Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

If you think of ceviche as always being chunks of fish marinated in lime juice, residents of Mazatlán, Mexico would like a word. In this Sinaloan beach town, many consider the fine, uniform texture of ground fish to be ideal for ceviche, at least when it comes to ceviche de sierra.

This well loved ceviche has the core ingredients you’d expect in ceviche: fresh fish (in this case, ground Pacific sierra, a fish in the Spanish mackerel family), lime, onion, and cilantro. But it’s the added generous portion of finely grated carrot, found in the most well known versions of Mazatlán’s ceviche de sierra, that creates this ceviche’s signature tart and sweet flavor. It’s refreshing, bursting with flavor, and perfect for lunch on a steamy day.

The Vibrant Ceviche Culture in Sinaloa

Ceviche only became popular in Sinaloa in the 1970s, according to María de la Luz Altamirano and Marco Antonio García, who have been selling fish and ceviche for decades at their Mazatlán downtown market, Pescadería Mi Niño Mi Niña.

Ceviche may have originated hundreds of years ago in the area that is now Peru and Ecuador, a fusion between indigenous and Spanish traditions. It arrived in Mexico more recently and, according to María, first became popular in Sinaloa as a work meal for fishermen, something they could throw together with a little lime and some of the day’s catch. The dish was a hit and quickly spread out of the fishing community. By the early 1980s, ceviche was an established staple of the Sinaloan coast’s food scene.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Today, there are dozens of varieties of ceviche available throughout Sinaloa. There’s the classic Mexican ceviche with chunks of white fish tossed with tomato and cucumber and marinated with spices and lime juice. There’s shrimp aguachile, served raw with lime and (for traditionalists) crushed chiltepín, the tiny, fiery-hot chile that grows wild throughout Mexico and Central America, and beyond that you’ll find tuna, blue crab, scallops, octopus, snapper, sea snail, and dozens of other sea creatures in different Sinaloan ceviches.

But despite a plethora of ceviche options, ceviche de sierra still reigns supreme in Mazatlán. No Sunday afternoon beach trip is complete without a few liters of Pacific sierra ceviche to share around. It is also a common centerpiece of family reunions, birthday parties, and other gatherings, often prepared ahead of time or ordered to-go at restaurants.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Restaurants prepare it two ways: ahead of time to give the fish some extra time to cure more deeply in the acidic marinade, or “al instante” for those who want that extra fresh fish flavor. That’s how I recommend preparing this recipe: Add the lime juice, mix, and serve within 15 minutes. If you wait longer, the flavor of the fish fades and it becomes more of a vehicle for the flavors of the lime, cilantro, and vegetables (it’s still good to eat, just not how I think is best).

How to Select and Mince the Fish

The first question is what type of fish to use. Though you might assume that “ceviche de sierra” has to be made with Pacific sierra, it goes by the same name when it’s made with mahi mahi, flounder, or other white fish. Mahi mahi (also known as dorado) is a common substitute when Pacific sierra isn’t in season. 

We often talk about how acid “cooks” the fish in a ceviche, and in a sense it does: Just like heat, acid denatures proteins, turning the meat opaque and firming it up. But acid isn’t as effective as heat for killing bacteria and parasites.  That means that when selecting fish for this recipe, you will want extremely fresh fish that has been on ice since the moment it was caught, or, arguably even better from a food safety standpoint, fish that was flash-frozen at the point of catch (flash freezing reduces the risk of certain parasites). And while “sushi-grade” is not an FDA-regulated term, it’s still a helpful phrase when talking to a fishmonger about your needs when shopping—a good seafood clerk should be able to steer you to your best options with that in mind.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

At local markets in Mazatlàn, most fishmongers are able to grind the fish for you. Since that’s not guaranteed in other places, I played with a few methods of grinding the fish at home. I first tried a traditional method involving scraping off soft slices of fish with a spoon and then finely chopping them further with a knife. With soft, oily Pacific sierra, this technique was labor-intensive but successful, producing small grains of fish without mashing it to a pasty pulp. But when I tried the same technique with mahi mahi, the firmer fillets didn’t yield easily to the spoon.

In search of a method that would work with a wider variety of fish, I broke out my food processor. I found that I could achieve a similar ground texture by pulsing frozen chunks of the fish, being careful to stop when the fish was finely chopped but not yet pasty.

