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Why You Should Try Tilapia

By Steve Dunn Published

We were skeptics, too—until we did our homework. The facts: Most tilapia is responsibly raised and features moist, firm flesh with a clean, mild taste.

Until recently, tilapia was not a fish that ever came up in our weekly discussion of potential recipes to develop. We had a vague idea of it as being a second-rate, predominantly farm-raised fish with a muddy taste, so why even go there? Then we learned that tilapia is now the fourth-most-consumed seafood in the United States (after shrimp, tuna, and salmon) and decided that it was time to take a closer look. A tilapia fact-finding mission ensued: We scoured the internet for information and started experimenting in the test kitchen. Boy, were we ever wrong about this fish. Tilapia has a whole lot going for it, including a strong recommendation from a leading consumer watchdog group (see “Three Reasons to Love Tilapia”).

The flesh of tilapia, a freshwater fish, is firm and moist, with a clean, mild—not at all muddy—flavor, sort of a cross between trout and flounder. In fact, tilapia is so appealing that when we included it in a blind tasting of five types of white fish, it landed in second place, only one point shy of tying for the win (see “How Good Is It? Tilapia versus Other White Fish”). Given that stellar showing and the fact that tilapia is so reasonably priced—it runs only about $8.95 per pound—we saw no good reason not to cook with it.

Three Reasons to Love Tilapia

  • Tilapia had a bad reputation for muddy flavor, but new farming techniques have improved the quality of this inexpensive freshwater fish. Here’s what you should know:

    IT TASTES GREAT: Modern aquaculture systems produce meaty tilapia with a mild flavor.

    IT'S NUTRITIOUS: Tilapia fillets are low in fat and high in protein.

    IT'S SUSTAINABLE: The sustainable seafood adviser Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch lists tilapia as a Best Choice.

Dividing and Conquering

I dove right in, eager to file this magazine's first tilapia recipe. I knew that flavorful browning would enhance the fillets' delicate taste, so a simple stovetop sauté seemed like the best way to go. Because it had been a while since we developed a recipe for relatively thin white fish fillets, I wondered if I should apply lessons we've learned from cooking salmon. These days we usually brine or salt salmon before cooking; it seasons the flesh and helps it retain moisture, which benefits even a fatty fish. Indeed, when I quickly sautéed both tilapia that I'd salted for 15 minutes and unsalted tilapia, the former was moister and better seasoned.

With that question answered, I was ready to cook the fish. I salted another batch of fillets and blotted them dry with paper towels before giving each one a dip into all-purpose flour, a technique we commonly use to accelerate browning. As I proceeded to cook the lightly coated fish in two batches in an oil-slicked nonstick skillet over medium heat, I noticed yet another likeable trait: Whereas most thin fish fillets are fragile and demand a gentle touch, denser tilapia didn't flake apart, so it was easy to maneuver in the pan.

Unfortunately, moderate heat failed to brown the fish in the few short minutes it took to reach 130 degrees, the doneness temperature we found ideal for tilapia. In a subsequent test, I cranked the heat up to high and was pleased to find that the sturdy tilapia could withstand this aggressive approach. After just 2 to 3 minutes per side, some deep golden browning developed. But it wasn't uniform.

Only half of each fillet was taking on color; the other half emerged from the pan pale as could be. That's because tilapia are small, so a single fillet is a whole side of the fish. Half the fillet is the thinner belly portion, and the other half is the thicker portion beneath the dorsal fin. The thick half was resting flat on the pan and browning nicely, but the thin half, tilted up by the thick side, hardly made contact at all.

As I stared at four more fillets on my cutting board, an answer presented itself. A natural seam runs the length of each fillet, separating the thin belly from the thicker portion. I ran my knife along the seams to split the fillets. Then, still working in two batches, I sautéed the four thick halves together before proceeding with the four thin halves. That did the trick: Freeing the thin pieces gave them full contact with the pan, allowing them to turn a deep golden brown, and cooking the thick and thin halves separately let me tailor the cooking time to suit the thickness of each.

