How to Make Perfectly Fluffy Mexican Red Rice in Under 30 Minutes

For flavorful arroz rojo with the fluffiest grains, toast the rice before cooking it with an aromatic tomato purée and chicken stock.

Side view of Arroz Rojo
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

As a kid growing up in the Midwest, I first encountered arroz rojo, red rice, in lackluster Mexican restaurants as an unassuming side dish that I’d eat alongside tinga de pollo and refried beans. I’d take a few bites, but the greasy, not particularly flavorful rice mostly went unnoticed on my plate. Then in college in Los Angeles, arroz rojo was a cheap and filling side in my college cafeteria and at many fast-food joints. These versions of the tomato-based rice dish were more palatable, but I still didn’t pay much attention to it. In my mind, it was still essentially plate filler. It wasn't until I moved to Mexico as an adult that I learned to fully appreciate this simple side dish that I eat with friends and in-laws at my home in Sinaloa. 

What is Arroz Rojo?

Great arroz rojo consists of fluffy, perfectly cooked singular grains of rice cooked in a flavorful puréed tomato and chicken stock mixture. It’s well seasoned, aromatic, and rich without being heavy or greasy. It’s is a well known Mexican staple, and it’s easy to see why. It’s relatively quick to make and reheats well in the microwave or on the stove with a little broth, making it convenient fare for daily meals as well as for get-togethers of all sizes. It pairs well with almost anything: chiles rellenos, grilled chicken, barbacoa, mole, albóndigas, or a simple pot of beans, to name just a few dishes. 

It’s a dish packed with flavor, but only if it’s prepared with care. The rice dish is fairly simple: Softened onion and garlic are blended with tomatoes to form the flavorful base. The rice is toasted in oil, then cooked in the blended sauce with chicken broth. After that, serrano chile is added, along with carrots and peas for a classic combination that adds color, texture, and sweetness.

Side view of poking pepper with fork
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Arroz rojo can be made with virtually any vegetable instead of the peas and carrots—think corn, green beans, potato, and squash, to name a few. It can also be prepped with any type of broth. In Sinaloa, one of my favorite variations involves shrimp broth and fresh or dried shrimp; this dish is often eaten as a main course during Semana Santa when red meat is forbidden. With so many variations to choose from, I decided to focus on one of the most classic versions of arroz rojo. This version is flavorful and flexible—just the rice with the typical additions of peas and carrots. Here’s how to cook it perfectly at home every time.

How to Prevent Gummy Rice

As mentioned above, great arroz rojo features plump and fluffy singular grains of cooked rice. Like with many rice dishes, the first question is if and how to get rid of extra starch, which can turn the final product into a gummy block. For plain white rice, the standard is to rinse the starch off, over and over (and over). Once the water runs clear, the rice is ready to cook up into perfectly fluffy, separate grains.

But I knew that not all cooks rinse their rice before making arroz rojo. So does it really make a difference? I prepared batches with the rice rinsed five times, like I usually do for white rice, and compared it to batches rinsed once or not at all. The difference between unrinsed and once-rinsed rice was smaller than I expected (though the flavor seemed a bit cleaner on the rinsed rice). The rice grains I’d rinsed five times were barely more defined than the once-rinsed batch, though I could see plenty of milky white starch running off in the repeated rinses. But if one rinse left so much starch behind, why didn’t more rinses make more of a difference?

After investigating (and re-reading Tim Chin’s deep dive into the science of cooking white rice), I finally connected the dots to something an acquaintance had mentioned about how toasting the rice grains improved the final texture. Frying the dry rice grains in oil actually destroys much of the surface starch (not to mention the warm toasted-grain flavor it adds). That’s why one rinse is plenty for this dish.

Use Just Enough Oil for Rich, But Not Heavy, Rice

Another concern was the amount of oil. How could I make a tasty, hearty arroz rojo without it turning greasy? A certain amount of oil is needed to prevent sticking and allow the flavors to bloom to their full potential as you fry up the onions and garlic and toast the rice. For this recipe, I found that a tablespoon of oil was sufficient to soften the onions and garlic before transferring them to the blender to blend with the tomatoes. Adding another tablespoon of oil to what was left in the pan was enough to thoroughly coat the rice to ensure it toasted evenly.

Those two tablespoons of oil plus the fat content of a rich, homemade chicken stock or high-quality store-bought stock resulted in rice that was flavorful but not heavy.

How to Build Rich, Savory Flavor in Arroz Rojo

After about a dozen batches, I had the texture just right but the flavor wasn’t where I had hoped. My first instinct was to more deeply brown the rice, onions, and garlic before adding liquid to build savory flavor. The greater the effect of the Maillard reaction, the better the result, right?

