The Art and Science of Ceviche Marinade


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The Art and Science of Ceviche Marinade. The first time I tried ceviche, a marinated seafood delicacy, I loved it. It tasted of the sea, but bright, too, with a refreshingly acidic, citrusy zing.

And then I found out what it was: raw seafood. Immediately I became nervous: was I going to get food poisoning? Was this a safe food? Luckily, a knowledgeable waiter assuaged my fears by explaining that the marinade actually “cooked” the meat, so that even though it was raw, it was safe for consumption. I wasn’t quite sure how it worked, but I was delighted and kept on eating the delicious seafood mixture.

What is ceviche? Technically, ceviche is raw seafood. But no, it’s not just an uncooked slab of fish. Pronounced “seh-vee-chay” in your best Spanish accent, this is a Latin American recipe for finely cut fish or other seafood which is marinated in citrus juice. The acidic mixture effectively “cures” the meat, making it safer for consumption.

While key aspects of ceviche (fish, citrus) remain constant, there are several versions of the dish. It often depends on market availability of fish, and can vary regionally or depending on who makes it. It can be made with shrimp, octopus, scallops, snapper, or even squid. Often, ceviche will be seasoned with finely chopped tomato, onions, cilantro, or other additions. In my mind, it almost makes it like a seafood salsa–a delicious and refreshing yet protein-packed appetizer.


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What makes “good” ceviche? As previously mentioned, there isn’t just one version of ceviche. But even so, a good ceviche, regardless of ingredients, should have certain characteristics.

It should be fresh, first and foremost: using whatever fish or seafood is fresh daily is key, not only for safety but for flavor and texture. All of the other ingredients should be fresh, too: to use canned tomatoes or dried cilantro would be a travesty. Second, it should be bright: there should be enough citrus that it has a zing, but not so much that it makes your face pucker up. Third, it should be consumed shortly after it is made. Even the freshest of ingredients won’t keep for too long, and this is a dish best enjoyed the same day made.

How does ceviche work? Are you a bit confused about the science behind ceviche? Basically, what happens is that the acid in the citrus coagulates the protein in the fish, effectively “cooking” it in the acidic juice. After even a short marination period, the meat will turn opaque, giving it a visually “cooked” looking exterior.

When the proteins are denatured by the citrus mixture, the enzymes cease activity, which means that the seafood is “cooked” in a manner of speaking. This is why ceviche can be served chilled or at room temperature rather than heated.

How can I tell if it is safe? Even with the science of acid at work, ceviche is not always a “safe” food. While the citrus mixture does cure the meat, it will not completely kill parasites and bacteria that might be present. Like any other uncooked seafood, there are certain precautions you should take.

If ordering ceviche at a restaurant, be sure that it is a trusted, clean establishment. They should be able to tell you where they source their seafood, and how they treat the ingredients.

If making the ceviche yourself, purchase the best quality, freshest seafood that you possibly can. Or, use pre-frozen fish from a trusted source. Often, the pre-frozen fish can be quite safe, as it has been preserved at its prime and has not been exposed to contaminants. Plus, it’s far less expensive than fresh fish, especially in land-locked areas.

Regardless of whether you’re ordering at a restaurant or making ceviche yourself, if you aren’t using fresh, quality fish, the seafood itself could contain contaminants which can be harmful to your health. So make it a priority to use the best quality fish you can find.


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Making ceviche: Now that you’re ready to make ceviche, what will you need? First, you’ll need the fish. I like to include a firm, lean white fish in my mix. Since the marinade will soften the texture of the fish, a firmer fish will hold up better, and won’t become mushy.

I favor a white fish such as rockfish, but you can ask your local seafood purveyor which lean, firm, white fish is freshest in your area. You can also mix some shrimp, octopus, or squid into the mixture for a variety of textures and flavors.

The rest of the ingredients are accessible at just about any supermarket: lemons and limes, a red pepper, tomatoes, cilantro, and salt and pepper. Be sure to use fresh ingredients; why would you take all the effort of making fresh ceviche and use canned tomatoes or bottled lemon or lime juice?

To keep your ceviche safe, always use fresh, high quality ingredients. Also, make sure that your work surface, tools, and your hands are impeccably clean. Even the best quality fish won’t be safe if your hands or tools contain bacteria.


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How to make ceviche. Serves 4. Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Adapted from

  • 1 pound lean, white fish, shrimp, or octopus (either pre-frozen or very, very fresh)
  • 3 limes
  • 4 lemons
  • 1/2 red onion, chopped finely
  • 1 habanero pepper, diced
  • 2 medium, firm tomatoes, cut into small (¼ inch) cubes
  • 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • Salt and black pepper, to taste


  1. Slice the fish into small pieces (approximately ¼-inch portions).
  2. Zest the citrus, and grate the zest very finely. Juice the citrus, and combine all of the juices together.
  3. Combine the fish, zest, citrus, onion, and habanero pepper. Add some salt and pepper, but not too much at this point–just a little. Don’t taste the mixture quite yet, and don’t worry about the remaining ingredients–keep them to the side, or in the refrigerator, to be added at the end of the marination process.
  4. Cover the mixture, and refrigerate for 30 minutes to 3 hours. Look for the fish to become opaque on the exterior. Once you’re satisfied, remove from the refrigerator, add in the tomato and cilantro, and give the mixture a taste. Add more salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Serve immediately, with chips or bread.


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Storing and keeping your ceviche. You can keep ceviche in a sealed container in the refrigerator for a short time before or after serving, but for best quality, serve the ceviche the same day it is made. Plan accordingly; if you are planning on serving it as an appetizer for dinner, be sure to start it mid-afternoon so that the mixture has time to marinate.

Ceviche is a delicious and refreshing seafood delicacy. Because it contains raw fish, it might seem like a “risky” food at first glance, but when it is prepared with fresh ingredients and proper food handling methods, it is a safe and pleasurable food to enjoy. A well-made ceviche is truly a taste of the sea and summer in one delicious dish.

Do you like ceviche?

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