This easy key lime pie recipe is the perfect sweet and tangy dessert to share. A crust of graham cracker crumbs is loaded with a creamy citrus-filling and topped with whipped cream. It’s great for making ahead of time and chilling until ready to serve.
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Making key lime pie is easy! The recipe just calls for a simple graham cracker crust loaded with a four-ingredient citrus filling. There’s no need to go the store-bought route. It’s a sweet treat with a little welcomed pucker.
The good news is there are many ways to save on preparation time, especially if you want to make the pie in advance. You also don’t need a lot of fancy tools, but they do help make things go quicker. Plus, I’ll give you plenty of ideas for swapping.
Making the graham cracker crust
Sweet and crispy graham crackers make the perfect base for the crust. To break them down quickly, I use a food processor to crush them into smaller pieces, then pulse, and add in the coconut flakes. The coconut adds a subtle tropical flavor to complement the limes. Process until the crackers are fine in texture, and the coconut is chopped down.
If you don’t have a food processor, add the crackers to the large plastic bag. Leave a tiny opening for air to escape, then gently crush with a rolling pin. For the coconut flakes, finely chop them down with a chef’s knife.
Forming the pie crust
Two ingredients help the crust bind together; melted butter and sugar. They mix with the graham cracker crumbs until they coat and compress together. Pour them into a 9-inch pie plate, then use the bottom of a measuring cup to press the crust down firmly.
I like to use fingers to finish gently pressing the sides and top. The crust won’t go up the side of the pan, just flush with it. The entire crust should be about 1-cm in thickness or a ⅓-inch.
Bake the crust
The crust will feel very fragile before baking. Don’t worry. Baking it for 15 minutes will melt the sugar and, combined with the butter, will lock the cracker and coconut together. Once cooled, it will set into a more hardened cohesive shell.
What makes this recipe unique is the use of key limes. They are small and round, greenish-yellow in color, and about 1-inch in size. Compared to regular large limes, they are much more tart, and when you zest them, you can smell intense citrus and floral aroma.
Key limes have a lot of seeds, so make sure to strain the juice. You can substitute it with regular limes, but it will have a slightly less acidic taste. Bottled key lime juice can also be used, along with the zest of regular limes. However, the best flavor comes from freshly-squeezed because it hasn’t been processed.
Making the key lime filling
I use a stand mixer to make the filling quickly, but alternatively, a hand mixer or whisking vigorously by hand works too. Cream cheese adds a soft texture and the extra fat helps to balance the strong tanginess. It’s combined with egg yolks to add richness.
Sweetened condensed milk gives the filling a thick, rich texture. It’s made from cow’s milk and sugar that’s been processed to evaporate much of the water, creating a very thick and sticky product. The pie filling should be very smooth, with no lumps.
Bake and cool the pie
The pie needs to bake for 15 minutes to cook the egg yolks and set the filling. It will be slightly jiggly but will firm up once it cools down. Let it sit for about 30 minutes before placing it in the refrigerator for 3 hours. This process will make each piece much easier to serve and slice.
Make a whipped cream topping for a fast and lightly sweet addition to complement the tart pie. I like to decorate along the edges by adding the cream into a piping bag fitted with a large star tip. You can also make a decadent topping made from egg whites and sugar, which I did for my lemon meringue pie.
The meringue is much sweeter, but it does require cooking the eggs with hot sugar syrup. However, it pipes nicely and holds its shape, which is excellent if you have the pie on the counter at room temperature for a more extended period. For extra garnish, try using freshly grated lime zest, thin slices of lime, or pieces of candied lime peel. Toasted coconut flakes are a nice touch too.
Assembling and storing
You should make the pie crust and fill it the same day. Once assembled, you can serve the pie immediately or within 24 hours. If possible, add the whipped cream the day you plan to serve. Wait to add any garnish, any juice from the lime could break down the whipped cream and make it weep. Enjoy leftovers within 3 days.
