How to Cook a Whole Fish

how-to-cook-whole-fish

Recently at Sam’s Club I noticed a big bag of frozen whole tilapia for only $12.  The fish were cleaned and scaled, they just needed to be cooked.  I find cooking whole fish is a great way to save money on seafood, but people are often intimidated by it.  If you fall into that group of people, don’t worry, I’ll walk you through it step by step!raw-whole-fish

Whole fish can look a little scary to some people.  When Eric and I were in Senegal, Africa we had several huge covered bowls brought out to our group for lunch.  You should have seen some our teammates jump back when the covers were removed and they saw several whole fish laying on top of rice and vegetables.  Most of our group decided on granola bars for lunch that day, but Eric and I circled around a bowl with a group of African men and dug in!  The fish were delicious and full of flavor.

I’m so glad I’m an adventurous eater, if I had refused those fish I really would have missed out on a valuable cooking lesson.  Whole fish have all their fat with skin to hold the fat in.  Fish fat is lean and heart healthy, it also has a lot of flavor.  By keeping it in while cooking you get moist, flavorful, mouthwatering fish.

stuffed-tilapia

The first step, whether you get your fish frozen like I did or fresh from a tank, is to make sure they’re scaled and cleaned.  You can ask the fishmonger (seafood person) if you’re not sure.  If your fish is fresh, refrigerate it when you get home and cook it that night.  If it’s frozen, place it in a sealed gallon bag and refrigerate over night to thaw.  You can also place it in a sink of cold water (in the sealed bag) and change the water out every half hour until the fish is thawed.  You can tell it’s ready when it bends and wriggles easily.

I made a simple vinegar, dill and mustard marinade for the fish and stuffed them with garlic and parsley.  I like using vinegar for whole fish because, especially with strong tasting fish, it can help mellow out that fishy taste.  I find that kids are more likely to eat it that way.

how-to-bake-whole fish

While you can grill whole fish, I tend to prefer beef or chicken when we’re going to bust out the charcoal so I bake my fish in the oven.  The two keys to baking whole fish are oil rubbed foil and slashing the skin.

By putting each fish in its own little aluminum foil dish in the baking pan, the marinade and juices stay with the fish.  I always rub olive oil on the foil to keep the fish from sticking, VERY important!

tilapia-recipe

I also make sure to put a couple of slashes into the skin of the fish on both sides before baking.  This help keeps the skin from tearing during the cooking process and also lets the marinade seep into the flesh of the fish.  The parsley and garlic stuffed in the fish cavity also add great flavor.  (I grow my own parsley and dill and sometimes garlic, we also get them through our CSA)

Once your fish is cooked, you can serve one per person, split it between two people, or (if it’s a big fish) your whole family.  When I make tilapia, I give my very hungry exchange students each one of their own while Eric and I split one.  Our student Asher was blown away the first time I served this.  I asked him, “Don’t you only eat whole fish in China?”.

“Yes.  But there is just one for all of us.  In America I get my OWN fish!”  He was so excited!

So have you ever cooked a whole fish?  Did you find it intimidating the first time?

bake-whole-tilapia

Baked Whole Tilapia

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15-20 minutes
Total time: 25-30 minutes
Yield: 2-4 servings

Ingredients

  • 2
    whole tilapia, cleaned and scaled
  • 1/4 cup
    cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup
    mustard
  • 1 TBS
    chopped fresh dill
  • 4
    garlic cloves
  • 2
    parsley sprigs
  • 1/2 tsp
    olive oil

Cooking Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Rinse the fish and pat very dry. Make two slashes into the skin on each side of the fish.
  3. Whisk together the cider vinegar, mustard and dill in a medium sized bowl. Place two cloves of garlic and a sprig of parsley into the cavity of each fish. Place the fish in the bowl and turn to coat in the vinegar mixture.
  4. Use two pieces of foil to form two sections in a baking dish. Rub the foil with olive oil.
  5. Place one fish in each section and drizzle remaining vinegar mixture into the fish cavity and the slashes on the top side of the fish.
  6. Bake 15-20 minutes until the fish flakes easily with a fork (thickest part of fish should be 135 degrees). Fish will continue cooking five minutes after you remove it from the oven.

Approximate cost/serving: I got six fish for $12 so it was $2 per fish.  With the remaining ingredients one fish was about $2.40 (I grow my own parsley and dill, buy vinegar, mustard and olive oil in bulk).  You can split a fish between two people or give it to just one so it’s $1.20-$2.40 per serving.

