These Mexican Hibiscus Ice Pops Are My Favorite 3 P.M. Summer Snack

Frozen inside small plastic bags, refreshing hibiscus ice pops are convenient for eating on the go.

Overhead view of picking a boli out of a freezer
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

When it gets to be that hot and sticky time of year, there’s nothing quite like bolis―ice pops that can be found all over Mexico in a variety of flavors. These sweet-tart, jewel-toned bolis de Jamaica (hibiscus) are intensely refreshing, with a fruity, floral flavor that is somewhat similar to cranberry. Frozen inside small plastic bags, they’re extremely convenient for eating on the go.

There are two main types of bolis: bolis de leche (milk bolis) and bolis de agua (water bolis). Flavors of milk bolis may include chocolate milk or key lime pie, and often have swirls of nutella or cajeta or even chunks of cookies or popular snack cakes, like chocolate-covered Gansitos, mixed in. 

Water bolis, on the other hand, tend to be fruity. Popular flavors include mango (with or without chamoy), lime, pineapple, and nanche, a small golden fruit that looks like a cherry but with a more pungent flavor. My favorite is made with flor de Jamaica (hibiscus flowers). In Mexico, agua de Jamaica, or hibiscus tea, is a popular cold drink made from the dried flowers of the hibiscus plant, which arrived in the Americas with the African diaspora

At the peak of summer, even the iciest water boli won’t take too long to soften up and be ready to eat. On cooler days, however, many people either leave them out on the counter for a couple minutes or run them under the tap to make it easier to start eating. For this recipe, I wanted to create a boli that was smoother, less icy, and easy to eat straight out of the freezer. I decided to try adding hydrocolloids, carbohydrates that are used to modify the texture of food. For example, guar gum is a hydrocolloid that is often used as a thickening agent in commercial ice creams. Other common hydrocolloids include starch and gelatin. For my initial tests, I tested two types of widely-available starch: cornstarch and tapioca starch.

My test with cornstarch made a boli with a pudding-like texture. As it thawed, the boli became a bit gummy and ate like cold strawberry jam, which was not what I was after. Even though the batch with tapioca had more potential, it still retained a too soft texture. In the end, neither test produced a clear winner.

I decided to try granulated sugar, which is a powerful tool for altering the texture of both baked and frozen goods, thanks to its hygroscopic properties. Besides adding sweetness, the sugar keeps the boli from freezing into a brick because, like salt, adding sugar to water lowers the freezing point and interferes with the formation of hard ice crystals (like anti-freeze). The resulting boli was appropriately icy and softened quickly once removed from the freezer, becoming deliciously slushy-like as I ate it.

A tray of unforzen bolis
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

I still had to nail down the Jamaica flavor. To prepare the flor de Jamaica, I tested brewing the flowers in hot and cold water. I found that hot water brought out the flower’s intense tartness (but if cooked too long, gave the tea a bitter edge), while cold extraction highlighted its delicate floral notes. I ended up combining both methods to produce a balanced concentrated tea by starting the dried flowers in cold water, bringing it to a simmer, then letting it cool. Once I strain out the flowers, I stir in the sugar, as well as lime juice (preferably key lime, but the Persian limes that are standard in the US also work well) and salt, which amplify the flavors. That said, you also can give your tea an aromatic or fruity twist by infusing it with a number of spices or even pineapple skins.

It’s important to mention that the freshness of the flor de Jamaica you buy will produce a marked difference in the tea’s flavor. Good-quality dried flor de Jamaica should still be a bit leathery and flexible, not brittle. If the only flor de Jamaica you can get your hands on is old and dusty-dry, you can still make delicious bolis, but taste the boli mixture before freezing and add extra sugar or lime juice as needed.  

To freeze the bolis, you’ll need the right plastic bags. A quick search for “boli bags” or “ice pop bags” will turn up a number of options you can order online, if you can’t find them locally. Mine were 2 3/4- by 10-inches, which is a standard size for boli bags. To get the boli mixture into the bag, it’s nice to have a helper on hand to hold the bags open for you. If no one’s around, you can place the bag upright in a cup, fold the top back to keep it open, then pour the mixture in very slowly. The bag will shift and settle as it fills, but as long as you’re pouring slowly and paying attention, you can readjust the bag as you go. Fill the bag halfway then tie it off, making sure to leave a little room in the bag to prevent it from bursting as the liquid inside freezes and expands. After some practice, you’ll get the hang of it.

