It's the easy and impressive whole fish recipe you can grill outside or inside on the stovetop all year round. This whole pan grilled fish with Mediterranean herb sauce is a gorgeous dish - perfect for a weekend dinner party but quick enough for busy weeknights at home.
When I first started cooking fish, tilapia fillets, cod and shrimp made up my entire comfort zone. The idea of cooking (or eating) a whole fish was nowhere on my radar or my dinner table.
Moving to Portugal changed all that! Here, whole fish is commonplace, both in local tascas, fancy restaurants, and certainly every grocery store and market. The fish are oiled, seasoned lightly and grilled, then served simply with potatoes, salad and bread.
This whole pan-grilled fish recipe is a Mediterranean version of that concept, adding a super-savory olive and herb sauce to our flaky white fish. Tilapia is a common whole fish to use for this recipe in the United States, as is red snapper. Here in Europe, sea bream (dourado) or sea bass (robalo / branzino) are my favorite options. I used sea bream for this recipe and the fresh fish was the perfect size and flavor.
If you're new to cooking whole fish, this is an easy but flavorful dish to grow your comfort zone! I've included step by step instructions and photos below, so you'll find all the details you need to make this dish shine. And if you're interested in the Mediterranean olive and herb sauce but don't want to explore whole fish right now, the sauce would be lovely over pan-seared tilapia fillets, cod fillets or swordfish steaks.
Ingredients for making whole tilapia on the stove:
Whole fish: this recipe is perfect for several types of fish, including whole tilapia, red snapper, golden sea bream (dourado) or branzino. Just be sure the fish is cleaned and scaled, then follow the recipe instructions to dry and season before stove top grilling begins. The size of your fish should be around 1 ¼ to 1 ½ pounds. If significantly larger or smaller, adjust cooking times accordingly.
Olives: plain old Spanish olives from one of your local grocery stores work beautifully here with the mild artichoke hearts and fresh herbs. But if you have a favorite variety (castelvetrano, anyone?) feel free to substitute.
Artichoke hearts: canned or jarred artichokes are mild and slightly sweet. They're a great pairing with olives and fish, and I love their creamy texture in this chunky sauce. If your local grocer carries grilled or marinated artichokes, that's a great option here, just taste the artichokes so you know how to adjust your salt and pepper levels. Hearts of palm are a good substitute if you're in the market for other options.
Fresh herbs: flat leaf parsley and basil put the Mediterranean in this sauce and they're lovely with the mild flavor of white fish.
Garlic & scallions: our preferred alliums for this recipe are good old fresh garlic cloves and scallions. Substitute shallots and chives, if needed.
Walnuts: toasted walnuts add texture and a rich, almost smoky flavor to the dish. Substitute almonds or pistachios.
Anchovies: all the umami in the world...none of the fishiness you fear. Worth it to track down a few anchovies (or anchovy paste) to get the perfect flavor profile in this dish. Substitute a tablespoon of capers, if you must.
Extra virgin olive oil: the perfect oil for this recipe - flavorful and rich and works well with the both the fish and the sauce.
Spices: a sprinkle of sea salt, fresh black pepper and red chili flakes (optional) are all you need to get this fish recipe on your plate. The olive and herb sauce is super flavorful, so get creative with your spices if you like, but be mindful that they don't clash with the Mediterranean vibes of the dish.
Fresh lemon: we use zest in the sauce and grilled lemons over the dish and we even stuff the fish cavity with lemon slices. It's a lemony affair! Substitute fresh lime if that's what you have.
Full instructions and measurements included in the printable recipe card below.
Step-by-step recipe instructions for pan grilled whole fish:
To begin, make the olive and herb sauce so it can marinate while the fish is grilling. In a small bowl, combine chopped olives, artichoke hearts, parsley, basil and toasted walnuts in a bowl, along with lemon zest and a pinch of chili flakes (if using). I prefer to hand chop these ingredients to keep the texture of the sauce chunky.
Next, in the bowl of a small chopper or food processor, combine scallions, garlic cloves and anchovies. Pulse until fine. Add the fine mixture to the bowl of olives, along with ½ cup extra virgin olive oil. Stir to combine. Taste and add salt and pepper. Set aside.
Next, prepare the fish. Dry fish well using paper towels. Use a sharp knife and cutting board to make diagonal cuts in the fish all the way to the bones. This will help the fish cook more evenly, from the thickest part of the body all the way to the tail.
Drizzle with olive oil, then salt and pepper the fish inside and out generously. Add a few thin lemon slices to the cavity of the fish.
Heat a grill pan or skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, place fish into the pan. Leave untouched for 7-9 minutes, allowing the fish to cook through to the center. Next, use a fish spatula to move the fish and test that the skin is not sticking to the pan. Lift slightly to test for a golden brown skin. If finished, gently flip the fish to the second side. Again, leave the fish undisturbed for about 8 minutes, checking periodically to ensure the heat is appropriate and not cooking the skin too quickly and add a drizzle of olive oil to the pan, if needed. Add halved lemon to the pan (cut side down) to grill for 3-4 minutes.
Once fish is cooked through and crispy on both sides, remove fish to a serving platter with grilled lemons. Top with Mediterranean herb and olive tapenade and serve with grilled bread.
FAQ's and Serving Suggestions :
Look for tilapia with clear, bright eyes, shiny scales, and a mild sea-like aroma. The flesh should feel firm to the touch.
Aside from pan-grilling, you can also bake, steam or grill a whole fish outdoors. Each method will yield slightly different results, so choose the one that suits your preference. I'm a big fan of crispy skin on whole fish, so pan-searing a whole fish is the easiest way to get that charred goodness.
The flesh of the tilapia should turn opaque and easily flake with a fork when it's cooked. I like to check inside the fish (where we added lemons) to see if the fish has turned white from the inside. The USDA recommends the internal temperature should reach 145°F for safe consumption. I have found that if I pull the whole fish off the grill / burner around 140°F, carry-over cooking takes it to 145 without drying out the fish at all.
Pan-grilled whole fish pairs well with a variety of sides. When I'm serving this fish with a flavorful sauce like the olive and herb sauce, I want to add side dishes that will go well with the sauce, as well. I usually finish off the can or jar of artichokes I used in the sauce by grilling them in the same pan, along with fresh green beans and potatoes. If you're looking for another sauce option, Italian Salsa Verde is an olive-free herb sauce with huge flavor that I often serve with simple grilled fish dishes for an easy weeknight dinner.
First, let your fish come up to room temperature. Very cold fish on a very hot pan will create steam, which will make the skin stick. Second, be sure the cooking surface, whether it's an outdoor grill, grill pan or a skillet, is properly preheated and either the pan or the fish has been lightly oiled before placing the fish in the pan. Then wait until the fish is fully cooked on the first side before attempting to turn. The skin should release easily once it is fully cooked on one side.
Yes, you can cook a whole tilapia, snapper or sea bream with the head-on, that's my preferred method. Just ensure that the fish is properly cleaned and seasoned, and adjust the cooking time accordingly.
To store leftover fish, transfer to an airtight container and keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 days maximum. To reheat, warm gently in a covered skillet with olive oil until just heated through.