What makes the filling sliceable?
Key lime pie filling is unique in that it’s not a curd that contains cornstarch or cheesecake that uses a lot of eggs to firm up. Instead, the milk solids in the sweetened condensed milk and proteins in the egg yolks help the filling set once baked and chilled. It only needs to be briefly baked so that the eggs cook and thicken, which is at around 149°F (65°C).
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Key Lime Pie
Graham Cracker Crust
- 1 ¼ cups graham cracker crumbs, about 10 full crackers
- 2 tablespoons sweetened coconut flakes
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Key Lime Filling
- ½ cup cream cheese, softened
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1 ¾ cups sweetened condensed milk
- 1 tablespoon key lime zest, plus more for garnish
- ½ cup key lime juice, about 25 limes
Whipped Cream Topping
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream, cold
- ¼ cup powdered sugar
Graham Cracker Crust
- Place the oven rack in the center position. Preheat to 350°F (176°C). Line a half sheet pan with parchment paper and set aside.
- Break the graham crackers into small pieces and add to a food processor. Pulse on and off 5 times. Add the coconut flakes and process on low speed until the crackers break down into a fine crumb consistency and coconut is chopped, about 35 to 40 seconds. Measure 1 ¼ cup of the crumbs into a medium bowl. Add the granulated sugar, stir to combine. Add the melted butter, stir until it coats the dry crumbs. The mixture should hold its shape when pressed together.
- Place a 9-inch pie dish on the sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Pour the graham cracker crumb mixture into the pie dish. Using the bottom of a measuring cup, press the graham mixture evenly on the bottom and onto the pie dish's sides. The mixture should just come right up to the top, but not go onto the edges of the pie dish. Gently using your hands, make sure the sides are packed and the edges are even.
- Bake the crust for 15 minutes, rotating halfway through. Cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes. Meanwhile, make the key lime filling.
Key Lime Filling
- Make sure the oven is preheated to 350°F (176°C). In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the softened cream cheese. Add the paddle attachment and mix on speed 4 for 20 seconds. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg yolks, mix on speed 4 until combined, about 20 seconds. The mixture will be slightly lumpy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and paddle.
- Add the sweetened condensed milk, mix on speed 4 for a few seconds. Turn up to speed 6 and mix until the mixture is smooth, for about 30 seconds. Scrape the bowl and paddle down. Make sure there are no lumps in the mixture, mix for a few more seconds as needed.
- Add the lime zest and lime juice to the mixer. Mix on speed 2 until the juice stops splashing, about 5 seconds. Turn the mixer up to speed 8 for about 20 seconds. Scrape the bowl and paddle with the spatula.
- Once the crust has cooled, place it back onto the parchment-lined sheet pan. Pour the filling into the pie shell. Bake for 15 minutes, rotating halfway through. The filling will be slightly jiggly. Carefully transfer the pie to a cooling rack for 30 minutes before chilling in the refrigerator. Transfer the pie to the refrigerator and chill until cold and filling has solidified, about 2 ½ to 3 hours. Right before serving, make the whipped cream topping.
Whipped Cream Topping
- In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, add heavy cream and powdered sugar to the bowl. Alternatively, if using a hand mixer, use the whisk or beaters attachment and a large bowl or whip by hand. Processing times may vary.
- Whip the mixture on medium-low speed (setting 4), until the cream is frothy with bubbles on the surface, 1 minute. Increase the speed to medium-high (setting 8), and whip until a fluffy and smooth consistency is reached, about 75 seconds for soft peaks. Continue to beat in 5-second intervals until stiff peaks form. Be careful as the texture will change quickly. Transfer whipped cream to a piping bag fitted with a tip and make a design.
- Sprinkle with lime zest or slices of lime if desired. Refrigerate the pie until ready to serve.
- Make ahead: You can make the pie 1 day in advance and store it in the refrigerator.
- Storing: Loosely cover or store slices in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
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