Once ready to eat, cut or bite off one of the lower corners of the bag to make a hole. You might have to bite through the bag a little bit to get the frozen mixture out, but soon, it will soften in your hand. Mushing it around in the bag as you eat helps soften the boli into a dreamy slushy mix. Just beware of brain freeze and enjoy.

In a medium pot, combine flor de Jamaica and 1 quart (945ml) cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, lower heat to maintain a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour. 

Hibiscus boiling in pot on stove
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Strain the flor de Jamaica liquid through a fine-mesh strainer set over a large measuring cup or a vessel with a spout (reserve flor de Jamaica for another use; see note). Whisk in sugar, lime juice, and salt until sugar and salt are completely dissolved.

Two Image Collage. Top: Strained hibiscus leaves. Bottom: a hand whisking the boli mixture in a measuring cup
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Filling one boli bag at a time, slowly pour in flor de Jamaica mixture until it’s about one-third full (roughly 4 ounces; 115g), then pinch the top of the bag close, and tie it off with a knot (make sure to leave space between the mixture and the knot since the mixture will expand as it freezes). Repeat with remaining flor de Jamaica mixture.

Side view of pouring the boli mixture into a boli bag supported by a glass
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Freeze until solid, at least 4 hours. To serve, trim one corner from the bottom of the bag and enjoy immediately.

Close up of a frozen boli bag with the corner cut off
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

3- by 10-inch bolis bags

Notes

The flor de Jamaica mixture can also be frozen in popsicle molds, if preferred. To freeze in a popsicle mold, divide flor de Jamaica mixture evenly between 10 3-ounce popsicle molds. Freeze until solid, at least 4 hours. To unmold, follow your popsicle mold's instructions.

Dried flor de Jamaica can be bought at Latin grocery stores or ordered online. The dried flowers in a package of flor de Jamaica aren’t technically flowers; they're  calyces. In plants, calyces are the little petal-like projections around a fruit, like the little green crown where the tomato stem meets the tomato). I occasionally refer to them as flowers for the sake of convenience and because they’re commonly referred to that way in Spanish. The flowers are edible. After straining them out of the liquid, they can (and should) be reserved to use as a filling for tacos. Tacos de Jamaica make a surprisingly satisfying meal, especially with beans or a little chorizo. Without the chorizo, it’s a popular option among vegans and vegetarians where I live.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Jamaica bolis can be frozen for up to 3 months.

Cheesy, Crispy Sinaloan Shrimp Tacos

Crisp on the outside and warm and melty on the inside, these tacos gobernador are filled with a shrimp and tomato stew and sprinkled with cheese before being folded and griddled.

Overhead view of tacos gobernador
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Some dishes evolve over eons, so gradually that it’s impossible to pinpoint when or where they came into being. Tacos gobernador—tacos that are filled with shrimp stew and cheese before being folded and griddled until crispy on the outside and warm and melty on the inside—is not one of those dishes. It was created—or at least named—in 1987 in Mazatlán, Sinaloa. According to Sinaloan sociologist Arturo Santamaría Gómez, the recipe came about after the chef at Los Arcos, a high-end chain of Sinaloan restaurants, decided to prepare something special to welcome the new governor, Francisco Labastida, to his restaurant. 

The result was tacos gobernador. The crispy, cheesy shrimp tacos were a hit, and Los Arcos (and nearly every other seafood restaurant in the city) still offers them to this day. Since its creation, this popular dish has spread through northwest Mexico to Sonora, Baja California, and beyond.

The base of tacos gobernador is stewed shrimp, prepared with a ranchera-style salsa—a simple preparation of onion, tomato, and chile, the essential trio that's the base of much Mexican cooking. The original tacos gobernador were cooked directly on an outdoor grill. The tortilla shell would turn crisp and crunchy from drying out over the high dry heat of the grill’s flames. Nowadays the tacos are just as often griddled on the stovetop, which can result in a soft and overly oily tortilla if not cooked correctly. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I made sure my recipe captures the cracker-crisp style of the original grilled tacos gobernador, but with the convenience of griddling indoors in a skillet. Here’s how to cook tacos gobernador with the winning combination of a crunchy exterior with a melty, cheesy filling.

