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Key Lime Pie (unbaked)

I don’t like baked key lime pies. Some people say that they taste the same (or very similar), but I still object. The pies are baked because of a fear of salmonella or other potentially egg-borne pathogens. The fact of the matter is that the acid in the fresh lime juice that is used to make the pie actually “cooks” the eggs, thus destroying anything harmful that might have been in them. Dishes like tartar and ceviche, where the fish is “cooked” with lemon or lime juice operate under the same principle. If it’s good enough for fish, it’s good enough for pie.

Part of the allure of the key lime pie, aside from its bright, tart flavor and incredibly creamy texture, is the fact that it has four ingredients, including the crust. Technically, the crust has more than one ingredient (graham crackers, butter, sugar), but because the pie filling is so simple, it sounds much better to phrase it that way. And if you buy a pie crust, so much the better.

The ingredients are egg yolks, sweetened condensed milk and fresh key lime juice. Key limes are smaller and more tart than regular (Persian) limes, but I have never found my pies to be lacking in tang despite the fact that I don’t use key limes. It is imperative that you use fresh lime juice for this pie, as many “juices” in the store are reconstituted or contain preservatives that you don’t want in the pie.

As I said before, the pie is tart, refreshing and incredibly creamy. The lime juice-“cooked” yolks give just enough structure to the pie to make it sliceable. I like it plain, but whipped cream is the most popular accompaniment.

Key Lime Pie

1 pre-baked graham cracker crust (8 or 9-in.)
1/2 cup fresh lime juice (key lime, if possible)
1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
4 large egg yolks, at room temperature

In a large bowl, beat egg yolks and sweetened condensed milk with a large whisk until smooth. Whisking constantly, stream in lime juice and stir until smooth and well-combined. Pour into pie shell.
Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
Serves 8.

(Disclaimer: All this said, I know that there are some people whose doctors tell them to avoid even a hint of undercooked food. If so, you may want to consider that advice when making a key lime pie. I’m a baker, not a doctor.)

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  • Jessica
    June 1, 2006

    This looks great! My ex-roommate makes key lime pie, but the crust is chunky and uneven. The filling is runny and not so smooth. I don’t understand-she bakes it and uses fresh lime juice. With the double “cooking,” why does the filling still ooze?

  • Lori
    June 1, 2006

    Ohhh, I love key lime pie. I also make it, although with the local limes that we have here in the Philippines. It turns out great! FYI, we don’t have a problem with egg-borne illnesses where I come from. It’s just imperative to get fresh eggs, and from a store/market with a high turnover.

  • J
    June 2, 2006

    Key lime pie is my favorite, but the reason I don’t like the un-baked pies is that the invariably call for sweetened condensed milk, and the taste of it ruins the pie for me. Aside from being cloyingly sweet, there’s that *flavor* that curls my toes (and not in a good way ;).

    I’ve had pies made with plain lime, as well, and they lack something, for me. Key limes have a particular flavor that I must have in my KL pie.

    The best key lime pie I’ve had used a sort of shortbread-y tart shell with what I could have sworn was macadamia nuts ground in.

    OMG, I’m a Key lime pie snob. Somebody shoot me.

  • Nic
    June 2, 2006

    Jessica – That is a good question! Not to knock your ex roommate, but I’m not sure that’s a pie a want to eat!

    Lori – The odds of egg problems even here are small, but you’re dead on about using the freshest eggs you can find.

    J- No worries! I really don’t care for sweetened condensed milk in general, but this pie is a rare exception. A shortbread shell sounds delish!

  • swee
    June 2, 2006

    hi, i was wondering, when will the next BBM be ? thanks

  • Acme Instant Food
    June 2, 2006

    I LOVE key lime pie but I have never made one. This looks like an excellent place to start! Thanks for the post.

  • Jenny
    June 2, 2006

    I’m de-lurking to say, first, that I love your blog. You choose wonderful simple recipes.