Wrong. After the rice passed golden and had started to brown, it began to crumble into little pieces. Instead of fluffy individual grains, I ended up with a paste of cooked rice crumbs. I also found that the flavors of the onion and garlic mellowed and sweetened so much when I cooked them for an extended time that the resulting arroz rojo was insipid. I found success going in the opposite direction. I cut off the rice-toasting process when it just turned golden and only just softened the onion and garlic. In the resulting dish, a little sharpness from the alliums balanced the umami of the chicken broth and the sweetness of the peas and carrots.

Overhead view of about to add tomato mixture
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

For cooking arroz rojo, a combination of blended fresh tomato and chicken stock are standard. I generally prefer the more nuanced, balanced flavor of homemade stock and that’s what I prefer to use in this recipe, but store-bought chicken broth also works. Many cooks in Sinaloa, where I live, prepare the rice with water and a spoonful of bouillon powder. Bouillon is a common and familiar ingredient in Mexico and there is something comforting about the bouillon flavor that also works well with this dish, in my opinion.

Cues for Perfectly Cooked Rice

The other key to achieving those fluffy, perfectly cooked rice grains is using the right amount of water. Theoretically, a one-to-one ratio of rice to water is enough to cook rice, but in practice some of that water always escapes the pan in the form of steam. This recipe includes a ratio of one part rice to one and a half parts water (or in this case, broth), plus whatever amount of water is contained in the blended tomatoes and onions. With this quantity of water, my rice cooked in about 12 minutes without becoming pasty.

The precise cooking time can vary considerably based on small differences like the pot used, the fit of the pot lid, and the exact heat level of the burner you use at home. Luckily, there are other clues that can help determine when the rice is finished. By peeking under the lid, you can see if the broth is visibly boiling. If so, you still have at least a couple minutes before the liquid is fully absorbed and it’s time to turn off the heat. The other major clue is the steam: When the rice is ready, the amount of steam coming off the pot decreases and the smell of cooked food becomes more concentrated. If it smells toasted or burnt, that’s a pretty clear signal that it has gone too far (though it’s still edible if you don’t mix in the toasted parts at the bottom).

After cooking the rice, it’s important to leave it covered for at least 10 minutes to finish cooking and absorbing the steam. Fluff the rice to mix it, and then serve it as a side, garnished with cilantro if desired. The cooked chile can be discarded or thinly sliced and served on top of the rice for more heat.

And there you have it: In just about 40 minutes, you can make arroz rojo that nobody will simply push around their plate. It's a wonderful side for myriad dinners, and after cooking arroz rojo dozens of times over a couple weeks, I can say that, reheated and then topped with a generous portion of avocado and a little hot sauce, it also makes an amazing lunch.

In a large bowl, rinse rice in plenty of water, swishing the rice around with your fingers to wash off as much starch as possible. Drain well in a fine-mesh strainer, then spread on a paper-towel lined plate or clean kitchen towel to dry for at least 5 minutes.

Overhead view of drying rice
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

In a 2- or 3-quart saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring frequently until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer mixture to a blender, leaving as much oil in the pan as possible. Add 1/4 cup (60ml) broth, tomatoes, and salt to the blender. Pulse to combine, then blend until completely smooth; set aside.

Four image collage of cooking onions and blending with tomatoes
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

In the saucepan with the reserved oil, add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and heat over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add rice and cook, stirring occasionally, until rice is golden and smells toasted, 5 to 8 minutes. Pour in the tomato mixture, stir to combine, and simmer until thickened, 3 to 5 minutes.

Overhead view of cooking rice
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Add remaining 1 1/4 cups (290ml) broth and mix gently, taking care not to agitate the rice more than necessary. Stab the serrano chile once or twice with a fork to help release its flavor, then add it to the broth. Scatter the peas and carrots over the rice.

Four image collage of adding pepper, broth and peas and carrots to rice
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Cover and cook over medium heat until liquid is no longer visible on surface of rice, minimal steam is being generated, and rice has a noticeable “cooked” smell, 10 to 15 minutes. (You can open the lid a little at the 10-minute mark to check the rice’s progress, but try not to let too much steam out.) 

Overhead view of cooked rice
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Turn off heat and let rice sit, covered, for at least 10 or up to 20 minutes to absorb any remaining liquid. Fluff the rice with a fork and gently stir the peas and carrots throughout the rice, discard chile if desired, and serve.

Overhead view of fluffed rice
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

2-to 3-quart saucepan with lid, colander, blender

Notes

Carrot skins will oxidize slightly and darken while cooking so if you want picture-perfect orange pieces, peel your carrots.