Overhead view of salting tomatoes
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Tips for Cooking Satisfyingly Crisp Sinaloan Shrimp Tacos

Prep the shrimp properly. You can use any size shrimp in this recipe, but it’s important the shrimp pieces are around one-inch in size. Anything larger and the tacos become cumbersome to eat, and smaller pieces of shrimp tend to dry out and overcook when griddled.

I prefer to use small or extra-small shrimp that are about one-inch in size, which require less prep since they can be left whole. But larger shrimp are a great option as well—just make sure to roughly chop them. Whatever size shrimp you select, just remember that shrimp cook quickly and should be removed from the heat as soon as they begin to turn pink and opaque.

Before cooking, the shrimp should be peeled and optionally deveined. I tried the recipe with and without the vein and, honestly, did not notice a significant difference. I always devein shrimp for ceviche or aguachile to avoid hints of odd flavors or textures. But there's so much flavor from the thick tomato-based sauce that I didn’t register the difference between deveined or not. It’s a matter of personal preference—there’s no difference in hygiene or food safety—so it’s your call!

Create a flavorful sauce for cooking the shrimp. The first step is preparing a salsa ranchera for the shrimp. In Mexican cuisine, salsa ranchera is a general term, referring to a sauce with cooked (often grilled or griddle-blackened) tomatoes. I started out keeping the tomato-based sauce very simple, with just tomato, onion, chile, a little garlic, salt, and pepper, but I found it needed more flavor. Adding more garlic and a heaping handful of cilantro instantly intensified the sauce’s flavor. Reducing the sauce until thickened for about 10 minutes before adding the shrimp is critical to ensure the shrimp filling is saucy without being too soupy, since an overly liquidy shrimp filling would turn the tacos soggy. 

Start with warmed tortillas and don’t overfill the tacos. To assemble the tacos, it’s key to first warm your tortillas on a griddle, a heavy skillet ,or (if you’ve got one) a comal—a flat, round cast-iron plate used in Mexican cooking. This ensures they will be pliable and won’t tear when filled and folded over. A skim of mayonnaise is the “glue” that anchors the layer of grated cheese and shrimp filling in place once the tortillas are folded and griddled. The layer of cheese should cover the tortilla evenly, but make sure it’s not too thick to avoid it spilling out of the taco when it melts. 

Avoid adding too much sauce to each taco. When adding spoonfuls of the stewed shrimp to each taco, I recommend draining some of the sauce from the shrimp by leaning a spoonful of it against the side of the skillet to let excess liquid drain back into the skillet. I initially prepared it with too much sauce, aiming for a saucy-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside result. But the extra sauce prevented the taco from crisping up properly. Turns out it wasn’t necessary or helpful; and without it, the filling was still juicy and flavorful.

Crank up the heat. After filling the tacos, turn up the heat on your pan. Toasting the tacos takes about five minutes of watching and turning the tacos as needed to avoid burning. The preparation and time spent is well worth it once you bite into the crunchy shell and through the cheesy shrimp inside.

Serve immediately with your favorite hot sauce. I like it with a fresh serrano salsa, but any hot sauce would work. In restaurants in Sinaloa, they usually offer five or more options, including Valentina, Salsa Huichol, and local brands with red, green, and habanero chiles. A squeeze of lime juice or a sprinkle of fresh cilantro are the perfect finish.

Side view of tacos
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

For the stewed shrimp: In a 12-inch stainless-steel skillet, melt butter over medium-high heat. Once melted, add onion and poblano and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Overhead view of vegetables cooking in pan
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Add diced tomato, tomato purée, and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes are cooked down until sauce is thickened and leaves a trail when a spatula is pulled across the bottom of the skillet, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the cilantro and season with pepper to taste.

Two image collage of adding tomatos and cilantro
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Stir in peeled shrimp and cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp is pink and opaque, 3 to 5 minutes, Season with salt to taste and set aside.

Two image collage of cooking shrimp
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

To assemble the tacos: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 200℉. Set wire rack in rimmed baking sheet; set aside. In a lightly oiled 12-inch nonstick or cast iron skillet or griddle, warm the tortillas in batches over medium heat, flipping occasionally, until the tortillas are soft and pliable. Stack the tortillas, and wrap in a clean kitchen towel to keep warm, removing 4 at a time to assemble the tacos. 

