7 Ways To Upgrade Key Lime Pie

Decorated key lime pie
Decorated key lime pie - Jmichl/Getty Images

As a native Floridian, key lime pie holds a special place in my heart. Deliciously balancing sweetness with tartness, key lime pie is creamy, tangy, and refreshing. Perhaps no other dessert showcases the glory of citrus more brilliantly.

Key lime pie is typically made with lime juice, sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks, and a graham cracker crust. With its light shade of yellow, topped with a cloud of whipped cream along with grassy slivers of citrus zest, the luminous tinge of this pie seems to reflect the colors of a sunny day in the subtropical climate from which it came. Tasty and beautifully simple, the flavor of key lime pie is certainly wonderful even in its most basic form. At the same time, there are always things you can do to take your recipe to the next level. If you're looking for a few tasty ways to make key lime pie even better, then you're in the right place.

Read more: Cake Hacks Every Baker Will Wish They Knew Sooner

Make The Crust From Scratch

Graham crackers and crumbs
Graham crackers and crumbs - CKP1001/Shutterstock

Graham cracker crust is an essential component of key lime pie. Comforting and a little crumbly, it adds the perfect amount of taste and texture to the pie. To save time, it's always tempting to buy premade crusts from the store, since they tend to be widely available and fairly inexpensive. At the same time, making a simple graham cracker crust really isn't all that difficult or time-consuming, and your extra effort will pay off in spades.

Instead of buying pre-made crust for your key lime pie, try getting a handful of ingredients to make it from scratch. There's a good chance that you already have several of these on hand, considering that they're all quite common. All you need is crushed graham crackers, melted butter, and sugar. For a warm touch of subtle spice, you can also add a little cinnamon. Once everything is mixed together, tightly press the crust into a pie plate. If you prefer a no-bake style crust, then this can be refrigerated for a while (or briefly frozen) to help it solidify before the pie is filled. If you prefer a pre-baked crust that's crispier and more brittle, then you can bake it at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for about 8 to 10 minutes until the crust is golden. No matter which way you go, the crust is bound to be far superior to anything you buy pre-made at the store and noticeably boost the flavor of your key lime pie.

Brown The Butter For Your Crust

Brown butter in pan
Brown butter in pan - Candice Bell/Getty Images

Browning the butter before you mix it with the graham cracker crumbs and sugar will add a pleasantly surprising amount of flavor. Brown butter has a nutty and toasty taste that pairs wonderfully with graham crackers and provides a nice contrast to the acidic brightness of citrus.

When you make brown butter, I'd recommend using the unsalted variety, to have complete control over the key lime pie's level of saltiness. If you'd like a touch of salt to help enhance the other flavors, adding a little pinch while you're mixing the crust should be more than enough. As for the browning process, it's very easy. An important thing to keep in mind here is that butter can burn very quickly; this is something you really have to keep your eyes on. When butter burns, the flavor becomes bitter and extremely unappetizing, so it's definitely something to avoid.

It's a good idea to cut your butter into cubes first so it can melt more evenly in the pan. Set your burner to a low heat, let the butter melt, and use a spatula to stir it along the way. Turn the stove off just as it begins to brown, because the butter will continue to cook some more from the residual heat. You'll notice some sediment at the bottom of the butter, which comes from toasted milk solids. Be sure to keep those in the butter, because that's where most of the nuttiness comes from.

Get Nutty

Heap of crushed nuts
Heap of crushed nuts - Konstantingushcha/Getty Images

Key lime pie doesn't traditionally feature any nuts, but some rules are meant to be broken. Because key lime pie is so creamy and velvety, it can definitely benefit from a little extra texture. Sure, the graham cracker crust adds some, but it's fairly light and crumbly. Adding some crushed nuts into the mix can lend the crust some additional crispness that makes the pie even more delicious.

As for the type of nuts to use, there's definitely some flexibility here. Macadamia nuts are an excellent choice, since they are buttery and have a natural sweetness that allows them to seamlessly blend in, flavorwise, while introducing some texture. Pecans are another good call, because they have a distinctive taste that's somewhat reminiscent of vanilla and maple, which compliments the other ingredients. To intensify their flavor and texture, try toasting the nuts and tossing them with a pinch of salt before adding them to the crust.

Add Coconut

Shredded coconut
Shredded coconut - Fcafotodigital/Getty Images

Key lime pie is the quintessential tropical dessert, and what's more tropical than coconuts? Honestly, it's a bit surprising that coconut didn't nestle its way into the traditional key lime pie to begin with. Coconut palms can be found throughout the Keys and South Florida, and the Floridian variety is perfectly edible, so how did the Sunshine State manage to overlook such an obvious ingredient in its own backyard? Some things in life will always remain a mystery.

There are a few ways to approach this. You could simply add shredded coconut to the crust, stir some coconut cream into the filling, sprinkle it on top with lime zest as garnish, or all of the above. Just don't let the flavor stray too far away from the limes, because that flavor should shine through most vibrantly. The coconut should be noticeable and complementary but still take a backseat to the citrus.

Sprinkle A Little Zest In The Crust

Fresh lime zest
Fresh lime zest - Denira777/Getty Images

While lime zest (or perhaps paper-thin slices of lime) are commonly used to garnish the top of a key lime pie, it seems to be less used in the crust. This could be out of fear that moisture in the zest could transfer into the crust, which may potentially compromise its texture, but the reality is that even just a little lime zest goes a long way and shouldn't make a noticeable difference in the crust's consistency. The flavor it adds, on the other hand, will give a noticeable improvement.

The trick here is just making sure that you only zest the outermost layer of the lime — try not to go any deeper than the thin green skin of the fruit. Just below citrus skin is a membrane of spongy white citrus pith, and it's mostly flavorless. At times, though, pith can mix with the zest and produce a subtle but unpleasant bitterness, so it's best to try and avoid it.

Bust Out The Torch

Toasted meringue on key lime pie
Toasted meringue on key lime pie - Grogl/Getty Images

Butane torches for the kitchen can really come in handy. Whether you're searing the edges of pork belly to make it extra crispy or browning cheese on top of French onion soup, there's no doubt that wielding a handheld beam of fire has its advantages. Above and beyond savory applications, it can also be used to make toasted meringue for sweet treats like key lime pie.

The benefit of toasted meringue is that it adds a caramelized creaminess that's akin to marshmallows sizzled over a campfire. The toasty flavor combined with the sweet fruitiness of the other ingredients is a match made in heaven. The darkened edges of the meringue also provide a striking visual contrast to the rest of the pie, which makes it look more professional and appetizing. If you don't have a butane torch, then you can still achieve this in the oven, but the torch definitely gives you more control.

Use Real Key Limes

Key limes growing on tree branches
Key limes growing on tree branches - Key TV/YouTube

There are notable differences between key limes and the common Persian limes we see at stores. For starters, key limes are smaller, rounder, and less acidic. The key lime's lower level of acidity makes them a little sweeter and less tart compared to Persian limes. Ripe key limes are also a different color than Persian limes — at their prime, key limes actually have light yellow skin, unlike the dark green skin that Persian limes have.

In the United States, Key limes tend to be hard to track down outside South Florida and California, which means that it can be difficult to find key lime pie that's actually made with real key limes. The good news is that even though Persian limes have a slightly different flavor profile, they still make a suitable substitute. But if you happen to get lucky and encounter fresh key limes for sale at any farmers markets or grocery stores, you should definitely score some. Their distinctive flavor and aroma bring a little something special to the table.

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