The Science of Ceviche

One of the reasons I enjoy ceviche is because it challenges the notion of what we think of as “cooking”. The dish reminds me that “cooking” is not just the application of heat to a food, but rather is any method that results in the alteration of a food that makes it more palatable.

Ceviche is also one of the better food “science experiments” because it uses a process that’s in use in the majority of the world’s cuisines, but often in a different context. I’m talking about “acidification”, or the process of acids affecting the molecular structure of foods. Typically we see acidification in pickling techniques, where vinegars and other highly acidic compounds are used to store foods for extended periods of time, typically the firmer vegetables but also eggs and meats. Pickling is a process that’s in use around the world, and is very likely one of those discoveries that popped up in more than one location, as there are several types of pickling techniques out there.

While there are many pickled products meant for the long term, ceviche is a short term “pickling” process, and I cannot think of any other dish that’s out there that’s acidified in such a short period of time. Because of its quick acidification, there’s very little of the fermentation that is often found in products like sauerkraut or kim chi. This is one of the several reasons why I find ceviche interesting.

One word of note in regard to ceviche – this “short term acidification” does not kill the majority of bacteria found in whatever seafood products in the dish. This is why it’s important to purchase the best type of seafood that is available. If you can get sashimi grade tuna, that’d be your best start. In other words, if you get your seafood from the local Safeway, you probably run a higher risk of bacterial contamination.

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