I’ve personally taste-tested a variety of kaffir lime leaf substitutes to find the best one for every cooking occasion.
Whether you’re on the hunt for the closest flavor match, in need of a last-minute pantry swap, or want a substitute that fits your diet, I’ve got the answers.
Kaffir lime leaf powder is the best substitute for fresh kaffir leaves. You can also use zest from a fresh kaffir lime. In a pinch, you can use the zest, juice, or leaves of regular lemons or limes. Lemongrass is also a good alternative.
Ready? Let’s jump right in.
I made small batches of Thai green curry to test different kaffir lime leaf substitutes.
Kaffir lime leaves are an aromatic herb frequently used in Thai, Indonesian, and Cambodian cuisine. They have a strong, citrus flavor with floral, lemony notes that set them apart from regular lime leaves.
Kaffir lime leaves are so unique that finding for an exact substitute was challenging, but I did find some decent alternatives.
Here are the substitutes I tested and the verdicts:
|Kaffir lime leaf powder||1/3 tsp powder = 1 dried kaffir lime leaf||9/10|
|Kaffir lime zest||½ tsp zest = 1 fresh kaffir lime leaf||8/10|
|Lime or lime juice, zest, and leaves||¼ tsp lime zest = 2 kaffir lime leaves||7/10|
|Lemongrass||1 lemongrass stalk = 3-4 kaffir lime leaves||9/10|
|Lemon thyme||Use a handful for garnishing||8/10|
|Thai basil, Italian basil or cilantro||Use a handful for garnishing||8/10|
Kaffir lime leaf powder
The best substitute for fresh kaffir lime leaves is to use the powdered version.
When I cracked open a jar of this stuff, I was blown away by the sharp citrusy aroma that greeted me. And it (unsurprisingly) tasted exactly like the fresh leaves.
You might have to go to a speciality grocers to buy this, or find it online. But once you have it, the powder will last forever in your cupboards and you’ll no longer have to worry about sourcing fresh kaffir lime leaves every time you get the urge to cook an Asian dish.
How to substitute: replace 1 dried kaffir lime leaves with 1/3 tsp kaffir lime leaf powder.
Kaffir lime zest
The zest of a kaffir lime isn’t as vibrantly flavored as the leaves but it still has the same unique citrusy zing.
Zesting kaffir limes is harder than zesting regular limes, thanks to the bumpy exterior. I found the best way to handle this was to slice the zest off, avoiding the bitter white pith, and then add the zest slices whole to my curry.
Then, just before serving, I fished the zest out.
How to substitute: replace 1 fresh kaffir lime leave with ¼ tsp kaffir lime zest.
Lime juice, zest, and leaves
When you’re in a bind and need something easy, you can use regular limes (the leaves, juice, or zest) to add a citrusy splash to your dish.
They don’t have the same aromatic notes as kaffir limes, and they also don’t have any of the floral flavor, which means they’re more one-dimensional and citrus forward. Because of the stronger lime flavor, I used half the amount of lime leaves in my Thai curry but found the flavor was too mild.
So towards the end I added an extra bit of lime zest to lift the dish.
Psst… you can also use lemon zest, which tends to be ever so slightly sweeter than limes.
How to substitute: replace 2 fresh kaffir lime leaves with 1/2 tsp lime zest or juice.
Lemongrass may not be a citrus fruit, but it’s a good substitute for kaffir lime leaves. It has a distinct, citrusy flavor coupled with herbal, floral notes that are pretty similar to kaffir lime leaves.
If you’ve never cooked with lemongrass, don’t worry – it looks scary but it’s easy to work with. You can finely chop the stalks and add them directly to your dish. But I usually crush them with the back of my knife first to release the aromatic oils and them toss them whole into whatever I’m cooking.
Just remember to fish out the lemongrass stalk before serving.
Psst… to bring this substitute even closer to the flavor of kaffir lime, use a few bay leaves alongside it.
How to substitute: one lemongrass stalk can replace 3-4 kaffir lime leaves.
Let’s turn to the herb garden for our next substitute – lemon thyme. Its citrusy notes are milder than kaffir lime leaves, but you can adjust for this by using more.
In my experience, you can use up to twice as much lemon thyme to match the zesty punch of kaffir lime leaves. But be aware it also has the minty, earthy notes of regular thyme, so you’ll want to make sure these don’t get too strong.
It’s best to add lemon thyme leaves just as you finish cooking to preserve their flavor.
How to substitute: replace kaffir lime leaves with a handful of lemon thyme.
Thai basil, Italian basil or cilantro
Another easy alternative to kaffir lime leaves are fresh herbs. they’re obviously not going to give you the exact same flavor, but they’ll bring a similar aromatic and fresh flavor to your dishes.
I went with cilantro in my Thai curry and it was delicious. If you can find Thai basil, this is a great option, but regular basil is okay too.
You can even try mint if you think it’ll mesh well with the other flavors in your dishes.
Like with lemon thyme, you’ll need to add any herbs towards the end of the cooking process for the brightest flavor.
How to substitute: replace kaffir lime leaves with a handful of fresh herbs.
Substitutes to avoid
There were loads of suggestions for kaffir lime leaf substitutes, but not all of them were good suggestions. For example, preserved lemons have a bright, tart flavor but they’re also very salty meaning you can’t add much to your dish.
Orange peel was another suggestion, but this is much sweeter than lemon or lime zest and is more fruity than tart. I didn’t like the fruitiness in my curry.
Finally, curry leaves may look a look like kaffir lime leaves but the flavor is very different. They’re earthy and warm rather than fresh and floral.
BEST Kaffir Lime Leaf Substitutes + 3 To Avoid
- 1/3 tsp kaffir lime leaf powder
- ½ tsp kaffir lime zest
- ½ tsp lime zest or juice, or equal amount of fresh lime leaves
- ¼ to ½ tsp lemon zest or juice, or equal amount of fresh lemon leaves
- 1 lemongrass stalk chopped or crushed
- handful lemon thyme leaves
- handful Thai basil, Italian basil or cilantro
- Cook your meal according to the recipe.
- Add your chosen kaffir lime leaf substitute at the appropriate cooking time.
- Mix until thoroughly combined and continue with the recipe.