How to Make Ceviche Safely

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Everyone wants to learn how to make ceviche, and, while ceviche recipes are all over the place, a basic ceviche is, more or less, pico de gallo with fish or seafood in it.

Ceviche is one of those seemingly esoteric dishes that Americans have truly embraced, especially those of us who live fairly near the ocean. A Peruvian invention, the original ceviche recipe is fish or seafood marinated in citrus juices, which then “cook” the fish. I’ve seen all sorts of versions served in restaurants, and if you look on any angler’s forum you’ll see recipes for ceviche of… well anything, really.

This can be a very bad idea.

Two bowls of salmon ceviche
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

The reason is because ceviche (sev-ee-chay) is still, for the most part, a raw fish dish.

The citrus bath the fish or seafood sits in does turn the meat opaque, giving it the appearance of being cooked, and it does kill some of the many wee beasties present in raw foods that can make you sick, notably the toxin vibrio. But the ceviche-making process will not protect you from the worst of the nasties, ranging from salmonella to parasites and worms.

Certain species of fish tend to be more or less prone to parasites. So the best fish for ceviche are those you would see at a trip to the sushi bar. Tuna and other pelagic species tend to be free of parasites (swordfish being a notable exception), as is farmed salmon (oddly). But ever notice that mackerel (saba) is always cured?

That’s because it can often contain anasakis worm larvae, also known as seal worm. Everything in the cod family is especially prone to infestation, too, which is why you never see cod sushi.

Here in the West, Pacific salmon, rockfish and halibut well known to harbor anasakis larvae, and to be safe you must freeze your fish before eating it raw. And when I mean freezing I mean really freezing. You need the fish to hit -4°F for about a week to do the trick. Note that older home freezers never hit this temperature.

(If you want to learn more on this topic, we did an entire podcast episode on parasites in fish.)

I don’t want to scare you too much. The vast majority of illnesses you might get from eating tainted or parasite-laden raw fish will be moderate to light. It’ll feel like food poisoning, with cramps, nausea and a serious case of the trots. Not fun, but not life-threatening, either. This is because in most cases we are not what’s called a “definitive” host, meaning the parasite hits a dead end with us.

Basic ceviche recipe in a bowl with tortillas.
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Seal worm is a great example. The seal worm (anasakis) is around wherever there are seals and sea lions — they are the “definitive” host for that parasite. When we eat raw, tainted salmon, the worm says, “Cool! A mammal! Let’s attach to his intestines.” But the worm soon learns that a person is not a sea lion and it dies, but not before making you sick.

We are a definitive host to lovely critters like liver flukes and tapeworm, however, which are common in North American freshwater fish. The single largest vector for tapeworm in America is from people eating raw or undercooked trout. People think, “Hey! I love salmon sushi, and trout is just a cousin of a salmon, so…”

Bad idea. Under no circumstances should you eat freshwater fish raw or in ceviche that has not been properly frozen first. Remember the only way to get rid of a tapeworm, which can grow longer than 20 feet in your guts (nasty!) — is to take medicine that will kill it. You then need to eject the thing. Ew.

Now that I’ve freaked you all out,  here’s some good news: Actual illness from parasites and such is pretty rare. I’ve known guys who’ve eaten fresh raw salmon for years without getting sick, and raw Pacific salmon is one of the fish with the highest incidence of tapeworm and seal worm infestation.

What’s more, you can vastly improve your chances of avoiding parasites in your fish by killing the fish quickly when it comes overboard, bleeding it, and gutting it ASAP. This last bit is the most important because virtually all the parasites hang out in the viscera of fish, not the meat. In most cases, the meat gets tainted because when the fish dies the parasites panic and burrow into the meat.

Here is an overview of seafood safety from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bottom Line: Unless you are tuna fishing, make your ceviche from pre-frozen fish. It’s just a smart thing to do.

Crab ceviche tostadas on appetizer plates.
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

 

Once it’s been properly frozen, however, the sky’s the limit. A traditional Peruvian ceviche recipe typically has onions, chiles, cilantro and sometimes corn and tomatoes. I normally go that route and serve an appetizer-style ceviche that’s great eaten on tortilla chips. Fantastic for a light dinner, or to put out when you are watching football or having a party.