Shrimp Variation

For a one-pan meal, substitute shrimp broth for chicken broth and add 150g chopped fresh shrimp at the same time as the peas and carrots. Cover and cook as usual. Serves 2 or 3 as a main course.

Make-Ahead and Storage

This recipe is at its most flavorful fresh from the pot, but also keeps well refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days. To reheat, stir in tablespoon of chicken stock or water and microwave until hot. 

Sashimi de Atún (Mexican Tuna Sashimi With Soy-Lime Dressing)

Mexico’s spin on Japanese tuna sashimi features traditional elements like soy sauce and pristine raw fish, but adds distinctly Mexican flavor with lime juice, serrano chiles, cilantro, crispy corn tostadas, and avocado.

Overhead view of Sashimi de Atun
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

If sashimi is doused in a salty, citrusy marinade and covered with serrano chiles, is it still sashimi? For chefs and home cooks across Mexico, the answer is a resounding yes. Sashimi de atún is clearly japanese-influenced from the raw tuna to the soy sauce, ginger, and sesame. But ingredients like lime and orange juice, spring onions, serrano chile, cilantro, and avocado is what shapes its wonderfully Mexican identity in the end. While still recognizably Asian in influence, sashimi de atún has taken on a distinctly Mexican flavor.

Though it’s not exactly clear when sashimi first came to Mexico, Japanese immigrants established communities around Mexico over the course of the 20th century and made their mark on Mexican society. The first Japanese restaurant in the country is said to be that of the Asociación México Japonesa, founded in 1960. Japanese food’s popularity may also have been driven by the boom of sushi restaurants in the U.S. starting in the late 1980s—in the early 2000s, some restaurants advertised sushi as a U.S. novelty, according to the newspaper Noroeste, a regional newspaper in northwest Mexico. Either way, Mexican chefs were quick to adapt recipes to their customers’ evolving tastes. Today, sashimi can be found in home kitchens (at least in Sinaloa) and is a common offering at seafood restaurants throughout Mexico.

Overhead view of sashimi de atun before sauce had been poured on it
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Sashimi in Mexico can take many forms, from the fairly traditional Japanese sashimi from which it originates to something akin to aguachile with lime juice, chiles, soy sauce, red onion, cucumber, and cilantro. Most variations—including this recipe—tend toward the latter. The dish is usually served with tostadas or saltine-style crackers, and some restaurants offer to lightly sear the tuna before preparing the sashimi (in efforts to allay any discomfort with eating totally raw tuna).

In this sashimi de atún recipe, I aimed for a well-balanced sauce that wouldn’t overpower the star of the dish: the tuna. That meant opting for spring onions rather than red onions, including a little orange juice for citrusy sweetness and making sure not to overdo the lime and ginger. The buttery tuna is cut into thick slices and dressed with a savory soy sauce-based marinade with an assertive lime and orange flavor right before serving. A combination of toppings like serrano chile, cilantro, and tostadas round out the flavor and provide a welcome texture contrast. The result is a refreshing light meal (or appetizer) with both Japanese and Mexican roots, perfect for sharing on a hot day.

Overhead view of sauces used for sashimi
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

How to Select and Cut the Tuna

As with Japanese sashimi, selecting and cutting the tuna is key to the sashimi’s fresh flavor and buttery texture. There's no question as to the importance of using high-quality, perfectly fresh raw tuna in a recipe like this, but I can't stress enough just how equally important the cutting technique is to success. Not only do you need a very sharp knife (a blunt knife mashes the fish, rendering the outside pasty and changing how it absorbs the marinade), but you also need to be thoughtful about the angle and orientation of the knife cuts.

If you cut along the grain of the muscle, for example, the long muscle fibers and their strips of sinewy membranes will be unpleasantly stringy. In contrast, cutting against the grain severs those long fibers, creating the smooth, rich texture that sashimi is famous for. If you lack full confidence in your knife skills, I recommend freezing the fish for about twenty minutes until it is firm to the touch, but not fully frozen, which makes slicing easier for those of us less skilled at it. Aim to make each cut in a single smooth motion without sawing, which will tear the flesh.

Overhead view of piece of tuna
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

In restaurants, it's common for each slice of tuna to be cut to the same rectangular shape and size; any scraps that accumulate throughout the day are typically used in other ways (spicy tuna roll anyone?). At home, though, I don't see the need to trim each piece like that—it wastes precious fish, especially given the challenge of repurposing the small amount of scrap that such a small amount of tuna yields. Slices that vary slightly in size and shape taste just as delicious.

