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The Key Lime Pie Debate

The Key Lime Pie Debate


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History, recipes, and varieties of Key lime pie, from Key Largo to Key West

Which variety of Key lime pie is best?

Sweetened condensed milk, Key lime juice, eggs — this basic but magical base creates one of the most widely made and controversial desserts in Florida: the Key lime pie. Purists will vehemently insist that there is only one way to make a Key lime pie and will scoff at variations on the treasured dessert. There are other individuals, however, who see the blank slate of the basic recipe as an opportunity to showcase some of the island’s other delicious tropical fruits. So the debate goes: Eggs or no eggs? Bake or no bake? Graham cracker crust or regular? Meringue or whipped cream?

In order to understand the heated debate over Key lime pie, it might help to understand its history. It's a generally accepted fact that the invention of Key lime pie coincided with the invention of Borden’s Sweetened Condensed Milk around 1856. This sweet canned milk was sold in William Curry’s hardware stores in the Florida Keys and allowed cooks on the isolated islands to prepare sweet cream sauces and desserts with shelf-stable milk, since there was no ice or refrigeration yet. But although there’s debate over the exact origin of what we know as Key lime pie, there's general agreement on how the popular dessert should taste.

So who has the best key lime pie in the Keys? Pretty much every bakery, restaurant, and coffee shop offers it in some form or another, so the competition is fierce. We’ve managed to weasel some recipes out of the best of the best so that you can decide for yourself! Whether you’re a strict purist or an adventurous pie connoisseur, we’ve got a Key lime pie for you.


Key Lime Pie

The graham cracker crust in this key lime pie recipe from culinary team member Ben Perez is just as buttery as the trademark tangy filling is creamy.

"My favorite part about a pie like this is the crust. I wrote this recipe making sure that the crust was not an afterthought and that each bite provided the perfect textural contrast between silky smooth filling and buttery, crispy crust."

What equipment do I need for key lime pie?

"After a few attempts at this classic dessert, I found that using an electric hand mixer resulted in a very light and fluffy filling. If you do not have an electric hand mixer or standing mixer, use a hand whisk, but it will take quite a bit of elbow grease to achieve a light and fluffy filling. If you do not have a food processor, crush the graham crackers in a large zip-top bag until finely ground, then add the remaining ingredients and evenly incorporate."

Do I need fresh key limes for key lime pie?

"If fresh key limes are not available at your local grocery store, you can absolutely use regular lime juice and zest. If you really aren't in the mood to juice and zest your own limes, you can purchase bottled key lime/regular lime juice, but you will notice a difference. Fresh is best, I promise!"


What You’ll Need To Make Key Lime Pie

  • You’ll need 8 to 10 limes total for this recipe. Choose plump limes that give a little when you squeeze them they will be easier to juice. You should get about 2 tablespoons of juice from each lime. Be sure to zest the limes before you squeeze the juice from them, as it’s near impossible to do afterward.
  • Sweetened condensed milk is canned milk from which water has been removed, and sugar has been added. Be sure not to confuse it with evaporated milk, which is usually sold right alongside.
  • With no eggs, it may be hard to believe that this pie will set, but have faith — it will.

I Made These Mini Key Lime Pies for Mother's Day, and Everyone Wanted the Recipe

After being unable to gather for more than a year, Mother&aposs Day 2021 was a very special day for my family. I was thrilled when my aunt asked if my husband and I could bring dessert to the brunch she was hosting for the occasion. I know my grandmother isn&apost picky and would eat anything I showed up with, but I wanted to really nail this one. I went straight to my parents to see what my grandmother&aposs absolute favorite dessert is and was determined to make it myself, though I&aposm a novice (at best) baker.

Key lime pie. I have to admit, I was a little nervous. I&aposd never attempted a creamy citrus dessert—my baking experience didn&apost really go beyond bunny cakes at Easter, Italian cream cakes at Christmas, and the occasional batch of cookies for friends. It&aposs not that I don&apost enjoy baking, I simply don&apost get the opportunity to do it often. And our house of two doesn&apost need layer cakes or dishes of brownies sitting around—we don&apost have enough self-control for that. Being assigned dessert for Mother&aposs Day was the perfect opportunity to launch me into my possible future as the family baker.


Recipe Notes

Is a homemade graham cracker crust necessary for key lime pie?

No. While I adore a homemade graham cracker crust probably even more than the next person, 9 times out of ten I use a store-bought graham cracker crust.

When you make the filling, it’s important to first blend the egg yolks and the condensed milk together until thick.

This will take at least two minutes.

Once the egg yolk and condensed milk has thickened, then add the key lime juice and stir to combine.

After you bake the pie, you’ll want to let it cool to room temperature and then put it in the refrigerator for a couple of hours.

A perfect key lime pie is served chilled.


