Cornmeal Crusted Tilapia

Source: Micki Seibel, March 2013

Source: Micki Seibel, March 2013

Inspired by a meal I had in Carmel Valley, I decided to experiment with cornmeal crusted fish. Cornmeal makes a delicate and deliciously thin coating. However, there are two problems with most recipes that I researched:

  1. They add all-purpose flour to the cornmeal. This not only adds empty calories, it makes it not gluten-free.
  2. They fry the fish in cups of oil. This adds A LOT of calories and makes for a greasy dish.

Both practices are unhealthy. As I discovered, they are also unnecessary.

To eliminate the need for white flour but still have the binding power to make the cornmeal stick to the fish, you must use masa. Masa is the corn meal used to make corn tortillas. Masa corn meal is soaked and cooked in a solution of slaked lime that breaks down hemicellulose in the corn. Hemicellulose is the glue-like structure of the corn cell walls. The result is finely ground corn meal with binding power.

As for the oil, there is no need to measure is cups. Tablespoons will do (and even then maybe not in the plural). Peanut oil adds a dash of flavor and stand up to high heat frying. Lastly, if you rest the fish on brown paper for a minute or two before serving, you soak up any excess oil from the surface of the fish.

Any firm white fish will do. Tilapia, halibut, catfish, True Cod (a.k.a Pacific Cod), and Atlantic Cod are excellent choices. Their texture is firm enough to withstand frying, and they are all rated as Best Choice by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch for sustainable seafood.

Cook Time

Prep time: 5 min
Cook time: 4 min
Ready in: 10 min
Yields: Serves 4
Source: Micki Seibel, March 2013

Source: Micki Seibel, March 2013


  • 4 filet (tilapia, halibut, catfish, or true cod)
  • 3/4 cup masa corn meal
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tbsp peanut oil
  • kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 brown paper bag, to soak excess oil from the fish


  1. In a large bowl, mix the masa, paprika, and cayenne.
  2. Generously salt and pepper your fish, place in the masa mixture, and toss to completely coat all sides of your fish.
  3. Heat the peanut oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat.
  4. Add as many filet to your pan as will fit without them touching. You may have to fry them in batches if all will not fit in your pan. Fry the filets for 2 minutes per side.
  5. Remove from the pan and place on a plate lined with brown paper. Let the filet rest for 1-2 minutes to soak up excess oil and serve.

How to Not Screw It Up

  1. Peanut oil is the best oil to use here. It adds some mild flavor to the fish, but most importantly it has a high smoking point. This means that it can get more than hot enough to thoroughly cook your fish without setting off smoke alarms and running your friends and family coughing from the kitchen.
  2. It is really important that you find masa. Anything else will not be fine enough to create the right coating on the finished fish.
  3. You have to use a firm white fish. Delicate and flaky white fish such as flounder or Atlantic cod are too delicate and will break to pieces when you try to fry the flip side.
  4. I strongly recommend using the brown paper bag to soak the excess oil from the fish. A brown paper bag soaks up more oil that paper towels and is less messy to dispose of afterward. Soaking up as much of the excess oil after the fry not only creates a crispier, cleaner final fish, but it also reduces excess calories.