Tilapia is a small fish, so each fillet is a whole side of the fish's body, including a thin belly portion and a thicker portion from beneath the dorsal fin. To prevent overcooking, we cut the thin and thick portions apart and cook them separately.
Sturdy tilapia will not flake apart when it's flipped in the skillet.

Reeling It In

But the high heat I was using caused a problem: As I browned the first batch of fillets, they shed a bit of the flour into the skillet. By the time the second batch went in, those flour particles were starting to burn, producing scorched flavors and smoking up the kitchen. I didn't want to have to wipe out a hot pan between batches, so I ran a quick test without the flour dredge to see if it was really necessary. It wasn't: The high heat alone was sufficient to get the fillets remarkably browned and even lightly crisp in spots.

The fish was top-notch with just a squeeze of lemon, but I felt that a rich finishing touch would give it a little more oomph. I came up with a unique compound butter seasoned with savory miso, tart lemon, and oniony chives and an olive oil–based chimichurri featuring fresh cilantro and parsley. Spooned onto the hot-from-the-pan tilapia, the toppings added aromatic pops of flavor.

At long last, here is a great recipe for tilapia. We're sorry we waited so long.

How Good Is It? Tilapia versus Other White Fish

By the time we’d finished developing our tilapia recipe, we were converts: Its mild taste and moist, firm flesh are hard to beat. Even so, we were intrigued by a blind tasting The Washington Post staged in its offices a couple of years back comparing tilapia to seven other varieties of fish. The tasting panel included renowned D.C. chef Scott Drewno, Post food critic Tom Sietsema, and a fisheries expert, among others. Not only did tilapia come in second, but Chef Drewno, formerly a tilapia detractor, declared it his favorite. We decided to conduct our own blind tasting, comparing tilapia to four other common white fish: flounder, branzino, haddock, and snapper. The fish arrived ultrafresh from our seafood purveyor in a single delivery, and we prepared all the fillets according to our Sautéed Tilapia recipe, adjusting cooking times as necessary to ensure that all the fillets reached 130 degrees. Here again, the tilapia did not disappoint. With its “yummy,” “moist,” and “meaty, mild taste of luxury,” it earned a strong second place, missing a tie for first place (with haddock) by just one point. The fish below are ordered according to our preferences.

  • HADDOCK

    ($12.95/lb)

  • TILAPIA (2ND PLACE)

    ($8.95/lb)

  • BRANZINO

    ($18.95/lb)

  • RED SNAPPER

    ($25.95/lb)

  • FLOUNDER

    ($15.95/lb)

Recipe Sautéed Tilapia

We were skeptics, too—until we did our homework. The facts: Most tilapia is responsibly raised and features moist, firm flesh with a clean, mild taste.

Recipe Sautéed Tilapia with Chive-Lemon Miso Butter

We were skeptics, too—until we did our homework. The facts: Most tilapia is responsibly raised and features moist, firm flesh with a clean, mild taste.

Recipe Sautéed Tilapia with Cilantro Chimichurri

We were skeptics, too—until we did our homework. The facts: Most tilapia is responsibly raised and features moist, firm flesh with a clean, mild taste.

Recipe Sautéed Tilapia for Two

We were skeptics, too—until we did our homework. The facts: Most tilapia is responsibly raised and features moist, firm flesh with a clean, mild taste.

Recipe Sautéed Tilapia with Chive-Lemon Miso Butter for Two

We were skeptics, too—until we did our homework. The facts: Most tilapia is responsibly raised and features moist, firm flesh with a clean, mild taste.

Recipe Sautéed Tilapia with Cilantro Chimichurri for Two

We were skeptics, too—until we did our homework. The facts: Most tilapia is responsibly raised and features moist, firm flesh with a clean, mild taste.

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