I have variations on how to make ceviche that range all over the Latin American world, from a Chilean salmon ceviche, to Mexican crab ceviche tostadas, and even a ceviche de calamar, with squid.

Marinating times make a difference when you are making ceviche. Depending on the size of the fish pieces, you will need at least 30 minutes and normally an hour for the citrus to “cook” the fish. Two hours is fine, but beyond that the ceviche, while still good, becomes more of a pickled fish thing. It’s a subtle difference, but you can taste it.

If you don’t marinate the fish at all, and serve basically a mash-up of sushi and ceviche, you have Mexican aguachile.

Citrus matters, too. You always want the dominant citrus in the marinade to be either limes or lemons, which are far more acidic than oranges, grapefruits or tangerines. Add these fruits as an accent to the ceviche; I am especially fond of a little grapefruit in the mix.

Basic ceviche recipe in a bowl with tortillas.
4.92 from 23 votes

Basic Ceviche

I find that white, lean fish work best for ceviche. I've made it with bluefish and salmon before but I don't like it so much; you might have a different opinion. My standard ceviche fish is Pacific rockfish or lingcod that's been pre-frozen. Any sort of snapper, grouper, black seabass, porgy, sea trout, white seabass or yellowtail will work, as will pre-frozen freshwater fish like walleye or perch.
Course: Appetizer, Main Course, Snack
Cuisine: Mexican
Servings: 4 people
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 50 minutes

Ingredients 

  • 1 pound pre-frozen lingcod, rockfish or other lean, white fish
  • 3 limes
  • 2 lemons
  • 1 grapefruit
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 1/2 red onion, sliced root to tip
  • 2 Roma or other paste tomatoes, seeded
  • 1 ear of corn, kernels sliced off
  • 1 habanero or rocoto chile pepper, or more to taste
  • 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Instructions 

  • Slice the fish into small, bite-sized pieces. Cut the tomatoes into pieces the same size as the fish and set them aside for later. Zest 1 lime, 1 lemon and the grapefruit and grate them fine; I use a microplane grater to do this. Mince the habanero fine. Juice all the citrus. Add all the ingredients except for the tomatoes and the cilantro to a bowl or plastic container with a lid and refrigerate for 30 minutes to 2 hours.
  • Add the tomatoes and cilantro, mix well and serve cold with chips.

Video

Nutrition

Calories: 201kcal | Carbohydrates: 24g | Protein: 26g | Fat: 2g | Saturated Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 42mg | Sodium: 80mg | Potassium: 836mg | Fiber: 5g | Sugar: 9g | Vitamin A: 1197IU | Vitamin C: 75mg | Calcium: 87mg | Iron: 1mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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139 Comments

  1. So, when you say use frozen fish, do you mean freeze it yourself to get it to hit the -4 degree F? Or do you mean frozen fish from the grocery store is ok to use? Presumably their frozen section of seafood hits this temperature?

  2. Yikes! I’d had ceviche in a restaurant, loved it, tried making it back home, loved it, and am now feeling very fortunate to have survived both episodes with only good tastes and memories. I’m a bit freaked out, living too far from the ocean to reasonablly catch and gut, and never quite sure how the fish I buy has been treated. All that said, since ceviche really is good, is there any way to make it with already-cooked fish, without ruining the original fresh fish taste goal? I’m thinking of mixing up all the ingredients except the fish, then baking the fish to safe temperature, then mixing it all up. Suggestions? Ideas? Thanks.

    1. Very informative and well explained! Question: do you thaw the fish before making the recipe?
      What’s the correct way of thawing the fish if it needs to be thawed?

      1. Kaylee: Yes, you thaw it. I vacuum seal most of my fish, so I will take the fish out of the bag, put it in a lidded container wrapped in paper towels. As the fish thaws, the paper towels will soak up the moisture given off. I typically need to change the paper towels a couple times. Doing this wicks away smelly liquid and keeps the fish nicer.

