How to Cook Tilapia

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kumquat-lime glazed tilapia

“Kumquat-Lime Glazed Tilapia” by basheertome is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Tilapia is one of the most eaten kinds of fish, probably because of how affordable it is compared to other types of seafood. Tilapia can also be quite versatile in the kitchen if you know how to cook it correctly. That’s what this guide is all about!

From baked tilapia to pan seared tilapia and parmesan crusted tilapia, there are many ways to enjoy this mildly flavored fish.

What Is Tilapia?

Tilapia is a name that actually covers a lot of different fish. Tilapia fish usually live in freshwater and can be found in many parts of the world. In some areas, they’re populated to control other unwanted pests, like mosquitoes and algae.

It’s good news for us that tilapia has a large population, because that makes them one of the most affordable fish to buy. People who don’t like super fish tastes or high price tags opt for buying tilapia fillets because they’re much cheaper than salmon and other pricier fish and don’t have an overwhelming fishy taste.

Tilapia has gotten somewhat of a bad reputation, though, because it’s one kind of fish that is often farm-raised rather than fished from the wild. Farm-raised fish are bred with specific techniques to raise a specific type of fish, a practice that has many opponents. However, selective breeding is the preferred method of raising healthy tilapia rather than using genetic modification, contrary to popular belief.

How to Cook Tilapia: 7 Popular Ways

Looking for the best ways to cook tilapia? There are many ways to enjoy this fish on its own or in a meal. Here are a few of the most popular ways to prepare tilapia:

Baked Tilapia

Baked tilapia is a tilapia fillet baked in the oven. A baked tilapia recipe often varies slightly in the spices or sauces used to enhance the flavor of tilapia or give it a nice, crispy crunch on the outside. But usually, baked tilapia is pretty basic. Tilapia cooks quickly, so it often needs only a few minutes in a preheated oven to be ready to enjoy.

Baked tilapia is one of the healthiest options for cooking tilapia, especially if you avoid dousing it in olive oil, butter, parmesan cheese, and other toppings that can pack on the calories and fat.

Grilled Tilapia

Grilled tilapia makes for a delicious recipe for dinner or lunch. On the grill, tilapia gets that nice smokey flavor you expect, which kicks its flavor up a notch. Tilapia is very delicate. If you do decide to grill tilapia, use a grill pan that’s well-seasoned with olive oil, salt, and pepper (maybe even a little lemon pepper, if you choose), to prevent it from sticking.

Grilling tilapia is also a good way to incorporate some cajun flavors, which happen to go really well with a lot of seafood. Add cayenne pepper, smoked paprika, garlic salt, onion powder, and your other favorite spices to both sides of the fish before placing it on the grill.

Pan Seared Tilapia

Another cooking method you might find in a tilapia recipe is pan searing. With pan seared tilapia, you’ll heat up a skillet with oil or butter before adding the tilapia to the pan. The fish gets seared — the outer layer gets golden brown and crispy — on both sides, while the inside gets cooked to a safe temperature for eating.

Pan searing is an excellent way to cook tilapia if you prefer getting that crisp crust on the outside that baking doesn’t quite achieve. If you want a similar result without needing to add butter or olive oil, try cooking tilapia in an air fryer with a splash of lemon juice. 

Pan Fried Tilapia

Pan fried tilapia differs from pan seared tilapia in that it is coated with breading before frying in the pan. You’ll find several tilapia recipe options that utilize different types of breading and spice mixtures, so you have plenty of flavors to choose from.

To make pan fried tilapia, you’ll need to dredge it in your flour or bread crumb mixture. Season your flour or bread crumbs well with your spices of choice. Then, season each tilapia fillet with salt and pepper before dipping them into the mixture. Once added to the preheated skillet, the fillets will begin to crisp to a golden brown.

Parmesan Crusted Tilapia

Parmesan crusted tilapia is another popular recipe for this fish, because parmesan and tilapia flavors just work well together. Some recipes call for you to bake the fish fillet, while others have you create a parmesan crust for pan fried tilapia. Either way, the result is a crispy outside with a tender and flaky middle.

For either version, make sure you coat each fish fillet with olive oil before pressing them into the parmesan crust mixture to ensure adhesion to the fish. Top your seared or baked fish with some fresh juice from a lemon slice before serving.

Blackened Tilapia

Blackened tilapia is a fancy way of saying spiced tilapia. More specifically, blackened tilapia uses a mix of seasonings that, when cooked, give the tilapia a darker, crispy crust with a smokey flavor. 

The spices you typically see in a blackening mix include onion powder, garlic powder, salt, black pepper, red pepper, cumin, oregano, and paprika. Some people like to add a little spice with cayenne pepper or cajun seasoning too. Once you cover each fillet in the spice mixture, you pan sear it in a skillet until it’s cooked all the way through.

If desired, splash a little fresh lime juice or lemon juice on top of each fillet after cooking.

Sous Vide Tilapia

Sous vide is a cooking method that takes a little practice to perfect, but it’s a great way to cook tilapia when you want it to shine on its own without other additions. Sous vide gets tilapia fillets cooked thoroughly in about 30-60 minutes, depending on how done you like them.

Tilapia Cooking Tips

Because tilapia is so delicate, it isn’t the easiest protein to cook (most fish have this problem). Here are a few tips that can help you get a yummy tilapia dinner on the table:

  • Tilapia does have a mild flavor, so seasoning with salt and pepper, at the least, can be a great way to give it a boost without adding unnecessary calories. Season the fillets before you cook them.
  • Frozen tilapia is just as delicious as fresh, but if you’re using frozen fish, be sure to thaw it thoroughly before cooking. Thaw in the fridge or under cold running water. Pat each tilapia fillet completely dry before preparing. 
  • Tilapia cooks quickly in a pan, but it does need to be left alone a bit for the best result. Because of its delicacy, it’s best to flip tilapia only once after it’s seared on one side.
  • Avoid using a cast iron skillet to cook tilapia. It’s difficult to keep tilapia from sticking to them when you flip them.
  • Don’t use too much oil or butter in your pan if searing or pan frying. Too much liquid causes tilapia to cook in that liquid, which is more like boiling than searing. To get a crispy outer crust, you want just enough liquid to crisp up the outside without allowing it to burn.

How to Cook Tilapia

From baked tilapia to parmesan crusted tilapia, you can surely find a way to cook this fresh fish that you enjoy. After a couple times of cooking, you’ll see how easy it can be to cook it to perfection, whether you’re trying an easy baked tilapia recipe or a more complex sous vide cook. For more seafood cooking and recipe inspiration, head to Seafood University.