What Is Red Snapper?

A Guide to Buying, Cooking, and Storing Red Snapper

red snapper fish

The Spruce / Lindsay Kreighbaum  

Red snapper is one of the most popular of all white fish. It is naturally found all over the world with most of the fish harvests coming from the Gulf of Mexico and Indonesia. Red snapper has a firm texture and a sweet, nutty flavor that lends itself well to everything from hot chilies to subtle herbs. Whole red snapper can be broiled, grilled, pan-fried, steamed, baked or deep-fried. Fillets are good pan-fried or steamed. Red snapper is also a nice ingredient in fish stew, such as cioppino.

What Is Red Snapper?

The name "red snapper" is sometimes used to refer to similar but less desirable fish like the West Coast rockfish, or any fish that is red. However, according to the FDA, the labeling or sale of any fish other than Lutjanus campechanus (the fish's scientific name) as "red snapper" "constitutes a misbranding in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act." Red snapper is generally found at 30 to 620 feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico and along the eastern coasts of North America, Central America, and northern South America. It is rare to find red snapper north of the Carolinas.

Red snappers can grow as large as 35 pounds, but most fish are much smaller. It is often sold whole or in fillets. Whole fish are usually between 2 and 5 pounds. When buying a whole red snapper, look for clear, red eyes and bright red skin that fades towards the belly. If you are purchasing fillets, try to buy them with the skin on. This will help hold the fish together and lets you get a look at the skin to make sure it’s red snapper.

How to Cook Red Snapper

Red snapper is a particularly excellent fish to grill, either whole or in fillets. While it might seem challenging, grilling whole fish really isn't difficult. Simply take a whole red snapper, fill the body with lemon slices, chili peppers, butter, herbs, and spices and you are ready to grill. While you want a hot grill, the fish should sit over a lower heat, not necessarily indirect grilling, but low direct heat. In many parts of the world, the way to grill snapper is on a wet banana leaf. You might also try grilling it on a cedar plank, which is another great way to grill fish.

If you are grilling the fillets, keep the skin on while you grill. The skin acts to hold the fish together and protect the meat from the flame. The skin also helps hold in the flavors of the fish. 

Sauteeing or baking are also good methods for cooking red snapper. The fish can stand up to lots of flavors. Lemon, butter, and fresh herbs are all great accompaniments to red snapper. For a kick, consider cooking some hot chili peppers with the fish. Fresh Anaheim peppers will be milder, or you can go for the heat and use a chopped up habanero. Tropical fruits also pair well with red snapper.


Watch Now: Baked Red Snapper with Garlic and Herbs Recipe

What Does Red Snapper Taste Like?

Red snapper is moist and delicate, with a mild, slightly sweet taste that goes well with all kinds of additional flavors. It is a very versatile fish and can be cooked in many different ways.

Red Snapper vs. White Fish 

As it grows in popularity, snapper is increasingly becoming a generic term for white fish. The high demand has led to a high price and the high price has led to fish fraud. A study by University of North Carolina researchers found about 73% of fish they studied that were labeled as red snapper were mislabeled. While this practice is illegal, it's difficult for the USDA to enforce it. Buy your fish from a trusted source and look for the red skin and eyes to distinguish red snapper from imposters. 

Red Snapper Recipes

Red snapper is an excellent choice for a whole grilled fish, a broiled fillet, or as the main ingredient in fish tacos. Its lightly sweet flavor goes well with almost any seasoning.

Where to Buy Red Snapper

Red snapper is harvested year-round and should be available throughout the year; the best source is a reputable fishmonger. It can be expensive, so if you cannot find or afford red snapper, you can substitute a different kind of snapper. Caribbean red snapper is comparable to the traditional red snapper. Also, mutton, vermilion, mangrove, and yellowtail are all similar kinds of snapper that will work for most recipes that call for red snapper.

Storing Red Snapper

Fresh fish should be cooked the day it is purchased but will keep for two days in the refrigerator if properly wrapped. And while it's always best to eat fish the day it's prepared, cooked fish will last three to four days if properly refrigerated.

what is red snapper
The Spruce / Catherine Song 
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  1. US Food & Drug Administration. CPG Sec. 540.475 snapper - labeling. Updated August 24, 2018.

  2. Spencer ET, Bruno JF. Fishy Business: Red Snapper Mislabeling Along the Coastline of the Southeastern United States. Front. Mar. Sci. 2019doi:10.3389/fmars.2019.00513