Tilapia refers to several species of freshwater fish found in the wild in Africa and the Middle East but farmed throughout the world for culinary purposes. This mild-flavored, moderately priced whitefish can be grilled, baked, or pan-fried.
What Is Tilapia?
Originally found in the Nile River, Tilapia might be the oldest farmed fish in the world, with evidence of cultivation happening 2,500 years ago. Biblical historians say Jesus Christ fed the masses at the Sea of Galilee with tilapia, called St. Peter's fish at modern restaurants around the popular pilgrimage destination. Throughout the world, commercial fisheries produce more than 1 billion pounds of tilapia each year.
The hearty fish feeds on algae and aquatic plants. Raising tilapia can actually improve water quality in waters experiencing red tide or aggressive algae blooms.
How to Cook Tilapia
Tilapia can be baked, sauteed, stewed, braised, poached, or pan-fried. It's easy to substitute for many kinds of fish, especially red snapper, sea bass, and porgy.
You can start with a dry rub or a marinade, but only for a short period of time as acid quickly breaks down the delicate flesh. Flakier fish fillets such as tilapia can be a little more challenging to grill, but you can wrap the fillets in foil packets or use a grill basket to get a smoky flavor. If you do put the fillets directly on the grill grate, be sure to oil them lightly first and let the fish cook until it releases easily, about four minutes per side.
What Does Tilapia Taste Like?
Tilapia has a dense, firm texture. The mild flavor adapts to nearly any cuisine, from Asian to Italian to Mexican, fitting for a fish found in kitchens throughout the world.
Though the name tilapia encompasses nearly 100 species of fish, the tilapia found in grocery stores may be one of three primary market species: Nile or black tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), blue tilapia (O. aureus), or Mozambique or red tilapia (O. mossambicus). However, there is little difference in appearance or flavor between the three.
Typically sold as boneless, skinless fillets, tilapia may be best simply prepared and served with a flavorful sauce. It also makes a good choice for fish tacos or fish and chips.
Where to Buy
Look for boneless, skinless tilapia fillets at any grocery store or fish market. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommends choosing tilapia raised in indoor recirculating tanks, particularly from the U.S., Canada, or Ecuador, although most varieties farmed around the world earn at least the "good alternative" rating. The seafood-industry watchdog does caution against pond-raised tilapia from China.
The freshest tilapia tastes the best, so it's a good idea to cook it the day you bring it home from the store. If you must store it, do so in the coldest part of your refrigerator for a day or two at the most.
Most fishmongers recommend storing fresh fish on ice. To do this at home, pat the fillets dry with a paper towel, then place them in a single layer in a zip-top plastic food storage bag. Press out all of the air before you seal the bag. Put a big scoop of crushed ice in a colander and set the bag of fish on top of it. Gently cover the bag with more ice and set the colander in a large bowl or pan to catch the water as it drains. Then put the whole thing in the refrigerator, dumping the water and refreshing the ice as needed.
Tilapia fillets freeze well, but to prevent freezer burn, it's best to vacuum-seal them individually then store the packages together in a zip-top plastic freezer bag. If you use plastic wrap, take care to press out any air bubbles.
Nutrition and Benefits
With 123 calories, no saturated fat, and 23 grams of protein in a 4-ounce serving, tilapia makes a healthy entree choice; just beware added fat and calories from any breading or a sauce that accompanies it. Tilapia does not provide the high levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids found in fish such as salmon, but it is low in mercury, making it a safer choice for pregnant women than tuna, sea bass, and orange roughy.