  3. Thank you so much for informative article!!! I was just about to jump off the deep end and go for a homemade ceviche brunch after finally trying it for the first time after meaning to do so for years this past Monday. My educational background in pharmacology and biology was sending off red flags in spite of all these recipes out here with no other information so I truly appreciate this information. I was planning on making a dish with Chilean Sea Bass (Patagonia toothfish lol) , Corvina, and cooked shrimp base. My freezer is set to -6 degrees. I just read your article and have put the fish away and was hoping to let the fish sit until next Thursday at the earliest. I plan on using lime juice for 1.5 to 2 hours. Based on the species of these fish- do you think this will be sufficient?

    Much Appreciated-

    Jennifer

  4. This is great information! Last time I made ceviche, the fish was undercooked, or not enough acid from the lemon, so the whole family got sick! Lesson learned, use real lemons, not lime juice!!!

  5. This will be my first time making ceviche, can I make it with tilapia fish? And when I buy the fish should I ask for frozen fish or can I freeze it myself?

    1. Letty: My advice is to buy frozen fish, then thaw it over a day or so in the fridge before making the ceviche.

  6. This is my first time making ceviche and I can’t wait to taste it (mine is in the fridge “cooking”). Can you tell me… does it need to be eaten same day or will it be safe to eat tomorrow as well? I guess by tomorrow it might be pickled?
    Thanks!

  7. Making your Ceviche , …I am from a commercial fishing family, dating back to 1894 on the Oregon coast….pickled salmon was a mainstay in our diet from the time we were toddlers. I am using wild caught cod from the Bering Sea.
    I have “cooked” the Cod in lime juice for 7 hours. married to homemade garden Salsa, shaIlot’s, garlic and some bits of pineapple …it really tastes wonderful.
    Thanks for your recipe. I will be doing it next.

  8. Enjoyed the read! Not my favourite recipe but great nonetheless. My favourites are the Ceviche Tricolor combinations – spicy! I also tried making ceviche in Russia with trout, salmon, radishes, cucumber, green and white onions, garlic, lime and lemons, dill, parsley, hot georgian chilli paste, and just a teeny tiny bit of herring for the salt. Served next to some cooled boiled potatoes or next to some mashed potatoes.

  9. I love making ceviche and appreciate not just the recipe but more importantly the safety guidelines. Being able to follow the freezing instructions confidently means my skeptical wife is happy to eat it too. Thanks Hank.

  10. Wow Hank! Thank you for your clear and instructive post. I’ve enjoyed ceviche dishes several times and have been trying to screw up the courage to make one. I feel like I’m armed for battle now.
    I thank you, my stomach thanks you, and the digestive sensibilities of my prospective guests thank you.

  11. Well written and probably medically accurate.
    I have heard that you need to freeze well below 10’F.
    Don’t forge about rickettsia in seal worms that kill dogs (salmon poisoning).
    TomNow MD
    mTomNs

  12. maybe just to be safe it’s best to cook the fish for a bit and then let it soak in lime juice? but then it’s not really ceviche anymore…. but its definitely healthier

    1. It’s not actually healthier. But yes, if you cook the fish and then soak, you are less likely to pick up a parasite, but it will no longer be ceviche. It will be closer to escabeche, a different dish.

    1. Cody: If you’ve frozen it for at least 48 hours, it should be safe. But I would never use it without freezing first.

  13. What would happen if the fish is left in the refrigerator overnight? I had some ceviche made from walleyes in Ontario many years ago….

  14. Yum!
    1. Would one assume that Trader Joe’s /boat frozen Cod has dipped below the required temperature?
    2. Any point in quick-poaching or even quick-roasting the Cod (as some do with scallops, squid, etc.) before adding to lime marinade?

    1. KosherChef: I wouldn’t use cod for ceviche. It’s very wormy, comparatively speaking, and it’s flake is very wide, not ideal for ceviche.

  15. Just one thing to add, Peruvian ceviche or cebiche (a preferred spelling by us, Peruvians) never contains tomatoes.

  16. I am making Ceviche for a party as an appetizer does it make a difference if I mix in a plastic bowl verses a metal bowl? Also, if I make a larger amount will all the scallops, fish, and shrimp cook evenly?