Special Ingredients: Sweet Lemons (Sweet Limes)

sweet lemons at the 22nd St Market in San Francisco

sweet lemons at the 22nd St Market in San Francisco

Sepideh sent me a cryptic email:  “Do you know about sweet lemons?” was all she wrote.  I replied that I thought, based on a quick glance at a sweet lemon in the neighborhood market, that it was like a Meyer’s lemon.  “Not so fast, my friend”, was her response.

Crap… dang… #MN$#$%!!!  I hate not knowing the answer, especially when it comes to food.  So, the following summary is the result of my research to correct a lamentable lack of knowledge on sweet lemons (limes).  I also did not want you to feel the same awkwardness, and so if you are ever asked, at least you’ll have a better response.  I added sweet limes to the mix, because, while sweet lemons and sweet limes are two different fruit, they are frequently mixed up, as evidenced by the sign pictured above.  Part of the problem is that some languages do not distinguish between lemons and limes, leading to confusion on the part of the unsuspecting.  According to Dr. Bahman Ebdaie of the University of California, Riverside, sweet limes are called sweet lemons in Farsi.  The tricky part is that they are really two different fruits, and I still struggle to explain the differences, but I can tell you that now is the season for sweet lemons/limes, I am finding this yummy bounty in my neighborhood markets and have been not skimping on my Vitamin C.

So here is a bit of what I learned:

First, I have to say, Harold McGee let me down; nary a mention of sweet lemons or sweet limes in either edition of his book, On Food and Cooking.  I approached my friends, one of whom forwarded my query to David Karp, who kindly responded with a very generous, detailed answer.

“You’re right that the names “sweet lime” and “sweet lemon” are popularly used interchangeably; scientifically, the truth is more complex.

True botanical sweet lemons are acidless mutations of the common sour lemon, Citrus limon are rare in the United States, but can be found in parts of the Middle East and North Africa. They look like the common ‘Eureka’ and ‘Lisbon’ lemons, the sour lemons of commerce in the United States – elongated, with a nipple. There is a low-acid variety called ‘Dorshapo‘ after the plant explorers, Dorsett, Shamel and Popenoe, who introduced it from Brazil in 1914; it was once present in the United States, but it is unclear whether it [remains]. There is a true partly sweet lemon variety called ‘Faris’ at the Citrus Variety Collection at the University of California at Riverside; but it is genetically unstable, in that fruits on some limbs are “sweet” (actually insipid), some are sour, and some are intermediate. By the way, recent molecular marker studies indicate that lemons may have originated from an ancient hybrid (or hybrids) of sour orange (seed) and citron (pollen).

Sweet limes, far more common than true botanical sweet lemons, and are from another species, Citrus limettioides. They are not just acidless versions of sour limes (the small-fruited Mexican or Key lime, Citrus aurantifolia; or the large-fruited Tahitian, Persian or Bearss limes, Citrus latifolia). They are believed to have arisen from a natural hybrid of either sweet orange (C. sinensis) or small-fruited acid lime (C. aurantifolia) x citron (C. medica) – which could be the same combination as large-fruited acid limes, but probably different genotypes. They are round, medium in size, with thin skin, and an insipid, slightly soapy flavor.  Here’s a sweet lime.

There is another species, Citrus limetta, which appears to be closely related to Citrus limettioides; it includes the limettas, which are also often called sweet lemons, though they are really closer to the sweet limes.

For more information see the Citrus Variety Collection website, and the chapter on Horticultural Varieties of Citrus in The Citrus Industry (1967):

There is also the Palestine Sweet Lime (Citrus limettioides or Citrus lumia Risso et Poit.). The Palestine sweet lime or limetta is a hybrid. It is not known where or how the sweet lime originated. It is thought to be a hybrid between a Mexican lime and a sweet lemon or sweet citron, and believed to be native to India. It is primarily grown in central and northern India, northern Vietnam, Egypt and the Mediterranean coast. It arrived to the U.S. from Saharanpur, India, in 1904, and has a small cultivation in California.

