Easiest and Muss-free Ways to Cook Frozen White Fish Fillets
July 21, 2020 11:20 PM   Subscribe

I am mostly vegetarian and would like to incorporate frozen white fish fillets like tilapia into my diet for budget and nutrition reasons.

I am squeamish with handling raw meat and fish. I would like to cook frozen fish fillets in a way that requires the least handling, work and time.

My past attempts with cooking these fillets have not been successful. I tried to pan-fry them with a little oil after patting them dry with kitchen towels but they still spattered all over my stove.

Can I cook these fillets without defrosting them first? Is rinsing them in water before cooking necessary? Can I just dump them frozen into my pot of vegetable soup and then break the fillets up into pieces with my spatula?

How about baking them direct from frozen with olive oil, salt and pepper smeared on top in my oven? Or would en papillote be a better idea? I like breaded fillets but it seems too much work.Any other ideas?

posted by whitelotus to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You can poach them in broth, yes. I've never tried without thawing first, but white fish is usually sturdy and could probably hold up. Brief Googling suggests that you should probably increase the cooking time by 50% if cooking from frozen.

I like to top the filets with any or all of: chopped fresh parsley, freshly-squeezed lemon juice, capers. Capers are especially useful if you happen to get a filet with a slightly unpleasant fishy taste; it cancels that right out.
posted by nirblegee at 11:39 PM on July 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Forgot to say that when I pan-fried the fillets, I had defrosted them overnight in my fridge and tried to get them as dry as possible beforehand but they still spattered.
posted by whitelotus at 11:58 PM on July 21, 2020

How about baking them direct from frozen with olive oil, salt and pepper smeared on top in my oven?

This is your winner. It's easy and muss-free. Do it in foil and then you can dispose of the foil.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:58 PM on July 21, 2020 [6 favorites]

You can do them in a pilau; fry onion and vegetables in oil in a pot, add rice, then add water/stock and the defrosted fish, put the lid on, that's it.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 12:15 AM on July 22, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The problem with roasting a frozen fish fillet is that white fish generally takes such a short amount of time to cook through that by the time the center of a frozen fillet is cooked, the outside will be very overcooked, and nobody likes overcooked white fish. If the fish is thawed when you apply heat, it has much less work to do to cook through and you get evenly cooked fish in a shorter amount of time. You could adjust things so you're roasting at a much lower temperature for a longer time, adding more liquid in your pan so it doesn't dry out, and see if that works for you. A little vegetable broth and/or white wine in the roasting dish will partially steam it.

Other cooking techniques will work pretty well from frozen. I don't think you need to rinse them in water before cooking, although if they get a little freezer burned it's a good idea.

Try steaming the fish. Do a gentle slow steam if you can, with aromatics in the steamer on top of the fillet. Place some cabbage leaves in your steamer, add the fish and season it with salt and pepper, top with ginger, garlic, and scallions. You could steam it with vegetable broth or just water. When the fish is cooked through sprinkle it with soy sauce and wrap up bites of it in more fresh cabbage leaves.

Poaching would also work from frozen, though again dumping a hunk of something frozen into boiling liquid will make the whole thing take longer to cook than if you'd thawed the fish out beforehand, and breaking it up while it cooks will make things more likely to cook unevenly. Preferably you'd have your soup ready to go and then pop thawed bite sized fish pieces into the broth at the very end to simmer until just cooked through. By the time a fish fillet is easy to flake with a spatula it's already fully cooked and once you get it to the table it'll be overcooked.

Per your update, there will always be splatter when you pan fry stuff. It's the water in whatever you're frying reacting with the oil in the pan. Fish is pretty watery and if it's not then it will be tremendously unpleasant to eat. If this is difficult for you I would suggest investing more time into roasting, steaming, and other cooking techniques that keep oil spatter to a minimum.

