Many of my favorite food memories were born on the annual vacations my family took to the beach when I was a kid. But of all the meals enjoyed on our cozy, beach-view balcony, nothing stands as lively and present in my mind today as bouillabaisse.
Each summer, my dad, mom, sister, and I would drive two hours east to Wrightsville Beach where we would spend two sun-drenched weeks collecting shells, eating rice cakes slathered with peanut butter by the condo pool, and playing infinite games of Scrabble.
It’s no wonder I ended up permanently nesting in that seaside town as an adult.
Not surprisingly, some of the most memorable edible experiences from those trips were centered around fresh seafood – jumbo shrimp showered in lemon juice, plump local clams stacked to the ceiling and surrounded by golden pools of melted butter, and the like.
I’ve always revered my dad’s culinary skills, and watching him fearlessly take on the feat of preparing a classic French seafood stew only made him more of a superhero in my eyes. The end result was a rich tomatoey broth overflowing with decadent fresh fish, colossal shrimp, and briny mussels. It was the epitome of coastal nourishment.
He may have been the superhero in this story, but the bouillabaisse made us all fly.
This traditional dish was born in the port city of Marseilles, where fisherman would put the bony rockfish they were unable to sell to delicious use. That’s right – this fancy French feast began as a poor man’s meal made of seafood scraps.
Today, elegant restaurants pull out all the stops for their bouillabaisse and I see no reason why we shouldn’t do the same at home.
If you’re just getting your seafood training wheels off and are a little shaky when it comes to cooking ingredients that are plucked from the sea, glance through this guide on all-things lobster and this one for working with shellfish.
It turns out that tackling bouillabaisse only seems like a daunting task, until you roll up your sleeves and dive right in.
And if I can do it, you can too. Who says French cooking is unapproachable? Not Julia Child, that’s for sure.
At its core, bouillabaisse is a hearty stew made with fresh fish, shellfish, and plenty of aromatics that liven up the saffron-scented, tomato-based broth.
Speaking of which, saffron is known for being pricey, but you only need a pinch. It provides the stew with its unmistakably earthy and nuanced flavor, so I suggest not skipping it. Turn to our saffron guide for more on that colorful, complex spice.
Sweet, delicate leeks, a heavy handful of minced garlic, fennel, and potatoes build the base of the broth. If you go the route of pouring that broth over day-old bread for serving, and then top it with the seafood, you can leave out the potatoes if you like so things don’t get too starchy.
I like to serve my bouillabaisse with homemade garlic croutons, but my dad would always serve crusty bread alongside it, toasted and smeared with soft butter. No matter how you slice it, everybody wins.
And even if you aren’t lucky enough to enjoy lapping waves as the background music for your bouillabaisse feast, this ethereal meal will stick with you nonetheless.Print
This bouillabaisse features fish, mussels, and lobster in a tomatoey broth. Prepare for this Provençal seafood stew to change your life.
- 2 cups cubed day-old bread (about 4 ounces)
- 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2 teaspoons coarse salt, divided
- 1 1/4 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, divided
- 4 large cloves garlic, minced, divided
- 1 teaspoon harissa paste
- 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1/4 cup chopped sweet onion (about 1/2 small)
- 1/2 cup chopped leeks, white and light green parts only (about 2 large)
- 1/4 cup sliced fennel (about 1 small bulb), fronds reserved and chopped for garnish
- 1/2 cup chopped carrot (about 1 medium)
- 1 pound Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
- 3 2-inch-wide strips orange peel
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme, plus more for garnish
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 4 cups fish or seafood stock
- 2 cups roughly chopped tomatoes (from 2-3 large tomatoes, or canned)
- 1 1/2 pounds boneless white fish filets, chopped into 2-inch pieces
- 1/2 pound jumbo shrimp (21/25 count) in shells
- 1/2 pound small hard-shelled clams (such as littlenecks), scrubbed
- 1/2 pound mussels, scrubbed and beards removed
- 1/2 pound roughly chopped raw lobster meat
- Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
- Preheat the oven to 350°F and line a half-size baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Add the bread cubes to a large bowl, drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the oil, and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper, and 1 clove of minced garlic. Toss until the cubes are thoroughly coated, then arrange in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet. Bake, tossing once halfway through, until the croutons are golden brown, about 15-18 minutes.
