The Fish You Choose Matters When Making Ceviche

Ceviche can seem pretty straightforward at first. It's a raw fish dip with herbs and citrus — what's so complicated about that? A lot, actually. You can make ceviche with fish, octopus, clams, even bull testicles. That's because ceviche is a method of preparation and not a specific recipe, similar to how sushi is a way of preparing raw fish that allows for an endless variety of specific expressions of the general concept.

To figure out what the best types of fish are for ceviche, we reached out to Chef Roberto Santibañez, chef and owner of the Mi Vida in Washington D.C. and Fonda Restaurants in New York City, as well as an author of several cookbooks. "A good ceviche first starts with picking the right fish," he told us. "You should look for a fish that is white, lean, and flaky. Fish like salmon or halibut won't work because of its high fat content." Typical white, lean, and flaky fish include flounder, red snapper, bass, grouper, rockfish, and sole.

Why fat content matters

To understand why choosing lean fish is better, we need to understand how ceviche is made. Ceviche is pretty unusual in that the fish is technically raw, but sort of cooked. Ceviche is made by coating the fish in an acidic marinade, usually lime juice. When you cook meat with heat, you're denaturing the protein and killing the bacteria. When we say denature, we mean that it breaks down the protein's structure. (Fun fact, heat kills bacteria because it denatures the protein in the bacteria as well, thereby destroying it).

The lime juice similarly denatures the protein in the fish because it increases pH levels. That's why people will often refer to the fish in ceviche as having been "cooked" by the acids. The difference is that the lime juice doesn't destroy the bacteria, so it's still technically raw. The denatured fish meat becomes opaque and firm, similar in appearance to cooked fish.

The fat content matters because the lime juice isn't strong enough to affect the fat molecules in fish, only the protein. If you choose a fatty fish, you'll end up with mushy fish in your ceviche instead of the intended chewy fish.