There is something about Thai food that makes it like no other. That unique mix of heat and the distinct lime flavor you can't find anywhere else. This strong aromatic lime flavor comes through in many Thai and Asian curries, soups, and stir-fries. The magic ingredient is the Kaffir lime leaf that makes all the difference.
What is a Kaffir Lime Leaf?
A Kaffir lime tree is also known as a Makrut Lime or Thai Lime. This tree has a large knobbly, green lime that turns yellow when ripe. Unlike typical lime trees, this tree has an edible leaf that is not bitter. Instead, it has a very citrusy aroma and taste that adds this wonderful flavor used in so many Thai dishes.
How do you use Kaffir Lime Leaves?
You can use these in the same way you use bay leaves. These are quite large, so you can put them in whole and remove just before serving. Or for a stronger taste cut them very finely and put into the dish. This will add a stronger more aromatic distinctive flavor.
Where can you find these lime leaves?
Of course, you can just order these dishes from your favorite Thai food restaurant or take-out. But if you are like us and want to experiment in the kitchen, then this is the secret.
The best place to look for these is in Asian grocery stores or Vietnamese shops. They are sold both fresh or dried. The fresh leaves are much more aromatic. You can also check in the fresh herb section of your supermarket as they are starting to become popular.
But what do you do if you can’t find fresh kaffir lime leaves?
Depending on where you live it might be hard to find Asian shops and these are not carried in regular shops unless there is a large Asian population nearby. While they are becoming more popular, there are a few things you can do to make a substitute flavor.
We have found a few things that, while they are not the exact same flavor have a similar taste to them. If you like experimenting in the kitchen, then these will give you some useful resources to try to get the Thai lime flavor.
1. Lime Zest
Lime Zest is the closest in flavor to Lime leaves and is a good substitute. It has a very similar aroma and character to the lime leaves. It gives off a fresh scent and sour flavor that matches quite closely.
Lime zest is an ingredient that comes from the colorful outer skin of a lime. By cutting or scraping this layer, you get a rich, pleasant aroma and flavor. Before you begin, make sure to wash the surface of the lime very well. Ideally in warm water to ensure there is no wax on the outside of the fruit.
There are several ways you can zest a lime using the utensils you have in your kitchen. The quickest way is with a grater. Use the smallest holes on the grater. Hold the lime at an angle and push down until the green skin comes off. You only want the green part not the white as that is very bitter and will not add to the flavor of the dish. Move the lime around until you have as much as you can get off that fruit.
Another tool that works really well is a vegetable peeler. Hold the lime in one hand and the peeler in the other. Carefully slice off just the green layer of skin off the outside of the lime. The peel will come off in a really thin slice. Then use a sharp knife to slice the peel into thin strips.
One of the typical Keffir leaves is equivalent of 1 and ½ teaspoons of lime zest. If you have extra lime zest, you can store it in the fridge for 2-3 days, or you can put it in an airtight bag in the freezer for up to a month. However, it is best to zest the amount that you need as frozen zest loses some of its potency and is not as aromatic.
2. Persian Limes
Also known as a Tahiti lime, this fruit is thought to be a hybrid of a Mexican lime and a lemon. The main difference for cooking purposes is that this lime has a thicker skin and are much larger than the smaller Mexican variety. The thicker skin means that they last longer. It also gives more of the green part that can be used for zesting.
These are available in most grocery stores as they are grown in volume in Florida. These are also great to use for the lime juice. They do not have seeds in them, so this makes them very easy to juice.
3. Bay Leaves
Another substitute that is very close to the flavor of lime leaves is bay leaves. They are not as strong in taste or smell. There is also not much of a citrus flavor; it's more of a floral taste. However, if combined with lemon or lime zest it has approximates the flavor of lime leaves very well.
You can zest the lemon or limes as covered above and add in at least two bay leaves whole. Just remember to remove them before serving. You can also combine these with the curry paste in a mortar and pestle which mixes the flavors very well.
Bay leaves are mostly found dried in the spice aisle of the supermarket.
4. Lemon Thyme
This herb is very similar to the traditional thyme herb in flavor. However, it has a very pungent lemon scent that adds to this familiar scent. This flavor is not a perfect approximation of the kaffir lime leaves, but it does have similar characteristics and is much easier to find. It is not as bitter as the ordinary thyme when used in quantity so you can use more of it to add the lime taste you are seeking.
