Ready in just 15 minutes, this recipe for Pan-Seared Tilapia, made with a sweet and spicy rub, delivers flavor fast!
Made with a simple spice rub, this Chili Lime Tilapia has restaurant appeal, minus the high price tag!
This recipe for tilapia uses a similar technique to my recipe for Blackened Mahi Mahi. But instead of using cajun seasoning, this recipe uses a spice rub that is both sweet and slightly spicy, to give this mild fish bold flavor, while still appealing to the more sensitive palates.
Finished with lime juice to brighten the flavors, this simple recipe for tilapia may be made with humble ingredients, it delivers impressive flavors.
And while delicious served fresh out of the skillet, when it is topped with Fresh Apple Salsa or Pineapple Mango Salsa and served with a side of Cilantro Lime Rice, this humble pan-fried tilapia becomes a memorable meal.
Notes on Ingredients
- Tilapia Fillets: I find frozen tilapia is best as the filets are frozen right away and often the freshest. This recipe is designed for 6-ounce tilapia fillets, yet feel free to use 4-ounce filets if that is what you find. Simply decrease the cooking time by 1 minute per side.
- Seasoning: I use a simple mixture of chili powder, brown sugar, and garlic for a sweet and spicy rub that is so flavorful!
- Limes: The zest and juice of fresh lime really help to make the flavors pop in this easy tilapia recipe.
- Apple Salsa (Optional): A tart granny smith salsa made with apples, onions, cilantro, and lime juice is the perfect finish for tilapia. It is bright, fresh, and tart, and adds texture to the overall dish. You can easily omit the salsa or serve it with Mango Pineapple Salsa instead, but the apple salsa is a delicious touch.
How to Pan Fry Tilapia
Pan-searing tilapia is the easiest, quickest way to cook tilapia. Not to mention that the crispy exterior that pan-searing achieves is a great contextual element to the final dish.
- Pat dry your defrosted fish fillet (to absorb moisture that may cause your grease to splatter).
- Season both sides of the tilapia with the seasoning blend.
- Heat oil in a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. You want relatively high heat so that the fish sears in the oil instead of absorbing the oil.
- Place seasoned fish in a skillet gently and leave it alone for 4 minutes. Keep in mind to NOT overcrowd the pan, if your nonstick skillet is on the smaller side, cook the tilapia in batches (as shown pictured below.)
- Gently flip the fish fillets and finish cooking on the remaining side. This will take anywhere from 2-4 minutes depending on the thickness of the tilapia fillet.
How do you know if tilapia is done?
Tilapia is such a thin fish, that by the time a good sear is achieved on both sides of your fish fillet, your fish should be cooked perfectly.
However to be sure, poke the tines of a fork into the thickest portion of the fish and gently pull up some fish. If your fish is cooked perfectly, it will flake easily and be translucent.
Can you pan-fry frozen tilapia?
It is never a good idea to try to pan-fry anything frozen. One, you won't be able to achieve a golden crust on the tilapia (or whatever you are cooking) and the seasoning will not adhere well to frozen meat. Secondly, you can easily burn yourself if you place a piece of frozen meat into the hot oil, as immediately frozen crystals will begin to defrost and cause the oil to splatter up at you.
Fortunately, frozen tilapia defrosts very quickly. Simply, place the frozen fillets in a freezer-safe bag and submerge the bag into a bowl of cold water and leave them out on the counter for about 20-25 minutes. Alternatively, you can defrost the frozen tilapia overnight in the fridge.
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Chili Lime Pan Seared Tilapia
For the Tilapia
- 4 (6 ounce) frozen Tilapia Fish Fillets defrosted
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 lime juice and zest
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
For the Apple Salsa
- 1 granny smith apple diced
- 1 tablespoon red onion minced
- 1 tablespoon cilantro minced
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 lime juice and zested
Pan Seared Tilapia
- Defrost your fish fillets in a bowl of cold water for 20-30 minutes or overnight in the refrigerator.
- Mix together the sugar, chili powder, salt, garlic powder and zest of 1 lime together in a small bowl.
- Remove tilapia fillets from the package and pat dry. Rub both sides of each fillet with the spice mixture.
- Heat oil in nonstick skillet over medium high heat.
- Cook tilapia fillets for 4 minutes per first side and then carefully flip.
- Squeeze juice of one lime over fish in pan and let fish continue to cook 2-3 minutes or cooked through and opaque and flaky.
- Remove the tiapia from the skillet and let rest for 5 minutes. Serve with or without the salsa.
- Mix together apple, cilantro, and red onion with juice from second lime. Season with salt and mix well.
- Do not overcrowd your skillet, as this will cause your tilapia to steam and not brown. Instead, you can use half the oil and cook in 2 batches if needed (as I did)
- The apple salsa is completely optional. It adds a fresh brightness to the dish, but the tilapia is delicious served on its own.
- Using a granny smith apple is key to this tart and bright salsa. I would not use a sweeter apple. If you don't have granny smith apples, pineapple would be a great substitution.
- Use olive oil to pan-fry tilapia, or another high-smoking oil such as coconut, peanut, or vegetable oil.
- Fish is best served fresh, but leftovers will keep for 2 days in the refrigerator.