How They Taste

If you caught David’s description of the limes being slightly insipid, its because they have a very low acidity which makes them an acquired taste.  Compared to the standard lime which has about 6% acidy and oranges which hover at 1%, sweet limes/lemons have less than 0.1%.  Its not that they are necessarily sweet, its that they are devoid of acid to make them tart.

Ideas on How to Eat

In the West Indies and Central America, it is eaten by cutting off the stem end, piercing the core with a knof and sucking out the juice. The fruit is eaten fresh in India, cooked or preserved. It is called limettier doux in French; lima dulcein Spanish; mitha limbu, mitha nimbu, or mitha nebu, in India (mitha meaning “sweet”); quit giay in Vietnam; limun helou, or succari in Egypt; laymun-helo in Syria and Palestine.

From My Persian Kitchen – a few ideas on using sweet limes

Update me when site is updated

48 comments for “Special Ingredients: Sweet Lemons (Sweet Limes)

  1. January 9, 2011 at 4:29 AM

    I’ve never come accross these but am tempted to try and order some online just to satisfy my curiosity. At least I know the answer if I do ever get asked the question lol Hope I do so that I can show off! Very interesting indeed!!
    ruth recently posted..Happy 2011- Everyone!!!!

  2. January 9, 2011 at 8:01 AM

    Never heard of them consciously or seen them. Now curious. I wonder if they will appear at our markets? (Not the Farmers market – no citrus here!) I wonder how they would be in baked goods- less of a bite I suppose? Less sugar used? Thinking of their juices sprinkled all over a fresh fruit salad. Thinking how much I have learned over my cup of coffee!
    Claudia recently posted..My Three Magi

  3. January 9, 2011 at 8:45 AM

    I’ve heard of Palestinian sweet limes, but not these. In fact, if I would have been in the store and seen how round the fruit is, I would have assumed they were mislabeled and assumed those were yellow oranges. I’d love to try one of these someday, perhaps I’ll find one the next time in California. It might be a trip to secretly place a slice of this sweet lime along with an orange to see what people think. Insipid perhaps but interesting.
    Christine @ Fresh Local and Best recently posted..Fresh Local and Best Top 10 in 2010

  4. January 9, 2011 at 3:17 PM

    Never thought about citrus family that close. I’m not sure we have all varieties here, in Turkey. Never seen sweet lime, but citrus limon, which is sour is quite common here and is called ‘limon’ in Turkish. I love to eat it just like any other fruits no matter how sour it is.

  5. January 9, 2011 at 6:31 PM

    How interesting, I don’t believe I’ve seen these sweet limes. I will ask in Wegmans though, they may have it or else might get it if I ask :)
    5 Star Foodie recently posted..Sun-dried Tomato Gnocchi- Morel Mushroom Broth- Gorgonzola Foam

  6. OysterCulture
    January 9, 2011 at 8:49 PM

    Ruth, I hope you can find them too, let me know what you think when you do.

    Claudia, I bet they would be good on a salad, nice and tasty mixed with other fruit.

    Christine, I’ve seen them at a few markets, on Clement, Geary and Irving. Should be able to find them relatively easily out here.

    Zerrin – The same goes in Spanish, when we were in Mexico it kept tripping my friend up that limes were limons.

    5Star – I bet if any place had them it would be Wegmans. They are common in Middle Eastern cooking so if you know of a store that sells Middle Eastern produce you may be in luck.

  7. January 9, 2011 at 9:59 PM

    We eat them a lot in Lebanon as a snack, just plain. In French they are called citron doux.
    tasteofbeirut recently posted..Pumpkin- taro and chicken soup

  8. January 9, 2011 at 10:16 PM

    I think I bought them once…and thought even lemon didn’t taste like lemon now ;-)) Now I know they are just another type of lemon.
    Thanks!
    Angie
    Angie’s Recipes recently posted..Szechuan Guai Wei Chicken

  9. sepideh
    January 10, 2011 at 2:03 PM

    hey woman,
    I can see that once again I’ve made it to the Oysterland’s headlines =^_^=
    In any case, one more piece of info that we never got a chance to discuss on ‘Limoo shirin’ (Farsi for sweet lemon/lime) and I thought you’d be interested in sharing it with your audience was that this fruit tend to start tasting bitter as it gets exposed to the open air (i.e., if you split one in half and leave the pieces out for about 15 minutes, the pieces no longer taste sweet rather they start tasting bitter sweet and if you leave them out even longer they start tasting more bitter and less and less sweet. How about that? Now we’re getting into the chemistry stuff which is one of my passions in life for sure ;)

  10. January 10, 2011 at 3:07 PM

    They sound interesting!I have to find them!

