Green Or Yellow: What's The Real Color Of Key Lime Pie?

They're all delicious, but only one is real.

Heavenly Key Lime Pie

Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

When preparing an authentic Key lime pie, either a graham cracker crust or a pastry crust is acceptable. As are both meringue and whipped cream for topping. The color, however, is not a matter of choice. Genuine Key lime pies are yellow.


Green Vs. Yellow: The Case of a Fraudulent Pie

As the name implies, Key limes only flourished in the United States in the Florida Keys; the rest of the nation received Persian limes. Without access to real Key limes, bakers would occasionally substitute lemons in their Key lime pie recipes. 

Lemons being yellow, consumers mistakenly came to view yellow Key lime pie as fraudulent. People expected their authentic Key lime pies to be green, matching the bright green lime color of the Persian limes they saw in their grocery stores. Key lime pie filling, however, takes its yellow color from the egg yolks used in its production. 

This caused a culinary case of mistaken identity once the Overseas Highway connecting the Keys to the Florida mainland opened in 1912, and visitors from around the nation increasingly started traveling there.

"Tourists were ordering Key lime pie they were like, 'I think you made a mistake here, this is lemon,'" David L. Sloan, author of “The Key West Key Lime Pie Cookbook” and co-founder of the Key Lime Festival in Key West said. "People started putting green food coloring in so people knew they weren’t getting screwed over and being served a lesser pie. Then people who came here from New York, they’d take the Key limes home with them and they’d make the pie for their guests, and they didn't want their guests to think that they were substituting lemons. That’s how the green Key lime pies came about, and it was actually the preferred way to do it for a while.”

By the way, Key limes are green when immature and yellow when ripe, further adding to the color confusion.

Despite the pie’s popularity in New York, don't let anyone tell you the dish originated there, either.

Heavenly Key Lime Pie filling in graham cracker crust

Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

Key Lime Pie Secrets

In addition to author, historian, Key West ghost tour operator, and festival organizer, Sloan is a baker. He was introduced to Key lime pie through his first job in Texas as a 16-year-old baking at a restaurant. He primarily made hamburger and hotdog buns, but he had a dessert case as well. 

The restaurant’s open kitchen allowed guests to see him burning his arms trying to rotate pies in and out of his overused ovens. A customer suggested he try Key lime pie, which isn't baked. Sloan initially blew her off, but she left a recipe by his timecard a few weeks later. He gave in and appreciated the pie for its ability to stock his pastry case and free up his ovens.

His advice for envy evoking Key lime pie?

"I usually don't do a straight up graham cracker crust,” Sloan suggests. “I like to mix ginger snaps into it, or I love to do a cereal crust. Golden Grahams work great. I've done it with Honey Nut Cheerios. For my crusts, I always like to use brown sugar—even if a recipe calls for white sugar—because it gives it almost a little bit of a butterscotch taste.”

Want to be even more adventurous? Sloan has successfully infused bacon as well as jalapeños into his crusts.

For his fillings, he loves adding vanilla bean ice cream.

"You want to add more egg yolks to offset that with the liquid amounts, but it has this little kick that people can't figure out, and when they taste it, it just brings in these incredible flavors," Sloan explains. “I also like to use zest. A lot of Key lime pies today, in my opinion, are too sweet. Sweetened condensed milk has a lot of sugar. The sugar is what preserves the milk—and sweet’s great—but I always think the Key lime should stand out more, so I like tart. I'll zest the key limes and I'll mix that zest in and that always nails it for me.”

Sloan prefers a whipped cream topping primarily for ease, but even here, he has some tips to elevate your game: Try mixing in a liqueur or using crushed nuts or fruit.

"Even just a light bit of sugar, not too much because again, the pie is so sweet; just buy some regular heavy cream and whip that up. It can taste so good on top of the Key lime pie, and do a spoonful, you don’t have to make it look real pretty, put a big heaping topping on it,” Sloan said.

Skimping on toppings is one of the biggest mistakes Sloan sees in people making their own Key lime pie. The other?

"Too thin of a crust," he said. "People love the crust, so you want a nice thick crust."

As they say in the Keys: "Love and limes!"

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