What Makes the Best Key Lime Pie?

Key Lime Pie
Always Yellow, Never Green

How do you know when you've found the best key lime pie? Of course, it's a matter a taste and opinion, but many in the know often prefer a graham cracker crust, a no-bake filling, and whipped cream topping.

Most fans of this creamy, delicious Florida Keys favorite probably have their own ideas about what makes the perfect pie. I think Kenney Chesney nailed it for most of us in his song about key lime pie with the words "not too tart, not too sweet."

Something Special
There's a song about key lime pie? That's right. And you can bet your last doubloon that when somebody sits down and lovingly composes a song about a piece of pie, and people happily sing along to that tune, well, you know this isn't just any old confection. You're dealing with something uniquely special.

It's so special, in fact, the Florida legislature in 2006 even named Key lime pie the "Official Pie of the State of Florida."

So, what's so special about this pie made from key limes? I think it's special because of its close association with the Florida Keys, and the great pleasures to be found there.

The warm sunshine on your back, the visual beauty of clear turquoise seas and endless blue skies, spectacular fishing, and even better diving, all topped off with a thoroughly laid-back approach to life's daily concerns add up to create those pleasant Keys memories, which can be triggered even on the coldest, snowiest, or wettest of days by a generous slice of this creamy, delicious yellow pie.

The history of key lime pie, as interesting as it is, leaves some unanswered questions.

Key Lime Pie Recipes
Besides this page's info on what makes the best key lime pie, I've included just for you some specific key lime pie recipes for those times when you hanker for the bright yellow-sunshine taste of the Florida Keys:

The Best Key Lime Pie Recipe This is the traditional pie, made the way Aunt Sally--the Key West cook credited with having invented this dessert--probably made hers. Many people consider it to be the best recipe.

Easy Key Lime Pie When you can't make or don't want a traditional key lime pie--sorry, Aunt Sally--here's how you can improvise.

How to Make the Best Key Lime Pie
Today, there are a variety of key lime pie recipes, but the traditional filling contains the following:

  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 14-oz can of sweetened, condensed milk
  • 1/2 cup of key lime juice

Now, I'm no pie expert, so I have to get my information about what makes the best key lime pie from people like Steve Tarpin, owner of Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies, in Brooklyn. Steve grew up in Miami, where he learned the secrets of making a great key lime pie. And he's been making his pies for over 30 years.

Fresh Squeezed Lime Juice. Steve says, the best pies start with the best ingredients. For instance, he uses only fresh squeezed key lime juice, none of that bottled stuff. He says bottled juice is okay "if you're stripping paint or removing rust," but it should never go into a pie.

Speaking of key limes, how are they different from regular limes? The limes familiar to most of us are Persian limes, sold in just about every grocery store in America. Key limes, in comparison to Persian limes, are smaller, rounder--about the size of a ping pong ball--and more tart and aromatic. Plus, they're usually more yellow than green. The ones pictured here are a bit on the green side. Squeeze the juice from a dozen or so key limes, and your whole kitchen will take on a fresh lime scent.

Key Limes
Key Limes and Key Lime Juice

Fresh Milk. Instead of the traditional canned sweetened, condensed milk, Steve special orders fresh sweetened, condensed milk in five gallon buckets hauled in by a refrigerated truck. Steve says the fresh milk is a better quality than what's available from a can.

It is possible to make your own sweetened, condensed milk at home, but that involves an hour or so of carefully stirring hot but not boiling milk, which I find to be a giant pain. Besides, the one time I tried that, it didn't work out. I ended up with key lime soup in a pie shell instead of a pie. So, I just use the canned variety--Eagle Brand, to be specific--and that works fine for me.

Pasteurized Eggs. For the pie filling, Steve prefers what he calls the "fill and chill method" instead of baking the pie for a time in an oven. Steve says heating changes the filling's taste and consistency. To avoid salmonella poisoning, Steve uses pasteurized egg yolks from a carton.

To make a "chill and fill" pie at home, you can buy Davidson's Safest Choice pasteurized shell eggs. According to their web site, these eggs are safe even to eat raw. As far as I know, Davidson's is the only producer of pasteurized shell eggs. In Florida, Publix Supermarkets carry them.

Pasteurized eggs
Pasteurized Eggs You Can Buy at the Supermarket

One thing I like about Davidson's pasteurized shell eggs is that they're stamped to let you know for sure that this egg has been pasteurized. Look for the red letter "P" with a circle around it.

Pasteurized eggs
The Stamp Tells You the Eggs are Pasteurized

Besides their use for making pies, I was pleased to find them because I now feel safe again enjoying sunny-side-up eggs.

Graham Cracker Crust. Steve makes his own pie crusts from specially ordered high-quality trans-fat free Graham cracker crumbs, and 100 percent pure butter.

At home, I use two cups of Keebler Graham cracker crumbs to which I mix in a little more than a half cup of pure melted unsalted butter.

Okay, Here's Steve
Before you start cracking eggs for your pie, I thought you might like to see Steve Tarpin, the Key Lime Pie King in action.

Key Lime Pies in Brooklyn? You Bet.

For another good video, here's a fun key-lime-pie story MyFox NY did on Steve.

"My, my, my, I love my key lime pie." Sing it, Kenny.

Welcome to Key Largo

A View of John Pennekamp Beach

Christ of the Abyss

SCUBA diver on a Key Largo Reef

Sign warning we play Jimmy Buffet music

A quaint Key Largo cottage

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