I would gently encourage you to try to gain confidence handling the fish. It will make cooking so much better for you! I understand that it can be very hard, but it is a learned skill and you can attain it. You might prefer to wear disposable gloves for a while maybe, or have some separate kitchen supplies that you only use with fish and meat, like storage containers, a cutting board, maybe a specific knife. That way you can keep better track of what had raw fish on it so you can be calmer in the kitchen.
posted by Mizu at 12:17 AM on July 22, 2020 [5 favorites]

Seconding baking them in foil, direct from frozen. Zero cleanup. Experiment with adding various herbs and spices to oil & salt on top. (Rosemary? Thyme? Lemon grass? Curry? Chili?)
posted by gakiko at 2:13 AM on July 22, 2020 [4 favorites]

Another vote for cooking in foil or paper in the oven. I do this all the time with white fish and with salmon, generally i just add salt, pepper, and lemon juice (and the leftover lemon if it's real lemon). 180C for 30 mins from frozen tends to do the trick!
posted by sedimentary_deer at 2:29 AM on July 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Frying fish is not for the squeamish. My grandmother would fry fish several times a week, and still she was always screaming at the pan and angry with the splattering.

For the best taste, you need to thaw them. I usually put frozen fish or shellfish on kitchen paper to thaw. You don't need to rinse them. How long it takes depends on several things, but if you take them out of the freezer two hours before, you will be fine.
The papillotte method is always good.
For using in stews or other recipes you want to eat with a spoon or fork, you should cut them up in advance, otherwise it becomes a mess. Use disposable gloves and a sharp knife.

For a one pot simple recipe:
Thaw frozen spinach in a pan. Add cream, or cream cheese and a little water. Season with salt, pepper, nutmeg and lemon to taste. When the mix is nice and creamy, put chunks of white fish on top, add a little salt to the fish pieces, and steam under a lid for five minutes or till the fish chunks are opaque all through.

Same technique, very different outcome: Make a stew in your pan with olive oil, onions in slices, crushed garlic, olives and canned tomatoes. Season to taste with oregano, salt, pepper and lemon. Let it simmer for a while to make sure the tastes are fully incorporated. Add chunks of fish and let it simmer further till the fish is opaque all through.

Both these recipes can be made with whole, thawed fish instead, but the cooking time is longer and less predictable, with a risk of the fish being both over- and undercooked, and it can also end up looking messy and less appetizing.

The other day I made this:
Mix equal parts whole cream and creme fraiche with mustard, salt, pepper, and plenty of tarragon in a bowl. Butter a dish, arrange your fish in the dish, and pour the cream-mix over it. Bake at 225 C til the fish is ready (depends on the type and size of your fish), for tilapia, maybe 30-35 minutes, but check already at 20-25 minutes. I slightly overcooked mine because I didn't know the type of fish (a bass filet) well. You can put spinach in with the fish here, but make sure it is not too wet.
posted by mumimor at 3:45 AM on July 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Came to recommend foil packet grilling, which is like baking in foil only fun.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:48 AM on July 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

En papillote is super easy and looks impressive.

If you buy the individually wrapped fillets, just throw a couple into a pot of cold water, put the pot into the fridge for a couple hours (or all day) to thaw.
posted by gnutron at 5:12 AM on July 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

For the individually quick frozen fillets, I sautee them from frozen. A little butter and white wine in a pan, little salt and lemon pepper, covered over medium heat for perhaps 5-6 minutes per side. I mostly eyeball it. If the pan seems to be running a little low on liquid, I'll either add a little more wine, or some 7-Up or Sprite, which gives it a little sweetness and a little kick of citrus.

For the breaded fillets, I just bake them on foil or a silpat. Turning halfway through baking helps them come out nice and crispy.

