails in jars with drinking straws
Danielle Wood / Getty Images 
Chicken tacos with wedges of lime
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A white plate with a slice of key lime pie with whipped cream on top
 Beth Galton Inc. / Getty Images

What Do They Taste Like?

Limes have a tart, acidic taste with just a slight hint of sweetness. They're bright and vibrant, with a distinct zesty sour flavor, and their mouth-puckering bitterness is why they're not eaten whole like an orange.

Lime Recipes

Lime zest is commonly added to salad dressings and marinades. It can also be mashed into butter to make compound butter. The juice is used in beverages as well as sauces and dips (including guacamole), sometimes even just squeezed over the top of a finished dish. The juice and zest are often both used in lime-flavored desserts. You can also use limes in many recipes where you might normally use lemons, for example, to turn lemonade into limeade.

Where to Buy Limes

Any decent grocery store should have limes available year-round. Limes may be prepackaged in net produce bags, but selecting individual limes from a bin ensures every fruit you buy is the best quality. Either way, they are generally sold by the pound; they're also available in bulk quantities. The price and size vary with the season, though they're generally inexpensive. Only when there is a shortage of limes—often due to weather or tree disease—will lime prices rise significantly. A warm climate is required to grow limes at home, and it is possible to get a decent yield from a backyard lime tree. In colder regions, container planting is required and dwarf trees are best. The plant must be brought inside for the winter before the temperature drops to 40 F.

Look for limes that aren't deep, dark green, if at all possible. You want that lighter yellow hue if you can find it. No matter the color, select limes that feel a bit softer and have smoother skin as they are closer to being ripe and will yield more juice. Dark green and rock-hard limes are not close to being ripe; they can be ripened at home by setting them on the counter, but you'll have to wait a few days, if not longer.

Storage

If you're going to use limes within a week, store them at room temperature. Extra limes can be stored in a sealable plastic bag in the refrigerator for weeks. Set them out to warm up before using.

Lime juice can also be frozen for a very long time in airtight containers. For smaller serving sizes, freeze the juice in ice cube trays and bag those once completely solid. The frozen lime juice will last six months in a refrigerator's freezer and up to a year in a deep freezer.

Nutrition and Benefits

Like most citrus fruits, limes are an excellent source of vitamin C. They have no cholesterol, sodium, or fat and very few calories. Limes also include antioxidants and healthful phytonutrients. It's good to keep in mind that these benefits tend to be minimal because lime juice is generally not consumed in large quantities. However, fresh limes are healthier than most bottled lime juices, which often include sweeteners and additives.

Limes vs. Lemons

At first glance, anyone can tell the difference between a lime and a lemon. Where limes are small, round, and green, lemons are large, oval, and yellow. It's important, however, to understand the flavor difference so you'll know whether substituting one for the other is a good idea.

Both citrus fruits are sour and acidic. Lemons definitely have a sweeter profile and limes are noticeably more bitter. For this reason, lemons are more universal, pairing wonderfully with fish, shellfish, chicken, lamb, berries, and garlic. Lemons are often found in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. You need to be a bit more selective with limes. They're used often in Mexican foods and pair best with coconut, chile peppers, strawberry, and mint. Limes are good with fish, shellfish, and chicken, or grilled meats.

Varieties

Key limes (also called Mexican limes) are the other popular variety of lime used in the kitchen. They're smaller than Persian limes, about the size of a golf ball. Key limes also have thinner skin, are almost a perfect sphere, and have a very tart flavor when green, turning sweeter as they ripen. Although key limes are juicier than Persian limes, the larger Persian limes will yield more juice.