In the three years I have written this column, we have talked about everything from fondant to flash frying, and every month I define, explain, explore and provide an application for different cooking techniques. This month, however, I am unable to do so.
Ceviche is not a cooking technique, but rather a dish that requires a cooking technique I struggle to define. For the past six months I have been researching this topic. I have spoken to a dozen or so chefs across the country and referenced every culinary textbook I can get my hands on to no avail.
According to Harold McGee, author of the celebrated On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, ceviche is defined as “an ancient dish from the northern coast of South America, in which small cubes or slices of raw fish are ‘cooked’ by immersing them in citrus juice or another acidic liquid.”
No disrespect to Mr. McGee, but I take issue with a definition containing quotation marks around the word. The fact is, in order for something to be “cooked,” a heat source must be applied. Since ceviche isn’t prepared with applied heat, the term “cooked” is not correct.
The acidity from the marinade denatures the protein, which changes the appearance and texture, but also kills harmful bacteria. This leads me to believe the technique behind ceviche is actually denaturation, which occurs when stress is applied to a protein, causing the cells to go through a series of changes, loosening and tightening. At the most basic level, proteins are a series of coils, that when exposed to heat, unwind. The acid in ceviche acts as a “heat source” and allows the denaturation to happen much more slowly than with applied heat, so the end product is extra tender and retains more natural flavor.
I still find fault with the definition, as all “cooked” foods experience denaturation. We don’t have language such as “fried,” “broiled” or “grilled” to describe the process of making ceviche. Saying it is “denatured” is somewhat too obvious, but better than saying it is “cooked.” I say we contact Harold McGee and suggest that ceviche be applied as both a dish and a cooking technique. I like the sound of “scallops prepared ceviche.” I think we might be onto something.
Cassy Vires is the owner and chef of Home Wine Kitchen and Table.
Gin-Soaked Scallop Ceviche
The acid required to make ceviche doesn’t have to be citrus juice. Gin, for example, has enough natural acid to properly denature proteins.
Serves | 4 |
- 4 large scallops
- 1 cup gin
- ¼ cup fresh dill
- 1 lemon, zested
| Preparation | Place scallops in a non-reactive container and cover in gin. Marinate for 10 to 15 minutes. Thinly slice scallops and fan out over chilled plate. Lightly season scallops with salt, and garnish with fresh dill and lemon zest. Serve cold.