Fresh Lemon thyme works much better than dried thyme. You can take the leaves off the stalks and then chop finely. For the best flavor add these in at the last moment, right at the end of the cooking process. This way they will not lose flavor and wilt. You can also use these as a garnish.
It is also a very easy herb to grow and looks great in a herb box on your window sill or as a ground cover in your garden. It does well in full sun and grows rapidly. Its citrusy flavor is something you can add to many dishes.
5. Lime Juice
If you can’t get fresh limes, then lime juice is a good option. You can buy this in most supermarkets. If you mix this into the curry paste, the lime flavor will come through in the dish you are cooking.
One trick that helps to get the most out of a lime is to roll it on a hard surface for a minute or two before you cut it open. This softens the skin and allows more juice to come out. Then cut the lime crosswise. This will slice through more of the membranes and allows the juice to come out. And lastly, use a fork to break up the interior more moving it in a circle. This way you don’t need any other appliances and will get the most juice out of the lime as possible.
6. Lemon Zest or Lemon Juice
If you are really stuck and can’t find any limes you can, of course, substitute these for lemons. Lemons are much sweeter than limes so actually add another level of flavor to the dish that you are making. Lemons can be zested in the same way that limes are. Make sure you only zest the yellow parts so that you do not get the bitter white layer.
7. Lemon Grass
Lime is not the only citrus flavor that is used in Thai or Asian cooking. Lemongrass is an ingredient often used in soups and stews. Lemongrass was also hard to find in the past and relegated to the Asian grocery stores. But these days it is easy to find in most normal supermarkets. It is also sold dried or powdered in the spice aisle.
It does take a little more work to prepare but has a very citrus aroma and lemony flavor. The most robust flavor is found in the lower stalks that look like sugar cane. The best ones to choose are the firm pale green bottoms. The tops should also look fresh and not be dry or yellowing.
There are two ways to cook this vegetable best. The first is to infuse it into the water and create a tea or stock that can be used as a base for soups and stews. Take off the tops and bottoms and crush the stalks with a knife to remove the natural oils. Cut into smaller pieces and add to a pot. Add hot water and allow to simmer until the water is infused with this rich flavor.
The second way to use it is to make a minced paste. The majority of the flavor is in the bottom 4-5 inches. Remove any of the outer layers that are dry or woody. This will leave you with the most tender parts. Steep these in hot water for 5 minutes then remove. This will help to soften it further. Then chop it as finely as possible. You can also use a mortar and pestle to smash the pieces until you have created a paste. Or you can put it into a food processor to chop very finely.
This can then be mixed together with other spices and curry pastes. Use this for marinades or spice rubs. You can also add this into stir-fries or other dishes.
8. Dried Kaffir Lime Leaf or Essential Oil
You can of course order dried versions of the lime leaves online which work great as a substitute. Food grade essential oils also add a great flavor to the dishes. This works best with curries or pastes.
9. Curry Leaves
These work better for Indian dishes and have some of the citrus notes that you find in the lime leaves but it is quite subtle. Just remember that curry leaves cannot be eaten and like bay leaves should be removed before serving.
10. Other citrus leaves
You can also use leaves from other citrus tress such as lemons, oranges or limes. These are not as fragrant as the Keffir lime leaves. But you can add more of them even double the amount called for in the recipe to give the needed taste.
11. A combination of herbs
The closest substitute for lime leaves is actually a combination of a few herbs. Use one bay leaf, one whole lime and a small bunch of lemon thyme. Mix these together in a mortar and pestle. Pound them together into a paste and add to the curry paste. We feel this is the closest approximation.
One recipe suggests using 1 and ½ teaspoons of lime zest or 1 teaspoon of lemon zest and one teaspoon of lime zest to one leaf of Kaffir lime.
Another suggests this combination of to replace one Kaffir Leaf:
- Half a small bay leaf
- One-quarter teaspoon of Persian or regular lime zest
- One-quarter teaspoon of fresh lemon thyme
While lime leaves have a particularly robust taste, you can find a suitable substitute by experimenting with different ingredients. We have tried to find the closest to this flavor above, but you can do your own testing until you find the mix that works best for you. Lime is a flavor that is strongly associated with Asian and Thai cooking. We hope that we have given you a lot of options to try. Experimenting is part of the joy of cooking so we wish you luck with your adventures in the kitchen.