  11. January 10, 2011 at 4:20 PM

    Hi LA,

    I saw these at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market once and regretted not tasting them. Another great story- thanks for the info. I’m not sure I would be able to identify the different varieties but next time I see them I’ll definitely have to get some.

    You always find such rare topics to write about – I love it.

    Cheers,
    Amber

  12. January 10, 2011 at 5:38 PM

    Fascinating! I never even knew these existed. I’m going to have to scour the farmers markets to see if I can find any.
    Carolyn Jung recently posted..A Cheesy Food Gal Giveaway

  13. January 10, 2011 at 6:58 PM

    A lemon which is sweet?! w00t! Never tasted any :o

  14. January 10, 2011 at 10:06 PM

    LOL you’re hilarious…your reaction to not knowing abt sweet lemons, I mean. Hee hee!! I know how you feel though, esp when all your friends know you as the foodie queen. ;-)

    I didn’t know these existed, either, though, so don’t feel too bad! They sound so fascinating though!

  15. January 11, 2011 at 8:09 AM

    Interesting! So glad to have learned about these not-sour fruits. I’m so curious about the taste now.
    lisaiscooking recently posted..Kong Bao Ji Ding

  16. OysterCulture
    January 11, 2011 at 1:08 PM

    Taste of Beirut – I can see just eating them plain like an orange, that would be very refreshing.

    Angie – Thought you had a bad batch, huh? =)

    Sepideh – I’m in the middle of that experience now, when I started the post I just had half a sweet lime and you are right (but of course) it is getting more bitter. I owe you so much in the culinary exploration department, between Sweet Lemons and Salad Olivier, I just don’t know what I’d do.

    Erica – Definitely give them a try, you totally expect to pucker but they are really sweet, but in a diluted sort of way, the flavor does not have the intensity of a regular lemon.

    Amber – Thanks for commenting, would be curious to see what you do with them.

    Carolyn – They seem to be fairly common in my neighborhood produce markets, they are just delicious on their own, but I think their delicate flavor would be quickly overcome, would be curious to know your thoughts.

    tigerfish – Well you got to check them out!

    Sophia – I just try to keep one step ahead of Sepideh and its hard work.

    Lisa – They taste sweet just like the name, but the flavor just does not have a lot of depth or staying power, hence the insipid title.

  17. January 11, 2011 at 2:01 PM

    I was fortunate to receive a sweet lemon from one of my Persian friends. Didn’t do much with it…..I wondered how they would compare to Meyers which I’ve never tasted. Looking forward to my trip to the US this year (completely unplanned fantasy but….you never know)!

  18. January 11, 2011 at 2:22 PM

    Limoo shirin (sweet lemon)has a delicate sweet flavor. In our home we would drink freshly squeezed sweet lemon for its medicinal values when we were sick or had a common cold. It turns bitter when you leave it out to eat later. I don’t see it in the market around where I live. Love the taste of it!
    Azita recently posted..Persian Jeweled Rice – Javaher Polow

  19. January 11, 2011 at 7:32 PM

    okay now I’m curious, a sweet lemon, oh the recipes!!

    sweetlife

  20. January 11, 2011 at 9:28 PM

    You call my name sweet lemons! I like them but they aren’t very common for that area I’d go to the market to see they are available :)

    Cheers,

    Gera
    Gera@SweetsFoodsBlog recently posted..Essential Vitamins for Good Vision

  21. OysterCulture
    January 11, 2011 at 9:37 PM

    KB – You’re coming to America? I hope you manage a trip to SF, would love to see you. If you need any help, let me know!