Tips and Tricks

  • You can use a premade graham cracker crust, but I find the few minutes it takes to make one from scratch is totally worth it.
  • Like I mentioned above, you can also use bottled key lime juice, but I prefer fresh.
  • The key lime zest adds a ton of flavor, but it can also add bitterness. If you want less bitterness, you can cut back on the amount of zest added.
  • You don’t need to bake this pie very long, just long enough for it to set up. 10 minutes should be all you need. The pie will be mostly set, but will still jiggle a bit in the center.
  • Make sure you refrigerate the pie for at least 4 hours, but overnight is best.
  • I like to top mine with freshly whipped cream. You can also put a meringue on top of this pie, as well.


Classic Key Lime Pie

Creamy, tart-sweet Key lime pie has long been a favorite dessert of restaurant-goers. But if your dining-out days are few and far between, and you don't want to go long stretches without this delightful dessert, it's easy to make at home.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups (128g) graham cracker crumbs (or 142g boxed graham cracker crumbs)
  • 1/4 cup (28g) confectioners' sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 5 2/3 tablespoons (74g) butter, melted

*While it isn't traditional, add 1/3 to 1/2 cup (1 1/4 to 1 7/8 ounces) toasted coconut to the crushed cracker crumbs, if desired.

  • grated zest of 1 medium lime, about 1 tablespoon, not packed
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 14-ounce (397g) can sweetened condensed milk (1 1/4 cups)
  • 2/3 cup (152g) bottled Key lime juice or freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon lime oil, optional

Instructions

Select a pie pan whose inside top dimension is at least 9", and whose height is at least 1 1/4". Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Make the crust by stirring together all of the crust ingredients, mixing until thoroughly combined.

Press the crumbs into the bottom and up the sides of the pie pan.

Bake the pie crust for 15 minutes it'll start to darken in color a bit. Remove it from the oven, and place it on a rack to cool while you make the filling.

Perfect your technique

Key Lime Pie

Whisk the grated lime zest and egg yolks at high speed of an electric mixer for about 4 minutes. The mixture will lighten in color and thicken somewhat, looking kind of like Hollandaise sauce.

Stir in the sweetened condensed milk, mixing till smooth. Beat at high speed for 3 minutes the filling will become slightly thicker, and gain a bit of volume.

Add the lime juice, stirring just to combine. The mixture will thicken. Add lime oil to taste.

Pour the mixture into the crust, and return the pie to the oven. Bake for about 25 minutes, until it appears set around the edges, though still a bit wobbly in the center. The center should read about 145°F.

Remove the pie from the oven, and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for several hours before serving. Slice and serve each piece with a lightly sweetened dollop of whipped cream, if desired.


Recipe Summary

  • 12 graham cracker sheets, finely ground (1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs)
  • ¼ cup packed brown sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt, divided
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup heavy cream, divided
  • 3 teaspoons Key lime zest, divided
  • ½ cup fresh Key lime juice
  • 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon powdered sugar
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Garnish: Key lime slices

Preheat oven to 350°. Combine cracker crumbs, sugar, and 1/8 teaspoon salt in a bowl, stirring well to combine. Drizzle butter over crumb mixture toss with a fork until crumbs are moist. Press crumb mixture into bottom and up sides of a 9-inch glass or ceramic pie dish. Bake 8 minutes let cool on a wire rack.

Whisk together 1/3 cup cream, 2 teaspoons lime zest, lime juice, milk, eggs, and remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt in a bowl until smooth. Pour mixture into cooled crust. Bake 15 minutes. Remove from oven let cool 15 minutes. Refrigerate 2 hours or until set.

Combine powdered sugar, vanilla, and remaining 2/3 cup cream in a bowl. Beat with an electric mixer at high speed until soft peaks form. Dollop pie with whipped cream garnish, if desired.


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Beat the eggs and egg whites with a whisk or a mixer until blended.
  3. Stir in the juice, zest, and milk, and beat until well-blended.
  4. Pour the mixture into the crust. Bake on the center oven rack for about 20 minutes, until the center is set but still wobbly (it will firm up as it cools).
  5. Allow the pie to cool on the counter, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Before eating, spread the whipped topping evenly over the filling.

Eat This Tip

Now that you've got all that extra Key lime juice, what to do with it? Try one of these with your new citrus supply:


Recipe Chef Notes + Tips

How to Store: Store this in the refrigerator covered in plastic for up to 5 days. The pie does not freeze well because when it thaws, it can liquify. However, it is tasty eaten frozen so feel free to do that while storing it in the freezer for up to 2 months.

There is no need to buy this pie from a grocery store, you can do this at home and bring the restaurant right to your own kitchen.

You can use either whole graham crackers or graham cracker crumbs when making the crust.

Either size pie pan is fine as there will be enough to jam pack a 9” or comfortably fill up a 10”.

Use the backside of a spoon to help pack the crust into the pie pan.

Be sure to mix in the condensed milk, zest and juice just until combined, no need to over mix.

If using a 9” pie pan you can simply add the leftover ½ cup of batter to a ramekin and bake and chill and top of with graham cracker crumbs to make fun single-serving key lime dessert.