- In a small bowl, whisk the harissa paste and mayonnaise together until combined thoroughly to make a quick rouille. Set aside.
- In a large heavy-bottomed saucepot or a Dutch oven, add the remaining oil and place the pan over medium heat. Add the onion, leeks, fennel, carrot, and potatoes. Saute, stirring occasionally, until the veggies begin to soften, about 3-5 minutes. Season with the remaining salt and pepper.
- Add the remaining minced garlic, saffron, orange peel, bay leaf, and thyme. Cook for an additional minute. Stir in the tomato paste to coat the vegetables, and cook for 1 more minute. Deglaze the pan with the fish stock and tomatoes, scraping the bottom as you pour.
- Bring the liquid to a boil and cook until it’s slightly thickened and the potatoes are almost fork-tender, about 8-10 minutes. Reduce the heat to simmer.
- Stir in the thickest pieces of fish, the clams, and the shrimp, and cover the pot. Simmer for 2 minutes. Stir in the mussels, lobster, and remaining pieces of fish. Cover and simmer until the mussels open, about 5 minutes. Season the broth to taste with additional salt if necessary. Remove the bay leaves, orange peel, and thyme sprigs.
- Divide the bouillabaisse among bowls. Garnish with a spoonful of the rouille, the reserved fennel fronds, parsley, thyme, and croutons.
- Prep Time: 30 minutes
- Cook Time: 45 minutes
- Category: Stew
- Method: Stovetop
- Cuisine: French
Keywords: French, soup, stew, bouillabaisse, seafood, tomato, lobster, mussel, fish
Cooking By the Numbers…
Step 1 – Make Croutons and Quick Rouille
Add the bread cubes to a large bowl, or prep them directly on the baking sheet. I prefer to use a mixing bowl to make sure every cube is seasoned and evenly coated with oil.
Drizzle the cubes with 2 tablespoons of oil, and season with 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and 1 clove of the minced garlic.
Any garlic that doesn’t cling to the bread will get nice and toasty on the baking sheet, and it can also be used to garnish the soup. If you prefer dried spices on your croutons, you can substitute 1 teaspoon garlic powder for the fresh stuff.
Toss the bread cubes until they’re thoroughly coated. Being careful not to crowd them, arrange the cubes in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet. Bake, tossing once halfway through, until the croutons are golden brown. This will take about 15 to 18 minutes.
Remove from the oven and set aside.
Step 2 – Gather and Prep the Remaining Ingredients
Chop the onion and slice the leeks in half longways. Thoroughly rinse the leeks under cool running water to remove any dirt that’s trapped between the leaves. Chop the cleaned leeks, slice the fennel, and peel and chop the carrot and potatoes.
Using a vegetable peeler or a paring knife, slice strips of orange peel, making sure you just get the colored rind and not the white pith inside.
Roughly chop the tomatoes if you’re using fresh. Prep the parsley and thyme that will be used for garnish, and chop some fennel fronds for garnish as well.
Measure your saffron, and crumble the threads or break them up a bit in your mortar and pestle. Get your seafood out of the fridge, and gather any remaining ingredients.
Step 3 – Prep the Seafood
Choose a white fish that is sturdy enough to hold up in the broth. Monkfish, turbot, red snapper, grouper, and cod all work well, but your best bet is to talk to someone in the seafood department at the grocery store or at your local fish market and tell them what you’re looking for.
Chop the white fish into 2-inch pieces. You want the fish to be bite-size, but cut in large enough chunks that it makes for an elegant presentation and doesn’t overcook. Since some parts of a fish filet can be thicker than others, you’ll end up with some pieces that are a little larger, and these will need extra cooking time.
Using a dedicated seafood brush if you have one, or a thick paper towel, scrub the shells of the clams and mussels under cold running water.