    Azita – I can see why, I understand they are very high in vitamin C, which is always good.

    Swetlife – I was surprised but there’s actually not too may recipes, I think because the flavor is not the most intense, and probably by the time you add sugar, etc to the standard lemon, you’re at about the same place taste wise. I did search but I think if anyone can come up with something delectable, its you!

    Gera – They are tasty, and I love them, feeling much more healthy now with a good dose of Vitamin C.

  22. January 12, 2011 at 12:33 AM

    Louann, I’m glad you have something yet to learn, whether in the lemon-lime realm or for other food stuffs, as we can all tag along as you educate, enlighten, and entertain us.

    Now I am clear(er) on the sweet lemon v. sweet lime distinction.

    Thanks,

    Dan
    IslandEAT recently posted..Real Home-Made Italian Beef Sandwiches- The Chicago Classic in Your Kitchen

  23. January 12, 2011 at 2:39 PM

    I haven’t seen these lemons…but would love to get them :-)

  24. January 12, 2011 at 6:36 PM

    I never heard of these! I always thought what makes a lemon and lime what they are is their tartness. My belief has just been shattered. I would love to try them – I’m intrigued!
    Reeni recently posted..Sweet and Spicy Meatballs with Couscous

  25. January 15, 2011 at 9:52 AM

    i am running after time just bumped in your blog to say hello !!Pierre
    pierre recently posted..Raviole de champignons de Paris à lhuile de truffe- émulsion Spigol

  26. January 15, 2011 at 10:18 AM

    Yet another fruit in this world I haven’t tried! How interesting about the percent acidity. To my knowledge I’ve not come across them. Now I know what to look for though and certainly won’t pass up an opportunity to try them out when it presents itself. And I’m confident, one day it will. :)
    Lori recently posted..Buffalo Turkey Sandwiches with Celery Yogurt Spread

  27. January 15, 2011 at 11:23 AM

    My initial thought was meyers too! I have to find some of these sweet lemons/limes ASAP. They sound like they would be great made into a curd…
    gastroanthropologist recently posted..Banana Nut Monkey Bread

  28. January 15, 2011 at 5:43 PM

    This post brings new meaning to “When God Gives You Lemons; Make Lemonade.” I had no idea. It almost felt like a choice selection of fine wines.

    Thanks for sharing…GREAT!!!
    Louise recently posted..Simmering Slow Cookery

  29. OysterCulture
    January 15, 2011 at 8:45 PM

    Dan – Theres a lot I don’t know, but she asked me that question after I did 3 huge posts on citrus and felt like my research failed me. Never fear my lack of knowledge and curiousity will keep the posts flowing. =)

    Juliana – they are well worth a sample so I hope you can find them.

    Reeni – I hope you can find them in your market to give them a go.

    Pierre – thanks for stopping by!

    Lori – The acidity and that first taste is really surprising because despite knowing that they are “sweet” you still expect a bit of tartness.

    Gastro – I’m not sure about the curd, they really have an incredibly delicate taste that might get lost, but I definitely think they’d be worth a try.

    Louise – Exactly!

  30. January 16, 2011 at 8:13 PM

    In Brazil we call these limas or limas da Pérsia (Persian Limes).
    They are delicious. When I start eating them I can’t stop. I love its low acidity. Lately Brazilians have been flavoring their caipirinhas with these limes too yummm.
    Nice post. Cheers
    Heguiberto
    weirdcombos recently posted..chickpea falafel

  31. January 17, 2011 at 4:42 PM

    Fascinating information…I would have never been able to answer.
    I need to peak at the cooking ideas :)
    Magic of Spice recently posted..Whats for Dessert Cocoa Mousse with Grand Marnier and Awards

  32. January 18, 2011 at 9:57 PM

    I never really paid attention to lemons or limes when shopping. Well, maybe except Meyer lemons. You made me so curious of sweet lemons and sweet limes. I’ll have to look for them when I go to a produce market next time.
    Kitchen M recently posted..Miso Teriyaki Pork Steamed Bun

  33. January 20, 2011 at 1:09 PM

    Interesting. Don’t think I ever had a sweet lemon and despite being called Palestine sweet lime, I don’t think I had that either. So you are not the only one…

  34. OysterCulture
    January 22, 2011 at 9:31 PM

    WC – The caipirinhas with the Persian limes sound divine. I’m going to have to check that out.

