Everything You Need to Know About Cooking With Lime Leaves
You may have seen lime leaves for sale at specialty markets and been curious about how they're used in cooking. Or perhaps you've tasted a Thai curry and wondered what mystery ingredient gives the dish its intoxicatingly bright flavor and aroma. Learn more about these flavor-packed citrus leaves popular in Thai, Cambodian, Balinese, and Malaysian cooking — including how to shop for, store, and prep them. Plus, get our top ten recipes using lime leaves so you cook up dishes showcasing this unforgettable flavor at home.
What Do They Taste Like?
Lime leaves impart a bright and pleasantly tangy taste that you'd expect from any citrus. But they also have a complex, herbal depth of flavor that simply doesn't compare to anything else.
You may have tasted them in traditional dishes from Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, where they're often used with other herbs and spices like ginger, chiles, lemongrass, and Thai basil. These little leaves have the power to synergize all of these flavorful ingredients and harmonize dishes with many distinct flavors.
So Are They Just…Regular Lime Leaves?
These leaves don't come from the limes that you see in U.S. supermarkets. Rather, they're part of the makrut lime plant, a citrus tree with bumpy, fruit that's native to Thailand. Their juice is so sour that it isn't often used for cooking, but the leaves are considered essential in many Asian cuisines.
Shiny on one side and dull on the other, they're a "double leaf" (two leaves on either side of the stem) with an hourglass shape.
How Are They Used?
Most commonly, fresh, whole lime leaves are added to flavor dishes like curries and soups, similar to how bay leaves are used. But they can also be sliced very thinly and added raw to salads and other fresh dishes. There are also dried leaves in whole or powdered forms. But as with many ingredients, fresh is usually best.
Where Can You Buy Them?
As the U.S. appetite and familiarity with various Asian cuisines grows, lime leaves are becoming easier to find at specialty markets. And of course, they're always easy to find at most Asian or international grocers for just a few dollars a bag.
Note that you may see them labeled as "kaffir lime leaves." But this term has fallen out of favor as the word "kaffir" is offensive in some countries, the name "makrut" is being used more and more commonly.
Some markets sell fresh, whole leaves in the produce section (either by the pound or in plastic baggies). Others sell them frozen in small or medium-sized bags. You won't notice much of a difference in quality or flavor between the two, so don't hesitate to buy them frozen. If you can't find these options, look for dried lime leaves or canisters of powder.
How to Prep and Store Them
Before tossing whole leaves into dishes, use a sharp knife to remove the tough part of the center rib so that you can eat the whole leaf without chomping through that tough and stringy part of the plant. The powdered form is very fine, so it can be sprinkled in cooked or fresh dishes at any point during cooking. But use small amounts at a time and then taste your dish before adding more because the flavor can be quite potent.
Keep frozen leaves in the freezer. If you buy them fresh, store them in the fridge, and if you don't use them all within a few weeks, transfer them to the freezer. If your supply in the refrigerator starts to get yellow or brown spots, it's time to toss them.
Recipes To Try
Other Culinary Uses for Lime Leaves
Make your own spa-style hydration at home by adding a few lime leaves to a carafe of water and leaving it to chill in the refrigerator overnight. Top the carafe off as you go: you can drink the water for several days — until the leaves start to brown. Lime leaves make a great addition to hot teas as well, swapped in for a different twist on this Mint Detox Tea or steeped with your choice of ingredients, like ginger and lemongrass, for a homemade elixir. Or use your makrut sprigs to enhance your favorite iced tea recipe.
From behind the bar, add a leaf or two to a gin and tonic, a spicy margarita, or even this Thai Basil Martini, or infuse the makrut limes leaves in a bottle of vodka or gin to make your own custom creations.