Overhead view of tortillas being kept warm
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Working with 4 tortillas at a time, place flat on a work surface and spread each with a thin layer of mayonnaise, about 1/2 teaspoon each. Top the mayonnaise with about 2 tablespoons grated cheese per tortilla, covering the entire tortilla. Spread a large spoonful (about 1/4 cup) of stewed shrimp over half of each tortilla. Using a metal spatula, fold the tortilla in half over the shrimp and press to close.

Four image collage of assembling tacos
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Using a paper towel or pastry brush, brush 1 teaspoon oil over the surface of the now-empty griddle or skillet. Arrange the 4 prepared tacos in skillet and place over medium-high heat and cook until cheese is melted and tacos are crisp and spotty golden brown on the bottom side, 2 to 5 minutes. Using tongs and thin spatula, carefully flip tacos. Continue to cook until golden and crisp on the second side, 2 to 3 minutes, adjusting heat as necessary.

Overhead view of cooking tacos
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Remove skillet from heat and transfer tacos to the prepared wire rack and hold warm in the oven. Repeat assembling, cooking, and holding the tacos warm in batches of 4 at a time. Once all are cooked, serve tacos immediately, garnished with fresh chopped cilantro and lime if desired and accompanied by your favorite hot sauce.

Side view of finished tacos
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

12-inch stainless-steel skillet, 12-inch nonstick or cast iron skillet or griddle

Notes

Any tomato works, but I recommend meatier Roma or saladette tomatoes for a salsa with more body.

Any size shrimp can be used in this recipe. I prefer to use small or extra small shrimp left whole, but if using medium, large, or larger shrimp, chopping the shrimp into bite-size pieces is important for easier eating.

Manchego, asadero, and Chihuahua cheeses are all commonly used in Sinaloa. Out of those three, I prefer manchego, a mild sheep’s milk cheese—it has a little bit of a sharp edge that works really well with the shrimp. If none of the three recommended cheeses are available, I recommend Gouda or Monterrey Jack because they're very similar to queso Chihuahua and widely available in the US.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The stewed shrimp can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Gently reheat in a skillet before assembling the tacos.

These Mexican Key Lime Pie Ice Pops Are Our Editors’ Favorite Way to Cool Down

Bolis de Pay de Limón are creamy, tart ice pops with vanilla cookie crumbs swirled in to emulate the classic key lime pie.

Overhead view of two hands holding three key lime bolis over a bag of limes and maria cookies
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Growing up in Ohio, I never had the good fortune to try a bolia large Mexican ice pop encased in a clear plastic bag—when I was a kid. For me, cold treats came in a pint at the grocery store or from a Dairy Queen. But for my partner, who is Mexican, Dairy Queen and similar fast food chains that peddled frozen desserts were something special. When he would ask for American soft-serve, his parents gave him a boli: a small let-down at the time, but now a nostalgic reminder of his childhood.

Where we now live in steamy Mazatlán, Sinaloa, frozen treats are plentiful: there’s traditional nieve de garrafa, hand-churned ice creams and sorbets with flavors like leche quemada (cooked milk), passionfruit, and sweet corn; paletas (popsicles); and bolis, creamy milk- or fruity water-based ice pops frozen inside neat plastic bags. This recipe is for one of my favorite milk bolis (also known as bolis de leche), key lime pie. It’s tangy, creamy, and sweet, and tastes just like the classic pie. 

Making the bolis is relatively straightforward: I process whole milk, sweetened condensed milk, cream cheese, and sugar in a blender. The condensed milk helps produce that classic key lime pie flavor, while the addition of  whole milk and cream cheese increases the milk fat content of the mixture, which inhibits the formation of ice crystals and keeps the texture smooth and soft. For the limes, I tested with both key limes and Persian limes and found that, in terms of flavor, they're not that different. My hypothesis is that the frozen boli is so cold that the slight flavor difference and the variation in acidity isn't that noticeable. I suggest you use whatever is available to you that’s of good quality. Just make sure to dial back the amount of zest if you’re using Persian limes so that it doesn’t overwhelm the other flavors. 

One of the most alluring aspects of bolis is the thought and creativity that some people put into the experience of eating them. For ones flavored with jocote (a small, acidic fruit with a plum-like flavor, sometimes known as ciruela), you might find a stone with some of the tart fruit still attached at the bottom of your boli, perfect for chasing the sweetness. A mango boli may have a swirl of spicy red chamoy sauce that you can mix with the fruit or enjoy as a burst of intensity at the end. Then, there are milk bolis that reveal pieces of cookies or Gansitos, a chocolate-dipped snack cake, as you eat them.

