Flavorful, balanced marinade that doubles as a sauce for the ceviche
Perfectly “cooked” seafood
Garnishes that add contrast
In the summer, ceviche is one of my go-to dinners for three big reasons: It’s easy and quick, it doesn’t require turning on the stove or oven or even firing up the grill, and it’s the only dish that truly allows the fresh, clean, delicate flavor of seafood to shine. Ceviche, of course, is the Latin American dish in which pieces of raw fish are “cooked” in an acidic marinade until the flesh firms and turns opaque.
Full disclosure: When I make ceviche at home, I don’t normally use a recipe. I juice some limes, cut up the fish (usually a firm‑fleshed white variety such as sea bass, snapper, or halibut—whatever is freshest at the market), and let the fish marinate in the lime juice until it just begins to turn opaque. Then I add minced garlic and chiles, chopped cilantro, some thinly sliced onion, creamy diced avocado, a glug of olive oil for some richness, and a generous pinch of salt. Some crunchy garnishes go in a bowl to be served alongside. When I started researching traditional recipes, I quickly realized how simplistic my understanding of ceviche was. Plenty of versions took an approach similar to mine, but the Peruvian recipes opened my eyes to a more sophisticated take.
A Peruvian-Inspired Spin on Ceviche
Many Peruvian recipes call for blending the marinade ingredients—citrus juice, aromatics, and olive oil—before adding the seafood. But there’s another component they often add to the marinade: fish. Some recipes call for a concentrated fish broth; others call for adding a small portion of fish before blending and straining. In both cases, the added seafood brings savory depth to the marinade, which is called leche de tigre (“tiger’s milk”). This leche is sometimes poured over the the marinated fish before serving, like a sauce, or drunk as a beverage, either on its own or mixed into a cocktail (an alleged aphrodisiac). With its creamy, rich consistency and balanced, nuanced flavor, the blended marinade is akin to an emulsified vinaigrette. Thanks to that emulsification, the silky marinade coats and clings to each piece of fish. (This was a sharp contrast to my usual unblended marinade, which always runs right off the fish, causing individual bites to feature too much sharp lime juice or an abundance of greasy oil.)
I began working on my version by slicing 1 pound of skinless red snapper into small pieces. To make the leche, I poured ½ cup of fresh lime juice into a blender along with two garlic cloves, ¼ cup of chopped cilantro, a couple of teaspoons of salt, and a tablespoon of olive oil. For a bit of heat, I added some ají amarillo paste, which is made from a fruity yellow pepper of the same name and is traditional to many Peruvian ceviches (a seeded habanero chile can be substituted in a pinch). Finally, I added ⅓ cup of sliced snapper. After blending, I strained out any remaining solids.
The resulting leche had the creamy consistency I was aiming for, but the lime was so muted that I could barely taste it. Plus, blending the green cilantro with the yellow chile paste turned the leche an unappealing muddy brown. I made a new batch with ¾ cup of lime juice and no cilantro (I would add it as a garnish). This bright yellow leche had silky, rich body and bright, balanced flavor. It was time to figure out how long to “cook” my fish in this new marinade.
How Acid “Cooks” Fish
Acids denature and coagulate fish proteins, firming fish and turning it opaque just as hot cooking methods do. However, “cooking” with acid doesn’t change the fish’s taste—its clean, delicate flavor still shines. It also doesn't kill microbes, which underscores the importance of using the freshest seafood. Our leche de tigre is about three times less acidic than straight lime juice, so it affects the fish more slowly, giving us some breathing room in the marinating time. We marinated thin slices of fish in our leche to demonstrate how it affects the flesh over time.
Firming Things Up
The acid in a ceviche marinade denatures (unravels) and coagulates (clumps together) proteins, giving the fish an opaque appearance and a slightly firm yet still tender texture. When fish is marinated in pure lime juice, it turns opaque at the edges almost instantly and goes from tender to firm in minutes. In contrast, the leche’s more tempered acidity affects the fish more slowly, providing a wider window for serving. For my snapper, I found 30 to 40 minutes to be the ideal marinating time. At around the 30-minute mark, it’s just beginning to turn opaque and its texture is firm but easily yields as you bite into it. Those who prefer ceviche with a texture closer to that of fully cooked fish can marinate for 45 minutes to 1 hour, though beyond that I found the texture unpleasantly dry and chalky.
Before cooking, we often season proteins, including fish, with salt and let them sit to season them throughout. Was this step necessary here, considering I had sliced the fish thin and exposed more surface area to the marinade? I tossed my next batch of sliced snapper with 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and refrigerated it while I made my leche. After a 30-minute soak, I tasted the presalted ceviche alongside an unsalted version (I still seasoned each batch before serving). The results were clear: Salting enhanced the flavor of the fish; it stood out against the other bold flavors in the ceviche. Further testing showed that a mere 10 minutes was all it took for the salt to have a noticeable effect on the small pieces of fish.
All that was left was sorting out the mix-ins: It’s the layering of flavors and textures that makes a great ceviche. I liked the bright lime from the leche de tigre, but I thought it would be nice to bring in another citrus, so I added orange segments for sweet notes. Thinly sliced radishes added crisp texture and colorful contrast to the yellow leche and green cilantro. For salty, crunchy garnishes, I made a batch of popcorn (much to the delight of my colleagues) and set out a bowl of corn nuts. Both are traditional in Latin America.
Now that I’ve experienced this whole new world of elegant-yet-easy ceviches made with leche de tigre, I know what I’m making for dinner the next time it's too hot to cook.