    MoS – I’m still not convinced I did a good job of explaining it, its just complicated =)

    Kitchen M – You really should, you bite into them expecting to pucker and its really surprising.

    Sarah – I wonder if they are hard to grow, they seem to be relatively rare.

  35. January 24, 2011 at 11:03 PM

    Funny! We just bought sweet lemons from the market, and they had stickers on them that said ‘limes’. Clearly, it was confusing. :) Great background info!
    The Duo Dishes recently posted..Liz’s Test Kitchen

  36. January 25, 2011 at 3:04 AM

    I too had never heard of these before and have never seen one here in France, but I will try the foreign supermarkets to see if they have it. Thanks for keeping us clever!

  37. January 27, 2011 at 7:24 AM

    Once again, you’ve opened my eyes to something new. I’d love to try one.

  38. OysterCulture
    February 4, 2011 at 5:25 PM

    Duo – I think that just speaks to the continued misunderstanding, I spoke to the fruit monger in the store and he shrugged his shoulders.

    Crystal – I’m just trying to stay ahead. =)

    Tammy – I hope you can find one, that first taste is s0o unexpected.

  39. dylan
    March 16, 2011 at 8:30 PM

    Just bought a batch the are very aromatic but definitely taste like soap. They are not sweet but almost bitter, almost hard to see using it in any recipe

  40. August 4, 2011 at 4:05 AM

    Huh?! Who knew??? Thanks for this very interesting post. I’ll be on the look out for them…and thanks for saving me any potential humiliation should I be randomly quizzed, now I’ll have the correct answer at the ready :) Love you blog!!!!

  41. Nancy Jayne
    March 6, 2012 at 3:04 PM

    My friend and helper in the garden brought me some sweet lemons recently and I think they are almost tasteless…I will experiment with the ones I have left and see if I acquire a taste …or is they get tastier when left out for awhile…If they are beneficial for good health…I will drinks some sweet lemon water…but I would not cook with them…I gave a taste to friends who were over and they too made a not too happy face…What are the health benefits?

  42. OysterCulture
    March 10, 2012 at 7:54 AM

    Dylan – I think fresh is the way to go, but remain open to finding a recipe for them, maybe mixed with other citrus to counter the bitterness.

    Sarah – Who knew indeed?

    Nancy – The health benefits are like other citrus fruits, the vitamin C, etc, and the links I have in the post can give you much more detail that I can provide. I agree definitely an acquired taste, but its an interesting alternative in the water.

  43. March 17, 2012 at 3:45 PM

    I heard about people in California using sweet lemons to lower their blood pressure.
    And people please tell us where you found the sweet lemons.
    Thank you!

  44. Jackie
    November 23, 2012 at 2:07 PM

    I wonder if they’d sell sweet lemons and limes at international grocery stores.

  45. joe martin
    April 4, 2013 at 1:32 AM

    I have a sweet lemon tree in my yard…… They are the best lemon you have ever tasted…..
    they peel like a orange and taste like sweet lemon aid. We just peel and eat ….not sour at all
    They are like lemon flavored Tangerines….

  46. Mimi
    January 9, 2014 at 4:53 PM

    And to think, my neighbor has a sweet lime tree in her back yard. I wait for these limes every year as they are not harsh & are very juicy. They are not like those hard green things in the grocery store with little on no juice. There are so many limes that I bring them to work and distribute them to my co-workers. I think I am going to preserve some in salt this weekend. San Diego, CA

  47. A Rose
    January 26, 2014 at 7:44 PM

    Just had some in India and started researching where I could buy these in US and that’s how I stumbled on this post…I want to buy them in US, but so far haven’t even found them for sale online. The juice is fantastic! Everyone should try it when you get a chance. If anyone knows where to buy these in US, please post. thanks.

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