Vegetarian/Gluten free:  If you eat seafood you’re fine.  Naturally gluten free.


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34 Responses to “How to Cook a Whole Fish”

  1. Tonja
    August 31, 2011 at 7:27 pm #

    I love to do this, but I do cook it on my gas grill. The biggest fish I ever cooked whole was a King salmon I bought from the Indian tribe down by the Bonneville dam. It was almost 30 pounds and bigger than my entire kitchen counter! It fed 10 of us plenty with lots of leftovers! Yummy!

  2. Rebekah
    September 2, 2011 at 8:17 am #

    dumb question….You don’t eat the whole fish though right? just the insides? or do you?

    • diana
      September 13, 2011 at 8:54 am #

      Not a dumb question at all. You’ll find you can basically peel the flesh right off of the bones. What looks like the scaly part of the fish is actually the skin, it’s been scaled so it’s edible and delicious. Usually we eat all the meat from one side of the fish and then the other. You can eat the meat in the head as well, including the sweet cheeks of the fish.

  3. Neil | Butterfield
    September 6, 2011 at 7:52 am #

    Sounds awesome and baked fish can be great, my wife cooks it differently every time and she flavors it in a myriad of ways.

    • diana
      September 13, 2011 at 9:25 am #

      That’s awesome Neil. Would love to hear some of the ways she flavors it, always on the lookout for new ideas!

  4. Johanna
    September 6, 2011 at 9:54 pm #

    This looks delicious!
    Could you tell me what kind of mustard you use?
    I am a Poupon kind of person, but my sister swears by “American” mustard.
    Thanks!

    • diana
      September 13, 2011 at 9:04 am #

      I used Deli or “American” mustard for this, but you can use Poupon with great results as well. I often interchange the different kinds of mustard depending on if I’m looking for more tangy or more spicy. Go with what you prefer, I always say recipes are guidelines not rules!

  5. Kelly
    September 7, 2011 at 7:40 am #

    I probably should put this on my ‘I need to try this’ list because cooking whole fish definitely intimidates me. I really should take a whole month to make the things that scare me.

    • diana
      September 13, 2011 at 9:06 am #

      You can do it Kelly! What else scares you? For me it’s typically baking things. I still haven’t made puff pastry because I’m certain I’ll make disaster.

      • Matthew
        May 21, 2013 at 5:17 pm #

        I love to cook, first time I made a whole fish I simply ignored the fishes face(hehe). Probably the only thing that scares me are live food, whether to cook or eat. For example I saw a Japanese restaurant where the chef fries whole live fish, and keeps the fishes head alive by putting a wet cloth over it and carefully frying its body. Ew. That’s pretty mean and disgusting I know. Probably the only other thing that scares me is cooking for a lot of people, I already have, and just stay calm and attentive so that was actually fine too.

        • Diana
          October 5, 2013 at 8:28 pm #

          Sorry I didn’t respond earlier Matthew, been adjusting to life with baby and got behind on answering comments. That sounds awful! I would be scared to see that too. I have cooked live crabs before, definitely took some courage gathering. Sounds you have the secrets to cooking for a crowd mastered. Thanks for commenting and hope to hear from you again!

  6. Jayne Cobb
    May 15, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    I just tried this tonight and it came out wonderful! Only question I would have is how to get the meat off the fish after cooking without a ton of bones or shredding the meat. Excellent recipe, thank you!

    • Diana
      May 16, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

      Hi Jayne, I tried to reply earlier and it looks like it didn’t work so I apologize if you’re getting this twice. You do kind of have to flake the fish off as you eat it. You don’t get one big fillet like you would if it was cut raw. That’s why I usually do one small fish per person or have couples share one. It’s kind of romantic! Hope that helps and glad you liked the recipe :)

  7. AJ
    May 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    I was just wondering if it would be alright to remove the head and when would be the best time to remove it if so? My sister hates the look of fish heads. I have never made fresh fish before and it does feel a bit intimidating but I’d hate to see the frozen tilapia we have go to waste.

    • Diana
      May 31, 2012 at 10:32 am #

      Hi AJ, I polled some of my fellow bloggers on twitter since I wasn’t sure which would be better. Most said to cut the head off after cooking the fish so that hopefully some of the amazing flavor in the head will seep down into the rest of the fish that way. Some also said that if you would like to make fish stock (a great way to save money and feel like you’re not wasting the heads!), remove them before. You can just save them in a bag in the freezer until you have enough. Check out my seafood stock recipe for how to make the stock. Hope that helps!