As far as quality goes, look for something as fresh as possible or 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. This raw fish guide is also a great source. When selecting a cut, look for tuna with less white sinew and more red muscle.

The Secret to the Sauce

A little bit of orange juice sweetens the sauce while sesame oil adds richness and flavor. For this recipe, I opted for spring onions, a less pungent alternative to red onions, though scallions will also work. Freshly grated ginger and black pepper add two dimensions of warmth, and are complemented by a final kick of heat from slivers of serrano chile along with the herbal minerality of fresh cilantro.

Overhead view of pouring sauce on sashimi
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

While soy sauce and sesame oil are the clear Japanese flavor influences here, it's the combination of lime and orange juices, fresh serrano chile, cilantro, and onion, that together bend the sashimi in the direction of a clear Mexican flavor profile.  Serving the sashimi with creamy avocado and cooling cucumber alongside crispy fresh tostadas further solidifies its unmistakable Mexican identity.

While this sashimi has clear roots in Japanese cuisine, with one bite it becomes immediately clear that this sashimi de atún is unmistakably Mexican. It's kind of magical how the flavor manages to transcend its origins so completely.

Set tuna on a plate and transfer to freezer until tuna is firm to the touch but not fully frozen, about 20 minutes.

Overhead view of piece of frozen tuna on a pink plate
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together lime juice, soy sauce, orange juice, sesame oil, ginger, scallions and pepper; set aside.

Overhead view of sauce for sashimi whisked together
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Using a very sharp knife, slice the firmed tuna against the grain of the muscle into 1/4-inch-thick slices.

Overhead view of slicing tuna
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Shingle the tuna slices attractively in an even layer on a serving platter. Pour the reserved sauce over the sliced tuna.

Two image collage of tuna arranged on a plate on top of cucumbers and sauce being poured over it
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Garnish with serrano, cilantro, and sesame seeds. Serve right away with cucumber, avocado, and tostadas.

Overhead view of finished ceviche
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

A very sharp slicing knife

Notes

This recipe is generally made with a dark, Japanese-style soy sauce. I used Kikkoman Soy Sauce.if you're sensitive to sodium, consider using low or less-sodium soy sauce. Be careful not to confuse reduced-sodium soy sauce with light (usukuchi) soy sauce, which has a different flavor profile.

Scallions may be substituted for the spring onions.

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.

Make-Ahead and Storage

This recipe should be served immediately.

Mazatlán Ceviche de Sierra (Sinaloan Mackerel Ceviche)

This tart, refreshing, and slightly sweet fresh fish ceviche is perfect for lunch on a hot day.

Overhead view of ceviche on a tablescape
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.

Overhead view of ceviche in a serving dish with tostadas
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.

Side view of a serving of ceviche on a tostada
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.

Overhead view of fish on cutting board
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.

Overhead view of ceviche in bowl
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.

Overhead view of finished ceviche
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.

Two image collage of fish on a cutting board chopped into little cubes and then transferred to a baking tray
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.

Overhead view of draining carrots
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).

Two image collage of frozen fish in food processor before and after being pulsed
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.

Two image collage of frozen fish before and after marinating in a glass bowl
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.

Four image collage of adding carrots, cucumber, cilantro to ceviche and serving with tostadas
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

Food processor

Notes

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.

Salsa Negra (Sinaloan Salsa for Seafood)

Salsa negra’s punch of heat, complexity, and savory backbone pairs perfectly with seafood and more.

Overhead view of salsa negra in a molcajete with tostadas and ceviche
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Salsa negra can make an ordinary meal extraordinary with its complex heat and savory flavor, but its deep dark color and blended texture make it a bit mysterious in nature, offering few visual clues about the ingredients it contains. In the coastal Mexican state of Sinaloa where I live, salsa negra is a popular  type of salsa "marisquera"—a sauce made especially for seafood. Over the years I’ve learned to love the punch of heat, complexity, and umami that salsa negra lends to ceviches and other seafood dishes, but I wanted to learn exactly what it takes to make a good salsa negra from scratch.

The first step was the easy part: I just had to start paying attention. I tasted the house salsas at seafood stands (including one inky, viscous recipe creatively named “salsa Pemex,” after Mexico’s state-owned oil company). I also began reading the labels of the numerous bottles on the tables at sit-down restaurants. That’s how I found out that one of my favorite salsa negra brands, Salsa Pirata, was made just three blocks from my apartment in the city of Mazatlán.

