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
- Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
- Yield: 4-6 servings 1x
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
Preheat the oven to 350°F and line a half-size baking sheet with parchment paper.
For the croutons, any crusty loaf of bread such as a French baguette, ciabatta, sourdough, or focaccia will do.
Slice the bread into 1-inch cubes with a serrated bread knife, and mince the garlic. The size of the croutons doesn’t need to be exact, but you want them to be bite-size and relatively uniform.
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.
While the croutons are in the oven, whisk the harissa paste and mayonnaise together in a small bowl until thoroughly combined to make a quick rouille. 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.”
18 thoughts on “French Bouillabaisse”
This sounds so good. I love seafood, and have never made bouillabaisse, so will have to save this recipe for a special occasion. Is there a way to buy fish stock, or does that have to be made from scratch? I don’t recall seeing it in the stores, although maybe there’s a way to make it from fish sauce?
Despite its appearance, it’s a very straightforward dish to make for and ideal for a special evening. You don’t have to make fish stock from scratch, there are some very nice ones available commercially. Look in the broth section of the soup aisle, the fish market or in the Asian section for fish stocks. In a pinch, use miso soup base although fish stock is better.
Diane, I ALSO had trouble finding fish stock, and I did look in the soup aisle. I ended up using chicken stock, which was delicious. However, the broth of the soup was even better when I added the liquid that the mussels were frozen in.
I live in the Midwest, where fish is not as popular as red meat, and the fish selection is both limited and expensive. However, some stores do sell small bottles of “clam juice”. I have never bought it and I have no idea if there is anything in it other than clams, but I think that I saw it next to the canned tuna.
At any rate, the soup was VERY good, and my son picked up his bowl to drink the last few drops of the soup. I will correct his manners another day: I was just glad he liked the soup!
This looks delicious although i never had it. i love seafood so I am sure this taste great too. It looks like its close to jambalaya. I decided I do not really like lobster but I like everything else. I am sure I can add craw fish instead of something like that.
If you’re a seafood lover, you’ll love bouillabaisse lachris15… and if you don’t enjoy lobster, try crayfish or omit altogether. It’s a very flexible recipe.
You may be able to find fish paste in your local Asian market or on the WEB. You can also save and freeze uncooked shrimp shells and fish trimmings (skin, heads, bones, tails, etc) in the freezer until you have enough to make a quart or two of fish broth. You may also be able to go to your local fish monger and ask him to save you some scraps. Either way takes a little effort, but it will add a great richness to you Fishermans Stew
Great tips Robert, thanks for the ideas – a homemade broth really is the best!
This looks great. We love seafood and could probably be vegetarians if not for loving seafood so much. Just can’t give it up. Since we don’t live on the coast right now, unfortunately, but we will get there, seafood can be expensive. This looks worth it though. I like that there’s saffron in it. I have never gotten to taste it but it always sounds so good, even though it is pricy as well. Now that I have a few recipes with saffron in the ingredients, I’ll have to buy us some to try.
Seafood is my favorite and I have heard of this dish before..many many years ago. It reminds me of a seafood boil or a “low country boil” ……which is what we call this dish in South Carolina. Trying to see the difference in ingredients…saffron is most definitely in this dish. We also add a couple ears of corn to the mixture. And by the way saffron is very expensive but worth the money. It gives a taste like no other to recipes.
A seafood stew is delicious no matter what it’s called sheebah! And the saffron really does add a unique flavor to seafood, despite its cost.
I really want to like bouillabaisse but I am just too fussy about seafood. I would only enjoy this if it were made from prawns, lobster and scallops, and I’m not sure it would then be a bouillabaisse any more!
Well, it’s all about satisfying our own tastes ukfoodiegirl. And your selection sounds pretty tasty, whether it would be called bouillabaisse or not!
Well I happen to live about as far away from the ocean as is humanly possible, so I cannot consider myself a fisherman by any stretch of the imagination, even though I do love to fish, but I can certainly get behind a fisherman’s stew. You do not have to live by the sea to enjoy this one, and on the whole I love seafood, and a stew like consistency is perfect for me too. It might be a little costly, especially around here, but I would say it is something that might be worth it once or twice out of the year. Thanks for sharing.
Oh, I love trivia tidbits – next time it’s on the tube, I’ll have to watch it!
I imagine French settlers on any coast would bring a variation of this… perhaps this would be the origin of gumbo? Must find out…
It certainly works for special occasions rz, like a small dinner party. For fish lovers, of course! Hope you give it a try, it sounds right up your alley.
Did anyone know that bouillabaisse was mentioned in one of the Harry Potter books? It’s in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and it is served to celebrate the arrival of the Beauxbatons students. This would be a great dish to serve at a Harry Potter themed dinner party. I’m not a seafood lover myself, but I can appreciate the cultural significance of this dish. I can imagine that this was probably a popular dish (or at least a variation on it) in Creole New Orleans.
Oh, I love trivia tidbits, next time it’s on the tube, I’ll have to watch it!
I imagine French settlers on any coast would bring a variation of this – perhaps this was the origin of gumbo? Must find out…
Maybe before the French settlers left for Louisiana, they ordered this stew while sitting on the banks of Lago di Garda in northern Italy like my wife and I did a few years ago. I can never forget it. Your recipe looks very similar and I can’t wait to give it a try.