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What Is Bouillabaisse?
Bouillabaisse is a classic Provençal dish of fish cooked in boiling water and plenty of olive oil until a velvety, emulsified broth forms. The cooked fish is served separately from the broth, which is strained over toasted bread. Unlike a long-simmering seafood stew, bouillabaisse is cooked by rapid boiling, which forces the olive oil into tiny droplets that are suspended in water to create a creamy texture further enhanced by the gelatin from the fish bones.
Bouillabaisse is traditionally made with whatever fish is available fresh from the Mediterranean—it’s one of those regional dishes, like paella, whose ingredients are endlessly debated.
Where Did Bouillabaisse Originate?
Fish stews have been eaten in the Mediterranean for thousands of years, but bouillabaisse is particularly associated with the fishermen of Marseille in Provence, southern France. Thought to have originated as a way to use up the bony, difficult-to-fillet rockfish abundant in the Mediterranean Sea, the first recorded recipe to use the name bouillabaisse appeared in 1830 under the name “Bouillabaisse à la Marseillaise” in Le Cuisinier Durand. It called for sea bass and spiny lobster, pricey ingredients that probably wouldn’t be used in a casual fisherman’s stew, showing that bouillabaisse had already evolved beyond its humble origins as early as the mid-19th century. The name bouillabaisse, aside from being fun to say (it’s “boo-yuh-beis”), implies the ideas of boiling and broth (Occitan bolhir and French bouillon) and lowering, reducing, or simmering (Occitan abaissar, French abaissé).
10 Key Bouillabaisse Ingredients
- Fish form the backbone of bouillabaisse, which is ideally made with at least five different kinds of fresh fish including both firm, gelatinous varieties and softer, flakier varieties. Larger fish that hold their shape are taken out of the broth to enjoy separately, while tiny fish disintegrate into the broth. Traditional bouillabaisse includes Mediterranean fish such as red scorpionfish (a type of rockfish), anglerfish, weever, John Dory, gurnard, sea hen, whiting, mullet, eel, wrasse, bream. Some good substitutes for Mediterranean fish include monkfish, turbot, red snapper, striped bass, porgy, grouper, and cod. Traditionally the boiling fish form their own light broth, but some recipes suggest using fish stock or clam juice in place of water for extra oomph.
- Crustaceans can add color and flavor to the fish broth. Traditionally, small crabs, slipper lobster, and crayfish are used, but you can add shrimp shells or lobster, too.
- Olive oil is suspended in water to create a creamy texture without dairy.
- Onion makes a flavorful base for the broth. Some recipes use leeks instead, or a combination of onions and leeks.
- Garlic cloves are essential to Provinçal cooking—don’t skimp!
- Tomato is peeled, cored, and seeded so that it can dissolve into the broth. Some recipes also include tomato paste.
- Saffron gives bouillabaisse its distinctive orange color. It’s pricey, but a little goes a long way.
- Fennel fronds are the leafy green parts of the fennel plant. They look like sprigs of dill, but smell like anise. Some recipes also add the chopped fennel bulb.
- Parsley is added at the end of cooking as garnish.
- Optional: White wine is sometimes used to deglaze the pan after sautéing the aromatic vegetables. Cayenne pepper, orange zest, fresh thyme, and Pernod are all common seasonings added at the beginning of cooking.
Classic, Easy Bouillabaisse Recipe
Prep Time30 min
Total Time50 min
- 5 lb assorted fresh fish, divided into firm- and soft-fleshed varieties
- 2 crayfish
- 1 baguette, sliced ½-inch thick
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
- 4 medium tomatoes, peeled, cored, seeded, and roughly chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 sprigs fennel fronds
- 1 dried bay leaf
- ¼ teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
- 1½ tablespoons coarse sea salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
- 2–4 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- Prep fish: Scale, gut, and wash fish, discarding gills. Keep the heads and other trimmings—they will flavor and thicken the broth. Very small fish can go into the bouillabaisse whole, while larger fish should be cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces, keeping the bones intact. Cut crayfish in half lengthwise.
- Preheat oven to 250°F. Lay bread slices in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast until crisp and dried-out but not brown, about 30 minutes.
- In a large Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions, tomatoes, garlic, fennel fronds, bay leaf, saffron, salt, and pepper and sauté until softened but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add firm fish and crayfish and stir to combine. Add enough boiling water to cover fish and vegetables, increase heat to high, and bring to a very strong boil.
- Boil for 5 minutes, then add the soft fish. Continue to boil until the fish is cooked through and the broth is creamy, about 7 to 10 minutes longer.
- Use a slotted spoon to remove fish slices and arrange on a platter. Arrange bread in a deep vegetable dish and pour broth through a fine mesh sieve onto the bread. Moisten the fish with a ladleful of strained broth and sprinkle everything with parsley.
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