Most mussels have “beards,” or byssal threads that help them to attach themselves to rocks and other surfaces, and these look like brown seaweed.
Grab the beard with your thumb and forefinger and tug it towards the hinge of the shell to pop it off. You can also use a paring knife to scrape it away. Discard the beards.
Frozen lobster tails are often around 6 or 7 ounces each, and these are typically easy to find at the seafood counter of bigger grocery stores.
If you’re using lobster tails instead of meat that’s already been prepared, use kitchen shears to slice open the top of the shell. From there, use your hands to crack the shell open. Loosen the meat with your fingers, then wiggle it out whole. Roughly chop it.
Step 4 – Saute the Aromatics
Begin building the stew by heating the remaining oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepot or a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, leeks, fennel, carrot, and potatoes.
Saute, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have softened. This should take about 3 to 5 minutes. Season with the remaining salt and pepper.
Add the remaining minced garlic along with the saffron, orange peel, bay leaves, and thyme, and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 1 more minute, making sure it coats some of the veggies and becomes slightly caramelized, to concentrate its natural sugars and contribute more flavor.
Step 5 – Deglaze with the Liquids
Homemade seafood stock is best, and it can be made simply with shrimp or lobster shells, veggies, wine, and herbs. But store-bought is totally fine to use here.
Deglaze the pan with the stock and the tomatoes, scraping the bottom as you pour to release any flavorful stuck-on bits.
Turn the heat up to high, bring the liquid to a boil, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes. The liquid should thicken slightly and the potatoes will be almost fork-tender.
Step 6 – Cook the Seafood
Reduce the heat to a simmer and begin to add the seafood to the pot, starting with the thickest pieces of chopped white fish, the clams, and the shrimp. Cover and simmer for 2 minutes.
Uncover the pot and stir in the mussels, lobster, and remaining smaller pieces of fish. Cover the pot again and simmer until the mussels open, for about 5 minutes. Discard any clams or mussels that don’t open.
Step 7 – Adjust Seasoning and Serve
Season the broth to taste with additional salt if necessary and remove the bay leaves, orange peel, and thyme sprigs.
Pernod, a type of pastis, is an anise-flavored spirit that’s traditionally used in bouillabaisse and it can be added at this point. If you’re using it, stir in about 2 tablespoons and adjust according to taste. Ouzo or sambuca make fine substitutes as well.
Divide the bouillabaisse among bowls, garnish with a spoonful of the rouille, the reserved fennel fronds, the parsley and thyme, and the croutons, and serve.
All About that Bouillabaisse
Every brothy creation begins with a proper vessel. And while I always end up reaching for my Dutch oven, a sturdy tri-ply stock pot will also do the trick.
If you’re really after the “wow” factor at serving time, head-on prawns and whole lobster claws can add some serious elegance to the presentation. They also add to the price, of course, but an impromptu round of applause from your guests is worth every penny.
Remember, this recipe’s rouille is just a quick riff on the classic spicy sauce. The traditional homemade version includes roasted bell pepper, fresh chili pepper or ground cayenne, lemon, saffron, and bread for thickening.
Do you like the touch of added heat in a rouille, or do those garlicky croutons do the trick? Share your favorite bouillabaisse garnishes in the comments below! And don’t forget to give this recipe a five-star rating if you loved it.
When I can get my hands on some big boys, shrimp are the highlight of this dish for me. If you love putting these crustaceans at center stage at mealtime, you’ll dig these recipes:
Photos by Fanny Slater, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published by Lorna Kring on May 31, 2015. Last updated on April 12, 2022.
Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Fanny Slater
Fanny Slater is a home-taught food enthusiast based in Wilmington, North Carolina who won the “Rachael Ray Show” Great American Cookbook Competition in 2014, and published her cookbook “Orange, Lavender & Figs” in 2016. Fanny is a food and beverage writer, recipe developer, and social media influencer. She was a co-host on the Food Network series “Kitchen Sink,” was featured on Cooking Channel’s longtime popular series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and continues to appear regularly on the “Rachael Ray Show.”