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Baked Tilapia Recipe and How to Cook a Whole Fish

This baked tilapia recipe will walk you through how to cook a whole fish with easy, affordable, whole tilapia.

Baked Whole Tilapia

I can regularly find huge bags of frozen, whole tilapia for only $12.  The fish are cleaned and scaled, they just need to be cooked.

I find cooking a 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. This baked tilapia recipe will walk you through how to cook a whole fish step by step!


Holding raw whole tilapia

Years ago 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 our African teammates and dug in!  The tilapia were incredibly delicious and full of flavor.

I’m so glad I’m an adventurous eater, because if I had refused those fish I would have missed out on a valuable cooking lesson.

Whole fish have all of their fat, with skin on to hold the fat in.  Fish fat is lean, heart healthy, and has a lot of flavor.  By keeping the fat in the fish while cooking you get juicy, flavorful, mouthwatering fish.

Here’s a similar technique to cook whole salmon.


Stuffed whole tilapia

  1. Rinse each whole tilapia and pat very dry. Make two slashes into the skin on each side of the fish.
  2. Whisk together cider vinegar, mustard and dill in a medium sized bowl.
  3. Place two cloves of garlic and a sprig of parsley into the cavity of each fish.
  4. Set the fish in the bowl and turn to coat in the vinegar mixture.
  5. Use two pieces of foil to form two sections in a baking dish. Rub the foil with olive oil.
  6. 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.
  7. Bake 15-20 minutes at 400 degrees F until the fish flakes easily with a fork (thickest part of fish should be 145 degrees).


  • The first step to cook a whole fish, whether you get your fish frozen like I did or fresh from a tank, is to make sure your tilapia is scaled and cleaned. Ask the fishmonger (seafood person) if you’re not sure.
  • If your fish is fresh, refrigerate it when you get home and cook the tilapia that night.
  • If your tilapia is 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 your tilapia is thawed when it bends and wriggles easily.

Stuffed whole tilapia

  • I like using vinegar for whole fish because, especially with strong tasting fish, it can help mellow out any fishy taste.  I find that kids are more likely to eat it that way.
  • Put each fish in its own little aluminum foil boat in the baking pan, so the marinade and juices stay with the fish.
  • Always rub olive oil on the foil to keep the fish from sticking.

Baked Tilapia Recipe

  • Another baked tilapia tip is 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.
  • Stuff the fish cavity with aromatics like garlic and fresh parsley to add great flavor.


Bake tilapia for about 15 minutes at 400 degrees if your cooking a whole fish. Fillets will need less time. You want to bake the tilapia until the flesh easily flakes with a fork. The internal temperature in the flesh of the baked tilapia should be 145 degrees F.


Once your tilapia 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 whole tilapia, I would give my very hungry exchange students each one of their own, while Eric and I split one.

Whole Baked Tilapia

Our student Asher was blown away the first time I served whole baked tilapia.  I asked him, “Don’t you only eat whole fish in China?”.

“Yes.  But there is just one fish for all of us.  In America I get my OWN fish!”  His excitement was contagious and baked tilapia became one of our favorite meals to serve our students.


There are a lot of stories out there about the dangers of tilapia, or saying that bacon is better for you than tilapia. Tilapia is typically a pond farmed fish. Some tilapia from China has been found to have been fed manure instead of the appropriate fish food.  But that does not mean all tilapia is unsafe. If you’re concerned, look for U.S. raised tilapia.


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Baked Tilapia Recipe


Yield: 2 tilapia

Baked Whole Tilapia

Baked Whole Tilapia

This baked tilapia recipe will walk you through how to cook a whole fish with easy, affordable, whole tilapia. Serves 2 if you each eat your own tilapia, or 4 if you split them.

Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Total Time 25 minutes



  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  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. Stuffed whole tilapia
  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. Stuffed whole tilapia
  6. Bake 15-20 minutes until the fish flakes easily with a fork (thickest part of fish should be 145 degrees). Fish will continue cooking five minutes after you remove it from the oven.


Vegetarian/Gluten free:  If you eat seafood you're fine, there is no other meat added.  The recipe is gluten free.

0 Weight Watcher Freestyle Points!

Nutrition Information:



Serving Size:

2 tilapia

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 199Saturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 85mgSodium: 443mgCarbohydrates: 2gFiber: 1gProtein: 35g


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43 thoughts on “Baked Tilapia Recipe and How to Cook a Whole Fish”

  1. 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!

    • 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.

  2. 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.

    • 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!

  3. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

        • 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!

  4. 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!

    • 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 🙂

  5. 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.

    • 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!

  6. 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?

    • 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.

  7. 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?

    • 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.

    • 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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…

    • 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.

  10. 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!!

  11. 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. : )

  12. 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! 🙂

  13. 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.

  14. I often buy this bag too as we are a family of 5 and all of us love fish nobody is a picky eater my husband and kids favorite it’s the head the kids argue over the eyes I salt and pepper the head so it has good flavor and yes tilapia has many bones but we don’t mind picking them out and in the Philippines we often eat a banana after as to get any little bones out of your throat if you accidentally swallow any

  15. Glad I found this recipe tonight. I used apple cider vinegar since it works well with my best rib recipe. I’m not a fan of prepared mustard (smell reminds me of horrible hot afternoons and soft pretzels in grade school) but I do use powdered mustard and add seasoned salt/paprika/pepper/oil. Also used some sage and thyme I had on hand for stuffing along with the garlic. We really enjoyed the results, fast and easy but very tasty.

  16. Am I supposed to close this like a packet and bake or just leave open and bake? Sorry if I missed this in the instructions, but I don’t know the answer. Seems it should be sealed, but recipe doesn’t clarify so I will make it as stated, two sections of the dish to keep them separate while cooking, foil not closed.

    I can say I am so excited to find this recipe. I have always wanted to do more fish but it always overcooks for me. I found several recipes which cook at higher temp for considerably longer so I expect those will be overcooked. Besides the fact that your time is closer to what my butcher/seafood guy recommends, it also is different enough to be a special meal for my husband for tonight. Will post later to tell you how it went.


    • Hi Mary, so sorry I’m just now getting to your question. We got way behind on comments with our new baby! No need to seal the fish. If it was a fillet, I will often cover those to keep them moist, but a whole fish can keep its own moisture in.

  17. We love fish in our family. Esp tilapia, which we usually grill. This is a new way of eating it for my family and I. Can’t wait till it’s done, we r cooking it now and the house smells GRRREAT!!

  18. I am so glad I have found your recipe and how to cook a whole fish ! Have only tried cooking a whole fish once, and it was a royal mess 🙁 So looking forward to trying your way !

  19. I would love to try baking a whole fish and with your tips I think I could be successful! I just wish I could find whole fish around here!

  20. I want to cook this whole Tilapia tonight but you don’t say whether I should close the foil up tight or leave it open.
    Thanks for your reply.


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