Frozen bolis on an ice tray on a spotted blue surface
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

For this recipe, I tried to incorporate some interesting textural elements. My early attempts to incorporate small segments of key lime or candied lime slices fell flat: the former were too intense and the latter were too large and tough to chew. Instead, I settled on incorporating galletas Marías (crisp vanilla cookies that can be found in Latin markets), broken into various sizes, and lime zest. To get the cookie’s flavor into the boli, I blend a few cookies at the end, along with the zest. Then, for larger cookie chunks and more texture, I like to add broken up galletas Marías directly to each boli bag. The result is an ice cream-like treat with pockets of tender, cream-soaked cookies.

When it’s time to freeze the bolis, you’ll need plastic boli bags. Searching for “boli bags” or “ice pop bags” will turn up a number of options you can order online, but it’s worth checking your local Latin supermarket first. I used 2 3/4- by 10-inch bags, which is a standard boli size. Once you have the bags, then comes the tricky part: getting the viscous mixture into a flimsy plastic bag. The method that works best for me is to prop the boli bag up in a cup, hold the mouth of the bag open with one hand, and very slowly pour in the mixture with the other hand. The bag will settle and move slightly as it fills up, and pouring slowly means you can stop the flow if the bag falls over or closes iin on itself. Fill each bag up about halfway, then gently mush the bottom of the bag around so that the larger cookie chunks incorporate into the mix and aren’t left dry at the bottom, pinch the bag close at the fill level to get the air out, and tie a quick overhand knot to seal it off.

Once your bolis are frozen, bite or cut off a corner of a boli bag and dig in. You might have to gently bite through the bag to extract the first bits of the boli, but as it softens, you can start to squeeze it out of the bag. If you’re new to bolis, it'll take a little experimentation, but you'll figure it out.

In a countertop blender, process whole milk, condensed milk, cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, and salt until smooth, about 15 seconds. Add lime juice and immediately blend until thoroughly combined, about 10 seconds.

Ingredients in a blender, unmixed
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Add zest and 4 cookies (24g; see note), and pulse to incorporate zest and break cookies up into large crumbs, about 2 1-second pulses.

Three image collage showing the process of adding zest, and maria cookies, and pulsing the boli mixture
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Using your hands, break up 3 cookies (18g) into large pieces and add to one boli bag. Slowly pour in key lime mixture until the bag is about half full (roughly 4 ounces; 115g), then gently squeeze the bottom of the bag to wet the cookies. Pinch the top of the bag close and tie it off with a knot (make sure to leave space between the mixture and the knot as the mixture will expand as it freezes). Repeat with remaining key lime pie mixture and cookies.

Two Image Collage showing broken cookie and mixture being added to the boli bag
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Freeze until solid, at least 4 hours. To serve, trim one corner from the bottom of the bag and enjoy immediately.

Hands cutting the corner of the boli with scissors
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

Blender, 3- by 10-inch bolis bags

Notes

The key lime mixture can also be frozen in popsicle molds and will yield approximately 14 3-ounce popsicles (you can also make a half recipe to yield less popsicles). To freeze in a popsicle mold, break up cookies into large pieces and add to molds (depending on the size of your molds, I’d recommend reducing the amount of cookies used). Divide key lime mixture evenly between molds, then use a skewer or cake tester to combine mixture with cookies. Freeze until solid, at least 4 hours. To unmold, follow your popsicle mold's instructions.  

If you’re not able to find good-quality key limes, Persian limes work just fine. Persian limes have a bit more punch than fresh key limes, so dial the zest back to about 1 packed teaspoon (just under half a Persian lime). It will take about four Persian limes to yield a  1/2 cup of juice.

Galletas Marías are crisp, basic vanilla cookies that can be found in many Latin supermarkets. If you can’t get your hands on them, any crisp vanilla cookie (like vanilla wafers) will work; just be sure to substitute by equal weight. I have a suspicion that substituting graham crackers would work and might incidentally transport me back to my childhood—I’ve always loved graham cracker crumb crusts. But for the purposes of this recipe, I stuck with the tried-and-true galleta María for a more traditional boli flavor profile.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Key lime pie bolis can be kept frozen for up to 1 month.

