For such a small fruit, limes pack a powerful, puckering punch. In fact, many varieties of limes are more acidic than lemons. While in America lime wedges are most often found on the rim of a glass, many cuisines—like Southeast Asian, Mexican, Latin American and Caribbean—count on limes for their distinctive flavor.
Originating in Southeast Asia, limes were introduced into Egypt and Africa around the 10th century by Arab traders. They spread throughout southern Europe during the Crusades and arrived in the New World with Columbus. Spanish explorers brought West Indies limes to Florida in the 16th century. Today, limes are still grown commercially in Florida, as well as in the Southwest and California. Worldwide, they're grown in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, India and Spain.
In addition to being high in vitamin C, limes are also a very good source of dietary fiber and provide calcium, iron and copper.
There are both sweet and sour varieties, though sweet limes aren't as readily available in the United States as sour limes. You'll find limes that are oval or round, usually one to two inches in diameter.
The most popular sour varieties are the Tahitian limes, large and very acidic, with a pale, finely grained pulp. There are two varieties of Tahitian: Persian (egg-shaped and containing seeds) and Bearss (smaller and seedless). Key limes are smaller and rounder than Tahitian limes. Pale yellowish-green, they also have a high acid content and are very juicy and strong. They're used primarily for baking—most notably Key lime pies. Mexican limes are also smaller than Tahitian limes. They're very aromatic, with bright green skins.
Native to India, the sweet lime (aka Palestine sweet lime) is aromatic, sweet and non-acidic. It has a thin, smooth, yellow skin and is sometimes mistaken for lemons. The sweet lime can be used in place of other limes (especially when you want to tone down the tang). It's also perfect for beverages, marmalades and fruit salads.
Lime is a key ingredient in Southeast Asian, Mexican, Latin American and Caribbean cooking. A natural with seafood, simply squirt it on any grilled fish, shrimp or scallops. Use it to make a marinade, as in this recipe for Chili Lime Shrimp, which relies on tangy lime juice, garlic and jalapeños. Or try Cilantro Lime Noodles with Shrimp and Snow Peas or this Thai Fish Soup, which combines the zesty fruit with spiced coconut milk for a creamy, flavorful broth. A simple can of tuna becomes an Asian-inspired Ginger Tuna Salad when lime juice is combined with lemongrass and fresh ginger.
Tangy limes also enliven any salad; in Chicken Quesadillas with Salad and Chipotle Lime Dressing, a lime-dressed salad is the bedding for quesadillas. Lime juice can turn any vinaigrette into something with pizzazz, as in this recipe for Arugula with Tomatoes and Avocados in Lime Vinaigrette. And in this Curry Lime Dressing with Arugula & Pepper Salad, zesty lime is the perfect partner for lively arugula.
Consider using lime juice in place of lemon juice—in beverages, as garnishes, or dressings. Gazpacho often calls for a bit of lemon; here's a Rustic Gazpacho recipe that uses lime instead.
In beverages, limes can't be topped for liveliness. A touch of lime completes this Watermelon-Strawberry Lime Cooler, for example.
By the way, if your recipe calls for lime juice, juicing the fruit at room temperature will produce more juice than when the fruit is cold. You can also roll the fruit on a flat surface under the palm of your hand before juicing.
Unless you're looking for sweet limes (which are yellow), choose limes that are light to deep green and glossy. The skin should be thin and smooth. Avoid hard, shriveled skin or coarse, thick skins, which are signs of dryness. Small brown areas are OK, but soft spots or large blemishes show the fruit has been damaged. The fruit should be heavy for its size, and, if it's ripe, the lime will be firm but not hard.
Store limes in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.