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.


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!


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?


Baked Whole Tilapia

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


  • 2
    whole tilapia, cleaned and scaled
  • 1/4 cup
    cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup
  • 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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Nutritional and cost information is for estimating purposes only, and subject to variations due to region, seasonality, and product availability.