How I Learned to Love Tilapia (and Why You Should Too)

I wrote off this popular white fish years ago. If you have too, it’s time to try again.

Published Oct. 28, 2021.

As a food writer, there really isn’t anything I won’t eat. However, over the years, there are a few ingredients I’ve determined I don’t prefer—OK, literally just one thing: tilapia. To some people, it’s an inoffensive white fish. To me, unfortunately, I thought it tasted like muddy cardboard.

When I first started writing about food in the mid-2010s and began reading menus with a more critical eye, this thin white fish seemed to be everywhere. Fish tacos? Tilapia. Pan-seared? Tilapia. I recall ordering it a few times—first without preconceived notions, then to give it another try. But ultimately, I swore it off and hadn’t ordered nor eaten tilapia since 2015.

That is, until now. Reader, it’s high time that folks like me—convinced they despise tilapia—reconsider this popular fish.

In fact, the experts in the America’s Test Kitchen universe have been saying this for years. It was about time I listened.

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Not sure you like tilapia? Give one of these recipes a try.

“Two thin fish, catfish and tilapia, have an unnecessarily bad taste reputation that we want to debunk,” the editors write in the IACP Award–winning cookbook, Foolproof Fish: Modern Recipes for Everyone, Everywhere. Flipping through this book recently, that sentence stopped me in my tilapia-hating tracks. Having written off this fish years ago, I didn’t actually realize that disliking it is a common opinion.

I read on. “As for tilapia, there’s a resounding conception that it’s a second-rate, predominantly farm-raised fish with a muddy taste.” This book was absolutely speaking my language—yet telling me I was wrong, that I was holding onto an outdated opinion. “Modern freshwater farming practices,” the passage continues, “produce meaty tilapia with a clean, mild flavor, sort of a cross between trout and flounder.”

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I was intrigued. I closed the book and did a quick online search—and readily found a treasure chest of tilapia knowledge dropped by Cook's Illustrated associate editor Steve Dunn all the way back in 2018. 

Among the reasons "Why You Should Try Tilapia," as the article is called, Dunn noted the fish’s firm, moist texture. It may have tasted “muddy” in the past, but aquaculture systems in use today result in tasty tilapia that’s a sustainable choice, strongly recommended by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a leading consumer watchdog group.

Most persuasive in Dunn’s article, however, was the blind tasting of five common white fish: tilapia, flounder, branzino, haddock, and snapper. Tilapia “earned a strong second place, missing a tie for first place (with haddock) by just one point.”

Haddock is a favorite—and something I routinely pay upwards of $20 per pound for to cook at home. I should be clear: My seafood snobbery stems in part from my upbringing in Massachusetts, where fresh, Atlantic-caught seafood is readily available. Why buy frozen imports from Indonesia when world-renowned fishmongers deliver to my zip code?

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Well, when it comes to tilapia, it’s hard to argue with the price. At Trader Joe’s, meaty, frozen filets of tilapia recently cost $5.99 per pound.

After simply sautéing them, I’ll never disparage tilapia again. Following the Cook’s Illustrated advice to cut each fillet at its natural seam, each sub-$5 package of tilapia became four individual fillets, more than enough to feed my family. I simply salted the fillets and patted them dry, then seared them in vegetable oil over high heat.

Here are the key steps in ATK's tilapia-cooking method:

salting tilapia

1. Sprinkle fillets with salt and let rest. Pat dry.

slicing tilapia down the seam

2. For thin fillets, cut each fillet in half lengthwise at seam that runs down middle of fillet.

adding tilapia to hot skillet

3. Heat oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over high heat until just smoking. Add thick halves to skillet and cook, tilting skillet to distribute oil, until first side is golden.

cooking tilapia

4. Using 2 thin spatulas, flip fillets. Cook until second side is golden and fish has reached desired doneness. Remove from skillet.

finishing tilapia in skillet

5. Return skillet to high heat. When oil is just smoking, add thin fillet halves and cook until undersides are golden. Flip and cook second sides until golden.

Less than 10 minutes later, I had a steaming plate of impressively golden-brown fish fillets, a color and crispiness I’ve only ever achieved with haddock by taking extra steps such as dredging the fillets in flour. It turns out that tilapia’s natural firmness helps it stand up to high heat, which is key to achieving that Maillard reaction.

And how did it taste? Nothing like mud, and nothing like cardboard. A freshwater fish, tilapia does have a slightly earthier flavor than I’m used to from Atlantic white fish, but it is mild, and the crispy exterior makes it savory and succulent.

I’ll still prioritize buying local seafood, but I’m glad to learn—however long it took me—that tilapia doesn’t deserve my disdain. Next time I see it on a menu, I might even order it.

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