    Since I have two kids who are too young for raw eggs, I did a little more digging into the salmonella issue. I don’t think the lime juice actually cooks the eggs, but it does firm them up. Anyway, I found this interesting recommendation on the USDA site which provides an alternate to cooking the pie: ” To make key lime pie safely, heat the lime (or lemon) juice with the raw egg yolks in a pan on the stove, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches 160°F. Then combine it with the sweetened condensed milk and pour it into a baked pie crust. ” http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Egg_&_Egg_Product_Safety/index.asp

    Also, did you see the write-up in this month’s Cook’s Illustrated comparing key limes to Persian limes to bottled lime juice in a Key Lime Bar recipe? They concluded that key limes were best, persian limes next best, and all bottled juice tasted bad. I found that interesting; I haven’t done a direct taste test myself.

  • Michele
    June 3, 2006

    Looks great! I agree, Key Lime Pie should not be baked.

  • doodles
    June 11, 2006

    well I must say first your blog is wonderfcul and your photos are spectacular.
    Your Key Lime pie recipe isthe real deal exactly – exactly like every other good Key Lime pie made in the Florida Keys. I know that because I live there. and haven’t heard that we have lost a tourist to Key Lime pie….other than maybe over indulgence.

  • Anonymous
    June 15, 2006

    I just found this blog and love it!
    I agree, the baked one is not the same. Not even close. Its a citrus custard pie.
    And that is how it tastes if you cook the mixture on top of the stove too- it tastes cooked!
    Let me say there is a distinct diff between persian and key limes. Where I live in the winter, I can walk out the front door and pick key limes or buy them in the regular old grocery store for around 12 for a $1. I squeeze them and freeze the juice when possible.
    But reg. fresh limes or meyer lemons make a terrific pie too. Just not a key lime pie.
    My mouth is watering for one now!

  • Anonymous
    June 15, 2006

    There is a halfway point between using raw eggs and cooking the pie: you can pasteurize the egg yolks. Normally if you heat eggs up to ~150 degrees they begin to solidify. Unfortunately that is the temperature you need to reach to kill salmonella. If you’ve read any Harold McGee you’ve probably come across the following method (although I didn’t learn it from there):

    If you mix egg yolks with an equal volume of water and one-third to an equal volume of lemon (or lime) juice or vinegar, you significantly raise the temperature at which coagulation occurs. So you combine the egg yolks and water/acid and then heat it in a double boiler (above water simmering at 180-190 degrees) until it reaches 150 degrees. This should take around one minute, then cool to room temperature. (If the temperature goes above 180-190 the egg will solidify.)

    Egg yolks pasteurized in this manner are very stable and can be kept for 7 days at 41 degree or colder.

    Now you can make key lime pie without cooking it and not having to worry about salmonella. (Although, to be honest, I personally don’t spend much time worrying about salmonella.)

    Now you’ve got pasteurized egg yolks.

  • kate
    February 21, 2008

    Boy, people are as opinionated about key lime pie as they are gumbo.
    I prefer mine baked, with a gingersnap crust. I use the same basic formula as you, however I add the zest of all four (persian)limes as well (I use the fine pinhole side of my box grater.)
    I bake for 15 to 17 minutes at 350. It’s still wiggly in the center when you take it out of the oven. It needs to be chilled for about 2-3 hours before garnishing with vanilla whipped cream, moderately sweetened with conf. sugar. Like I said, I prefer it this way, not because of food safety. The filling ends up with an astoundingly silky texture, no cooked egg flavor, and it gets rid of that awful condensed milk flavor some of us hate.

  • kate
    March 3, 2008

    CORRECTION: use 4 t. lime zest.

  • Jennie Masters
    January 12, 2011

    We don’t know how Kutchie Pelaez over at Kutcharitaville Cafe’ does it. But ya know, He really does bake The Greatest Key Lime Pies in The World. We had heard about them for many years but Thought they were just rumors. about 3-years back when we were traveling near NC, we went a little out-of-our way and drove over to Kutcharitaville. Well those were not rumors by any means.
    Kutchie’s Key Lime Pies are really the best ones in the world. We can’t wait until next summer to get back over there and get more of those unbelievable key lime pies.


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