  8. Paula
    January 22, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    thank you it was delicious i could not have done it without reading this! :)

    • Diana
      January 22, 2013 at 7:35 pm #

      You’re SO welcome!

  9. elaine
    March 16, 2013 at 12:17 pm #

    Just wondering if there is other marinates you can use or any suggestions for one..I often find myself substituting ingr if I don’t have what it calls for.. Can you use pickle juice as part of the marinate?

    • Diana
      October 5, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

      Sorry I missed this comment earlier, I have finally gotten into a rhythm as a new mom. Babies keep you on your toes! I think pickle juice is a cool idea. The vinegar might go really well with fish, it’s also a great way to prevent waste by using the liquid from your pickles. If you try it I’d love to hear how it worked.

  10. Holly
    July 12, 2013 at 5:46 pm #

    I tried this today. The fish has been baking for over an hour now, and it is still not flaky. I can see the uncooked flesh through the slits in the skin. I am cooking it at 425. Any ideas of why this is taking so long?

    • Diana
      October 5, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

      Hmmm, I’m not sure what happened Holly. Have you tried testing the temperature of your oven? Or could the fish not have been thawed all the way? That’s the most likely cause.

  11. Natalia
    August 27, 2013 at 10:25 pm #

    No salt or pepper just the marinade?

    • Diana
      September 3, 2013 at 10:45 pm #

      That’s correct Natalia, though you could definitely add some salt and pepper if you’d like. I found there was plenty of flavor without it.

  12. monica
    September 27, 2013 at 5:03 pm #

    This is my first time doing it in the oven. I usually coat with sea food batter and fry.I just wanted something different and I could say healthier.

    • Diana
      October 3, 2013 at 8:34 pm #

      Oh good, hope you enjoyed it Monica.

  13. cbf
    October 8, 2013 at 3:11 am #

    I must have done something wrong. I followed the directions exactly. My wife declared that the fish “tasted like a wet paper towel”. Had to agree…

    • Diana
      October 31, 2013 at 6:57 pm #

      Hi cbf, I’m guessing the probably was the freshness or quality of the fish. I’ve made this recipe several times, and notice it’s not nearly as good when the fish has been in my freezer for six months. So sorry that it didn’t turn out for you.

  14. Kaylawompus
    March 10, 2014 at 4:12 pm #

    I just made this though slightly modified. I didn’t marinate the fish, but I did coat the outside with lemon juice, dill, paprika, salt, pepper and panko crumbs. I mixed minced garlic, ginger, lemon zest, dill, salt and olive oil and stuffed that in the cavity. Just waiting for it to cook now. The fish was frozen when I bought it and after it thawed it smelled extremely fishy, though not /bad/ per se. We shall see how it turns out! Thanks!!

    • Kaylawompus
      March 10, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

      *marinate lol

    • Diana
      March 10, 2014 at 8:11 pm #

      Those flavors sound wonderful Kayla, I’d love to hear how it goes!

  15. I_Fortuna
    March 28, 2014 at 10:59 pm #

    When we lived in California i was able to buy fresh fish often. No so now, we have to catch ours. My favorite was Red Snapper stuffed with a wheat bulgar mixture. It was so heavenly. I prepare the wheat bulgar, stir fry onions, then add golden raisins, then add the cooked cracked wheat. I cut the fish down the middle and stuff it, then bake. So terrific! We are not fans of Tilapia but this will work with other mild whole fish.
    I love Asher’s response to having his own fish. Thanks for your recipe and cooking guidance. : )

  16. Toni
    May 3, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

    I Am The Manager For A Seafood Department, Fishmonger.. Such A Fun Word! They Like To Call Me The Minnow. Lol Anyhow, Safe Cooking Temperature For Seafood is Actually 145° Anything Stuffed Needs To Be 165° To Avoid Risks Of Bacteria Causing Sickness.. Food Safety Is Our Number One Priority! :)

  17. Toni
    May 3, 2014 at 5:24 pm #

    Anyhow, My Kids And I Tried Your Recipe Tonight! Delicious! Thank You!

  18. Sheila
    June 14, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    I bought the $12 bag @ Sam’s as you suggest. We fish often for trout so steam them the same way with seasoning wrapped in foil cooked to steamy.
    The Tilapia was so full of bones we throw it away. I have more in the bag frozen, but this fish has more bones than trout, and small suckers too.

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