Ceviche de Sierra: Key Ingredients

In addition to the classic elements of fish, lime, and onion, ceviche de sierra usually contains carrot and cucumber. Though ceviche de sierra recipes occasionally include finely chopped serrano chile, I decided to leave it out because I prefer my ceviche with salsa negra and serrano’s flavor combines better with a green salsa.

With a preferred grinding method for the fish in place, I focused on finding the right balance of textures and flavors in the final ceviche. For my first try I used equal parts carrot and fish, as I’d seen it made in Mazatlán many times. But the result was disappointingly damp and overwhelmingly carrot-y.

Discussing the botched batch with my taste testers, I learned that salting and draining excess liquid from the grated carrot enhanced the carrot’s earthy sweet flavor and maintained its light crunch. Once tossed with the fish, the result was a fish-forward ceviche with a balanced sweetness and welcome texture from the carrots, without it turning watery.

When I tried mixing the grated carrot with the fish to marinate with the lime juice, the large volume of additional ingredients required I add a ton of lime juice to insure the fish was properly cured and “cooked” through. The result was too soupy.

So at the helpful serving suggestion from ceviche-maker María de la Luz Altamirano, I marinated just the fish with lime juice, salt, pepper, and onion before adding the other ingredients. That way, less lime juice is needed to properly marinate the fish. The remaining ingredients are then added after the fish turns from translucent pink to a “cooked” opaque color. The result is really bright, well-cured fish with a balanced lime flavor, and carrot and cucumber that retain their own freshness, without the ceviche turning soupy.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Next I tackled the cucumber. Adding finely chopped cucumber also (predictably) made the ceviche turn watery. But salting and draining liquid from the cucumber dimmed the cucumber’s fresh color and crispness. At a friend’s suggestion, I simply didn’t mix in the cucumber at all, and instead served it as a final topping just before serving, though you could also mix it in at the very last minute before serving—the key is to not let it sit in the marinade for any length of time.

As mentioned above, the dish should be served ideally 10 minutes and no more than 15 minutes after adding the lime juice for the freshest, brightest fish flavor.

Once the ceviche is ready, it can be served on tostadas, saltines, or duritos (not to be confused with Doritos, these are Mexican fried crackers made from wheat flour). To assemble a top-notch tostada, spread it with a little mayonnaise and top it with a mound of ceviche, cucumber, and avocado. If you have time, fresh tostadas made by frying fresh corn tortillas beat the grocery store packages any day. Top it all off with red or green hot sauce, or salsa negra, a spicy and savory hot sauce often used for seafood in Sinaloa.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Using a very sharp knife, cut the fish into 1/2-inch cubes. Transfer to a large plate or baking sheet in a single layer and freeze until the fish is firm to the touch but not fully frozen, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, place a food processor bowl and its blade into the freezer to chill while the fish is freezing.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Toss carrot with 1/4 teaspoon salt and transfer to a fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl. Let drain for 20 minutes, gently pressing on the carrots to remove excess moisture.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Once the fish is firm, transfer to the food processor and pulse until evenly ground, about 10 to 20 pulses (fish should be roughly 1/8 inch in size; be careful not to over-process fish to a smooth paste).

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Transfer fish to a mixing bowl and toss well with onion, lime juice, remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and pepper to taste. Let marinate in refrigerator, stirring occasionally, until the fish turns from translucent to opaque white, 5 to 10 minutes.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

 Stir in the drained grated carrot and cilantro. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Top with cucumber and serve right away with tostadas, mayonnaise, avocado, and sauces.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

Food processor


This recipe is traditionally made with Pacific sierra, a fish in the mackerel family. If unavailable, mahi mahi may be substituted, as can Spanish mackerel. Mahi mahi is less assertive in flavor and slightly sweeter than Pacific sierra, while Spanish mackerel is an oilier and more flavorful fish. Make sure to buy extremely fresh fish that is suitable for eating raw; flash-frozen fish is even safer, as the deep-freezing process kills some potential parasites.

This recipe traditionally uses ground fish. While a food processor does a good job “grinding” the fish and is easy to use, you can also finely chop the fish with a very sharp knife to 1/8-inch pieces. 

Key limes are common in Mexico and will also work in this recipe; I recommend using good quality key limes if you can find them. They should be plump, green, and heavy, and about 1 1/2 inches in diameter; you will need more key limes than Persian limes, if you use them.

Make-Ahead and Storage

This recipe is best prepared fresh right before serving. Ceviche should otherwise be kept refrigerated and eaten the same day it is prepared.

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