Either way, I usually serve with oven-baked fries or with rice. If I sauteed the fish, I'll pour a little leftover sauce over the rice.
posted by xedrik at 6:37 AM on July 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

A New England fishing charter boat captain I know turned me on to microwaving seafood a long time ago and that's generally how I do it. I put a piece of frozen fish on a piece of parchment paper, drizzlea little oil to coat both sides, add seasoning- salt, pepper, and whatever herbs appeal- and some lemon slices, maybe a little bit of finely diced onion or garlic or shallot, sometimes olives, and wrap it well and put it in microwave. The timing is gonna depend on your microwave and the size of your fish fillet. Start with maybe 3 minutes, check it, poke a fork in it then feel the fork for temp, cook longer if necessary.
posted by mareli at 7:16 AM on July 22, 2020

Here are some more detailed recommendations for microwaving fish.
posted by mareli at 7:19 AM on July 22, 2020

I've been making a lot of frozen white fish recently, mostly sole. I pan-fry straight from frozen, on medium heat, after melting a bit of butter in the pan first. I usually cover them the whole time and flip once. Alternatively I sometimes drop the frozen filets in a coconut milk curry and cover, cooking until opaque.

Both methods work well, are very easy and don't spatter any more than any other sauteed food (especially when covered). I'm not really squeamish but it's just so much easier to handle the frozen filets and since they're so thin they thaw very quickly in the pan.
posted by randomnity at 7:36 AM on July 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

We get frozen tilapia from Costco. Its individually wrapped. We thaw it. I cut open the plastic, rinse the the fish and pat it dry with paper towel. Season with, e.g. jerk spice. I melt a pat of butter in a non-stick pan and cook 8-10 minutes on a side. There is not enough butter to splatter. The same method will work for most any fish. The biggest problem I've had is fish that falls apart when cooked. That was haddock, I think.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:02 AM on July 22, 2020

Best answer: Poaching sounds fussy, but it's super easy for fish. It's like sous vide but without the equipment or plastic bags. Your fish will just slowly come up to the temperature of the liquid it's simmering in.

I like fish poached in a tomato broth, like this. You can start it from frozen and let it come to temperature. It won't overcook as long as you don't have the liquid at a rapid boil.

I also like to bake my fish. I don't like baking it frozen because it doesn't really accept seasoning when frozen. I thaw it in some water in my sink (in the packaging), then place on a sheetpan and bake at about 400 for about 10 minutes.

You can make fish tacos with the baking method: sprinkle with chili powder/taco seasoning and bake until done. Flake the fish, sprinkle with lime juice, and add more seasoning as needed. Serve with tortillas and a quick cabbage slaw plus avocado and any other accompaniments. (something like this recipe, but marinating your fish isn't necessary.)

The other way I like to bake my fish: season the fish on both sides. Place on a sheetpan. In a small bowl, combine bread crumbs with a little bit of olive oil. Pat that over the top of the fish. Bake until done.

If you want to pan-sear your fish, this recipe for Asian-flavored glazed tilapia is also great, and one of my go-to recipes.
posted by hydra77 at 10:09 AM on July 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you're already defrosting them and have money and space, you can cook them in an air fryer if you want a crispy coating.
posted by juniperesque at 10:53 AM on July 22, 2020

It might be nice in a Thai or Indian coconut curry sauce - you can get prepared simmer sauces or make your own and then just drop the fish in the sauce to heat through. I would thaw them first, maybe out of the package on a paper towel.
posted by vunder at 10:55 AM on July 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Personally I always defrost fish before cooking. Cooking while frozen just complicates things. What I like to do is beat an egg, dip the fillet in egg, coat it with seasoned bread crumbs, then fry in a bit of oil until both sides are browned and crispy. I like to serve this with lemon wedges and/or tartar sauce, maybe fries or salad for a side.
posted by signsofrain at 11:59 AM on July 22, 2020

I have had excellent luck breading with a fine cornmeal seasoned with salt and cayenne. Thawed fish, patted dry, pressed into the cornmeal, then flipped, fried in a very hot cast iron pan with a little oil. Minimal spitting, lovely crunchy exterior.

Also, I highly recommend a splatter screen for frying anything -- keeps you safer and your stove and your kitchen ceiling cleaner.
posted by carrioncomfort at 3:22 PM on July 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for all the responses, I'll be putting frozen white fish fillets in my next grocery order. I hope I can get the hang of them this time.

muminor: Wow, your recipes sound great and I'm eager to try them out.

carrioncomfort: Which kind of splatter screen do you recommend? The 3-sided ones or the hand-held round screens?
posted by whitelotus at 8:26 PM on July 23, 2020

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