Pan-seared tilapia with a sweet and spicy rub delivers flaky, tender, perfectly seasoned tilapia in less than 15 minutes.
Tilapia is an affordable, easy-to-find, mild white fish that can be prepared in endless ways.
And while I love my recipe for Tilapia Veracruz, the easiest way to prepare this lean protein is to make pan-fried tilapia.
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, pan-seared tilapia may be made with humble ingredients, yet it delivers impressive flavors in under 15 minutes!
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 Instant Pot Cilantro Lime Rice, this humble pan-fried tilapia becomes a memorable meal.
Notes on Ingredients
- Tilapia Fillets: I find frozen tilapia best as the filets are frozen immediately 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! If you want this dish to be less spicy, I would suggest replacing the chili powder with paprika.
- 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.
- In a small bowl, combine the chili powder, brown sugar, lime zest, and salt together.
- Pat the fish fillet dry with paper towels. This will help the spice blend adhere to the fish and achieve a nice texture with pan-fried.
- 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. It will take anywhere from 2-4 minutes depending on the thickness of the tilapia fillet.
Pan Fried Tilapia has enough flavor from the simple spice rub, it does not need any adornment.
That said, I do love elevating the dish by topping it with fresh fruit salsa. The flavors in this pan-seared tilapia pairs well with Pineapple Mango Salsa or a Granny Smith Salsa. To prepare the apple salsa, simply combine diced apples with minced red onion, cilantro, lime juice, and salt.
To round out your easy fish dinner, serve the pan-fried tilapia with pineapple rice or Instant Pot Cilantro Lime Rice. Or if you aren't topping your tilapia with salsa, it pairs beautifully with a side of Cheesy Grits.
FAQs about Pan-Seared Tilapia
Tilapia is such a thin fish, that by the time a good sear is achieved on both sides of your fish fillet, it should be cooked perfectly. You know it is fully cooked when it flakes easily with a fork and the center of the fish filet is translucent.
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.
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.
More Easy Seafood Recipes
Need more inspiration for planning meals that your family will love? Sign up for my FREE Meal Plans and each week you will get a meal plan with a shopping list.
If you tried this recipe for Pan-Seared Tilapia, please leave a review and comment below.
Chili Lime Pan-Seared Tilapia
For the Tilapia
- 4 (6 ounce) frozen Tilapia Fish Fillets defrosted
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 lime zest and juice
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
For the Apple Salsa (Optional)
- 1 large 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 filets in a bowl of cold water for 20-30 minutes or overnight in the refrigerator.
- In a small bowl, combine the chili powder, brown sugar, salt, and garlic powder. Zest the lime into this mixture and stir to combine.
- Remove the tilapia fillets from the package and pat dry with a paper towel. Sprinkle the spice mixture evenly over each fish filet on each side, and rub it into the fish to coat.
- Heat the oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil is glistening, add the seasoned tilapia in an even layer, being sure to not crowd the pan. Cook for 4 minutes undisturbed and then carefully flip the fish over.
- Squeeze the juice of the zested lime over the fish while in the pan, and finish cooking the fish for 2-3 minutes or cooked through and opaque and flaky.
- Remove the tilapia from the skillet and let rest for 5 minutes. Serve with or without the salsa.
- Mix together apple, cilantro, and red onion with the zest and juice of a lime. Season with salt and mix well. Serve with the fish as desired.