How is Ceviche made and How does the Lime Juice in Ceviche Cook the Fish?

Virtually every mention of ceviche (seh-VEE-che; I’ll use the Spanish spelling) by a food writer is accompanied by a gratuitous statement to the effect that lime juice does to protein what heat does to protein, and therefore the fish is essentially “cooked” by the lime juice.

Well, does “cooked” mean cooked, or doesn’t it? And if the quotation marks are necessary, whom, pray tell, is everyone quoting? Apparently it’s a vicious cycle, with everyone quoting everyone else. Let’s just agree that “cooked” means subjected to heat, while “raw” generally means not cooked. So take your choice.

But before I serve up your mini-course in protein chemistry, here’s a bit of an appetizer.

Ceviche is made from small pieces of any of several kinds of raw saltwater fish, or from scallops or other shellfish, or squid or octopus, all marinated in lime juice for several hours in the refrigerator, after which some oil, chopped onion and other vegetables, and spices are added and the mélange served cold. If the fish is fresh to begin with, and it absolutely must be, it is safe to marinate it for up to five or six hours; the lime’s acidity is strong enough to retard bacterial growth.

The citric acid in lime juice changes the proteins in fish by a process called denaturation. The normally twisted and folded protein molecules are unraveled or unfolded into less convoluted shapes. And the shapes of molecules. especially proteins, are responsible for most of their physical and chemical properties. In other words, they have lost their original natures: they have been denatured.

And yes, the heat of cooking also denatures proteins.

But besides acids and heat, a variety of other kinds of conditions can denature proteins. High concentrations of salts, including table salt, sodium chloride, can do it. Air can do it, as happens in the bubbles formed when cream is whipped. Even alkalis, the opposite of acids, and low temperatures, the opposite of heat, can do it, but less commonly. The analogy with cooking comes only from the fact that heat is the most familiar protein-denaturing agent in the kitchen.

Denaturing or unwinding protein molecules is no great trick, because the bonds that keep them twisted and folded aren’t very strong. Evolution may supply a rationale for that fact: Over the eons, specific proteins have evolved to do specific jobs in specific living organisms, so they have no need to be stable under conditions vastly different from those that prevail in the organisms they serve.

Animal muscle is normally only mildly acidic, while body temperatures are relatively low, especially in the case of sea creatures. Thus, meat and fish proteins can be destabilized when subjected to higher acidities and higher temperatures than those in the animal’s muscles. That’s why in making ceviche, fish protein can be denatured by an acid no stronger than lime juice, and even at refrigerator temperatures.

The different denaturing methods complement and enhance one another. For example, the stronger the acid a protein is subjected to, the lower the temperature at which it can be denatured by heat. That’s why meat or fish bathed in a marinade containing lemon or lime juice (citric acid), vinegar (acetic acid), or wine (primarily tartaric and malic acids) will require less cooking time than an unmarinated sample. And if you want to explain that by saying the acid has partially “cooked” the meat, be my guest.

After the protein molecules in a food have been unraveled or unfolded by any of these denaturing environments, they may not stay that way. For one thing, if the conditions should change, they can re-ravel back into their original shapes or something similar. But usually this doesn’t happen, because as they unfold or disrobe, so to speak, the protein molecules expose parts of themselves that previously had been concealed in the folds, and these parts can react with other chemicals in the vicinity that can change their shapes more or less permanently.

Or, the newly denuded sections can bond to one another, making so called crosslinks that knit the molecules together into tighter structures. That’s why when you either cook a piece of fish or soak it in lime juice to make ceviche, it develops a firmer texture. You’ll notice also that it becomes more opaque, because light rays can’t penetrate the tightly balled-up, crosslinked protein molecules. (The same thing happens to the proteins in an egg white; when cooked it turns from transparent to opaque white.) And under the right conditions, acidified, unfolded protein molecules will stick together and the protein will coagulate, as when cheese curds are formed when lactic acid denatures the casein in milk.

So why are acids so important in cooking? First of all, all our animal and vegetable foods are inherently either slightly acidic or neutral (neither acidic nor alkaline), and food chemistry, including the chemistry of cooking, is therefore very sensitive to even slight changes in acidity. The degree of acidity (expressed as a pH between 0 and 7) is critical to many of the chemical transformations that take place in cooking.

On the other hand, alkalinity (a pH between 7 and 14), the antithesis of acidity, plays virtually no role in cooking. Alkaline chemicals, being mostly unnatural in our foods, have generally deleterious effects on them and are rarely used in cooking. Nature has set the stage for that by making alkaline substances taste disagreeably bitter and soapy. All acids, on the other hand, add sourness, a very important element in our treasury of tastes.

But what about safety? Cooking temperatures will kill all bacteria and most spores, while the acid does so primarily on the surface of the food. Any parasites that may be lurking within the flesh can be killed by freezing or by the heat of cooking, but not by the acid.

Once again, however, if you’re using fresh, inspected fish from a trustworthy supplier, your sushi, sashimi, and ceviche should be quite safe. Just don’t buy your fish from that guy in the 1985 Chevy wagon by the side of the road.