Overhead view of salsa negra in a molcajete on a table with a ceviche tostada
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Talking to Josué Ponce Aguilar, founder of Salsa Pirata, I learned that salsa negra is relatively new to the area: It originally comes from the city of Los Mochis, on the north end of the state. Over the past decade, it has become more popular in Mazatlán, and today it’s hard to find a seafood restaurant in the city without a bottle of Salsa Pirata on the table.

Josué generously offered me a few pointers on where to start on a recipe (though of course, the exact spice mix and process used to make his salsa are highly proprietary). He said that the base of a good salsa negra is soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and two specific kinds of chiles: árbol chiles and chiltepines, a tiny chile that is likely the wild ancestor of the domesticated chiles most people are familiar with. From there, the spices added can vary and every cook has their own mix.

Árbol chiles and chiltepines in two small bowls
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

With the base of the sauce more or less figured out, I began to experiment with my own spice blends. Many of the salsa negra recipes I’d seen in my research involved a shortcut approach of mixing several brands of hot sauce like Valentina, Tabasco, and Salsa Huichol with soy sauce to achieve their balance of spice and umami. Since I wanted my recipe to truly be from-scratch, I began to look into what went into those salsas—once again, this was closely guarded information but the internet is full of culinary sleuths who had already reverse-engineered these classics. I found one rumor claiming that the secret ingredient in Salsa Huichol is a special type of pineapple vinegar made in Nayarit, inspiring me to experiment with adding traces of fruit and fruit vinegar to my salsa negra. For the record, adding a tiny amount of pineapple juice to this recipe is delicious, though it’s nothing like a typical salsa negra, so it ultimately didn't end up in my recipe.

In another online forum, I found hypotheses about which brands used aromatics like cumin, cinnamon, and clove to give their bottled recipes a special twist. Through my own taste tests and trial and error, I eventually settled on adding a blend of onion powder, cumin, black pepper, clove, and a tiny bit of dried Mexican oregano to my salsa negra. This created a complex and well-rounded spice profile to balance the sauce's chile heat and umami from the soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce.

Overhead view of ingredients for salsa negra
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Using a molcajete or mortar and pestle to grind and blend the salsa is critical for success. When I simply blended the chiles in a blender or food processor, the heat of the chiles was overpowering. The welcome raisiny, smoky undertones of the árbol chiles and the citrusy notes of the chiltepín were muted by the overt heat in the blended versions. However, toasting and hand-grinding the chiles into the salsa let those flavors shine and gave the salsa more texture, since the chiles weren’t so uniformly and finely ground. Plus, the small quantity of sauce this recipe makes can be difficult to blend properly in an electric blender.

This type of salsa is typically used as a hot sauce for ceviche, but its possibilities go far beyond that. Add it to shrimp tacos, oysters, sushi, or fish for extra savory spice. It can also be used to deepen the flavor of marinades for steak or as a salsa botanera—a salsa for a wide range of small bites and snack foods.

In a medium bowl, whisk together soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, lime juice, tomato paste, onion powder, Jugo Maggi, cumin, black pepper, and clove. Crumble the oregano into powder with your fingers, then stir into the soy sauce mixture.

Four image collage showing the steps of mixing the wet ingredients for the salsa negra, crumbling the oregano with your fingers, and combining with a metal spoon
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

In a small cast iron or stainless-steel skillet, toast the árbol chiles and chiltepín chiles over medium heat, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a molcajete or mortar and pestle.

Peppers being toasted in a cast iron skillet
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Add 1 tablespoon (15ml) soy sauce mixture and chiles and grind until seeds are mostly pulverized and the largest remaining scraps of dried chile are no more than 1/4-inch long (see notes). Scrape in remaining soy sauce mixture and stir and scrape until well combined with chile paste. Grind in additional chiltepîn chiles one or two at a time until desired heat level is reached. Let stand at least 1 hour for flavors to meld, then serve with your favorite seafood dishes or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

Four image collage of combing all ingredients in a molcajete for salsa negra
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

Molcajete or textured mortar and pestle

Notes

You can find Jugo Maggi at most Mexican grocery stores or on Amazon. The version available in the U.S. is called Maggi Seasoning, but the recipe and taste are quite different; both use wheat protein but Jugo Maggi is more concentrated, with additional spices and vinegar.

Make sure to use Mexican oregano, a plant in the verbena family, and not Italian oregano (which is in the mint family). If it isn’t available at your regular grocery store, you can find it at a Mexican grocery store.

The more finely ground the chiles are, the thicker the salsa will be. You can thin out the final salsa with a small amount of water or soy sauce, if needed. Adjust to your desired consistency.

Make-Ahead and Storage

This salsa is best if made at least 1 hour ahead of serving to give the flavors time to meld. It can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.