This Cold Tuna-Frosted Cake Is the Perfect Summertime Party Dish

A cold Mexican tuna cake that’s delightful on hot summer days.

Side view of a slice of Pastel De Atun
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

I first tasted pastel de atún, or tuna cake―a dish made of layers of white sandwich bread frosted with a creamy, tuna-based sauce―when a neighbor started selling little pink slices of it at a corner store near my home in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Although pastel de atún may resemble a sugary, frosted layer cake, it's deeply savory through and through, both creamy and spicy, cold and sweet.

Pastel de atún is a traditional staple at children’s birthday parties since it’s an affordable option that looks like a cake and can be decorated accordingly. As a bonus, it doesn’t require an oven; in Sinaloa, which sits right on the Tropic of Cancer, baking in an indoor oven can make a home uncomfortably hot, so many kitchens don’t have one. The cake is usually served cold with a side of frijoles puercos (a Sinaloa specialty of refried beans with lard, chorizo, and a little chile). It’s also a popular make-ahead option to bring along on family outings to the beach or water park and eaten as “la comida,” or the main meal of the day. It’s “like ceviche but cheaper,” one Mazatleca friend told me. 

Seafood has been a mainstay in coastal Sinaloa since before Spanish colonization. Many coastal residents still work in the seafood industry, on tuna and shrimp boats, on shrimp farms, or selling seafood in markets or to restaurants. Eating seafood on a daily basis is common, which means locals know their way around a fish. As a result, creative recipes that incorporate easily-available ingredients like canned tuna abound, especially in home cooking. There’s a wide range of tuna salads, tuna ceviches (made with either canned or fresh tuna), and even protein shakes with canned tuna, which are sold at many of Mazatlán’s popular smoothie shops. Then, of course, there’s pastel de atún. 

Side view of a pastel de atun with a hand using a fork to eat a cut slice off a festive pink plate
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Though no one I spoke with was quite sure of the origin of pastel de atún, they commented that it closely resembles the sandwichón, a dish with alternating layers of bread and chicken salad or slices of ham that’s made in other areas of Mexico. Some believe that, as the name suggests, the sandwichón is an adaptation of a standard deli sandwich, but with frosting and decoration to add a bit of flair for parties and other events. And, of course, the cake-like appearance is on-theme, especially for birthdays. 

In fact, for a “deluxe” version of pastel de atún, some Mazatlecos add slices of ham between the bread and sauce, as is typical in sandwichónes. For this recipe, I kept it simple and left the ham out. Another common local variation is the substitution of all or some of the jalapeño in the sauce with chipotles in adobo. I did side-by-side taste tests of the recipe with jalapeño, chipotle, and a mix, and I personally prefer all jalapeño, which lets the other flavors shine. This version, with jalapeño but without ham or chipotle, is the way I’ve most frequently seen the dish served, and it’s my personal favorite. (I also owe a big thanks to my suegra Doña Esthela, my partner Lalo, and my volunteer taste-testers Hilda, John, Santa, Amialba and Hugo for taking the time to talk to me, try various recipes, and reminisce about pastel de atún!) 

A close up view of a single bite of Pastel De Atun on a silver fork
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Since canned tuna comes packed both in water and oil, I wanted to test both kinds to see what difference, if any, there might be. (I used yellowfin tuna in my tests, but skipjack or chunk light can be used as well). I found that oil-packed tuna delivers a more intense fish flavor. While some of my taste-testers enjoyed that pronounced fishiness, others, myself included, favored the more subtle flavors of the water-packed version. For this recipe, I recommend water-packed tuna for a light flavor that won’t overpower the other ingredients.

I like to use media crema, a cream product with 20 to 25% fat and stabilizers, as the base of the sauce. It’s available in most grocery stores with a well-stocked Latin section, as well as online. A little cream cheese helps thicken the sauce. I also include a couple slices of American cheese, a very common pastel de atún ingredient that helps with thickening and rounds out the flavor.

For the cake layers, I prefer crust-less white sandwich bread, which has a soft, airy texture that keeps the cake light; avoid whole wheat bread, which will contribute a tougher, chewier texture. You can keep the crusts on hand as a quick snack to dip in any leftover sauce.  

Angled view of a chef in a blue apron placing a layer of white bread into the pastel de atun
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Most versions of this recipe call for the standard canned sizes of ingredients available in Mexican grocery stores, which makes measuring easy and cleaning up quick. It uses, for example, about one 200-gram (7-ounce) can of La Costeña–brand red pepper strips (sold as “pimiento morrón en tiras”). Similarly, the recipe calls for roughly a 200-gram can of pickled jalapeños and one 225-gram (7.6 ounce) can of media crema. While it may be appealing to use fresh ingredients rather than canned, and would likely make a delicious pastel, canned is what you need to achieve the most traditional flavor profile.

Assembly is easy and quite similar to frosting a cake: Simply alternate layers of sauce and bread, making sure the bread is thoroughly slathered in sauce, which will begin to soak into the bread but not all the way through. Decorate the top with strips of red bell pepper: You can spell out words like, “Happy Birthday!,” or go for a fun decorative pattern. Don’t stop there―you can add more pizzazz with extra jalapeño slices or even strips of cheese. After a quick stint in the fridge to firm up the cake, dish up slices with frijoles puercos alongside; it’s a great way to beat the heat.

In a blender, combine tuna, media crema, pepper strips, cream cheese, and American cheese and blend until smooth, scraping down sides halfway through with a flexible spatula, about 1 minute. Working in batches, blend in jalapeño peppers until desired heat level is reached and a completely smooth sauce has formed. Season with salt to taste. Transfer sauce to a medium bowl.

Overhead collage of four images looking into a blender. From Upper Left Clockwise: Cream cheese, Media Crema, Tuna fish, Roasted Red Peppers, Sliced American Cheese unmixed; ingredients mixed; Sliced Jalapeños added to mixture; final mixture in blender.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Using a small offset spatula, spread 1/2 cup sauce (115g) in an even layer that covers the bottom of a 8- by 8-inch square pan, then lay down four slices of bread on top of sauce, so that the edges are touching, forming a single solid layer. Repeat layering process with sauce and bread, making sure to spread the sauce evenly across bread and covering any exposed areas (the sauce should be absorbed by the bread without soaking it all the way through); you should have 5 layers. Cover top layer of bread evenly with remaining sauce, smoothing out any rough areas. Garnish top with pepper strips as desired. Refrigerate uncovered for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours.

Collage of four overhead images. Clockwise from upper left: tuna mixture spread in the bottom of an empty square dish, four pieces of Wonder Bread placed on top, hands adding another layer of tune mixture, hands adding 4 more pieces of wonder bread.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Slice cake into quarters or eighths and serve.

Two Image Collage. Top image: Overhead view of Pastel De Atun. Bottom Image: angled shot of a slice of Pastel de atun on a festive plate.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

Blender, 8- by 8-inch square pan, small offset spatula.

Notes

If desired, you can assemble pastel on a 10- or 12-inch flat round or square plate. In Step 2, spread 1/3 cup sauce (70g) into a roughly 7-inch square in the center of the plate. Lay four slices of bread on top of sauce, forming a single solid layer. Repeat layering process with sauce and bread. Cover top layer of bread and all sides evenly with remaining sauce, and refrigerate. 

The quantities of pickled jalapeño, red pepper strips, and media crema are about one 7-ounce can of La Costeña sliced jalapeño, one 7-ounce can of La Costeña pimiento morrón, and one 7.6-ounce can of Nestlé media crema (respectively). You may be able to find these products in the Latin section of your supermarket.

Media crema, a thickened cream with 20% to 25% fat, is a staple in Mexican grocery stores. The Nestlé version of media crema is sometimes labeled “table cream” and is acceptable to use in this recipe; you can find it in well-stocked supermarkets as well as online. However, other products labeled “table cream,” such as Cacique Crema Mexicana Table Cream, have a thinner consistency and a tangy, slightly fermented flavor; they will not work in pastel de atún.  

Canned red pepper (pimiento morrón) is a bit harder to find than the other ingredients, but you can substitute with an equal weight of store-bought or homemade roasted red peppers, cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips. 

For the pickled jalapeños, you can use an equal weight of thinner-sliced, nacho-style pickled jalapeños or whole pickled jalapeños that have been stemmed and cut into 1/2-inch-wide rounds. 

Make-Ahead and Storage

Pastel de atún can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week. While leftovers are excellent, it will become more dense over time.

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.