Puerto Rican red snapper with garlic sauce—or chillo al ajillo (CHEE-yo ahl ah-HEE-yo)—is traditionally served as a pan-fried whole fish with the garlic sauce either poured over the top or served on the side for dipping. The finished dish is a textural combo of crisp skin and tender, juicy meat. Dipping it in the al ajillo sauce coats it all in a robe of tart, garlicky goodness.
Regardless of which language you use to say it, this dinner dish is rich with flavor. And don’t get me wrong, salmon is great, but don’t be afraid to try something outside of your regular fish dish.
Traditional for Lent, but Delicious Any Time of Year
While many people of Puerto Rican descent eat chillo al ajillo on Fridays during the Lenten season (and most holidays where a fast from meat is appropriate), my husband’s grandfather began a Three Kings Day (Epiphany) ritual of eating chillo.
Most years, everyone in the family treks to a beachside restaurant in the town of Salinas, Puerto Rico, called Ladí’s Place. Abuelo Toño would treat the entire family to chillo al ajillo. After his death, the tradition still continues, only now everyone pays their own way (booo!).
There really isn’t a set time of the year or day to eat chillo, though. The diaspora of Puerto Ricans are serving and enjoying it throughout the year in their new homelands, and so should you.
How This Recipe Differs From the Traditional Version
Typically, chillo is served in restaurants whole, on the bone, with fins and everything. I had the crazy notion to stay as authentic to the traditional preparation in this recipe. That is, until I was reminded of how much work it is to find snapper that’s small enough to pan-fry in my city.
Besides the difficulty I had with locating an appropriately sized snapper, the pain in the neck it was to prep and eat the whole snapper made me abandon the whole plan. I remembered why I prefer to eat it at restaurants and not at home. I would never subject you to that.
Leave the work of prepping the whole fish to restaurant cooks, and use red snapper fillets when you make it at home. I promise you, it’ll taste much better without the cursing and eye-rolling that preparing a whole fish is likely to involve.
What Is Red Snapper?
Red snapper (also called American or Northern red snapper) is the only one of its kind in the snapper family, as it’s the only true red snapper. Red snapper is a round, bottom-feeding saltwater fish.
You can find snapper sold whole or as skin-on fillets (the skin is left on, so you know it's red snapper you’re paying for). A whole red snapper can weigh up to 35 pounds, but for this recipe, look for fillets that are half pound to one pound. Red snapper’s flesh is lean and pink, which turns white as it cooks.
This fish is also low in calories and fat, but high in vitamins (like D, which I seem to need more and more of these days).
What Does Red Snapper Taste Like?
Red snapper tastes mild and sweet, which is great because it assumes the flavors of any marinade or sauce in which it’s cooked. It’s a versatile fish in that it can be prepared using almost any cooking method out there.
Suggestions and Substitutions
Any saltwater round fish may be used in place of red snapper, but to stay true to the “Puerto Rican-ness” of this dish, I recommend:
- Dorado (mahi-mahi)
- Sea bass
All of these fish are common to Puerto Rico and frequently used in preparations like this one.
Tips for Buying and Cooking Red Snapper
The most important tip I can give about cooking red snapper begins at the seafood counter. Knowing how to buy your fish is just as important (if not more so) than knowing how to cook your fish.
When shopping for your fish look for:
- Clear, full eyes (if buying whole fish).
- Flesh that is firm and springs back when pressed with your finger. It shouldn’t be mushy.
- A smell of the sea, not fishy or like ammonia.
- Moist and shiny appearance, without dark blemishes or bruises.
When cooking fish, it’s important not to overcook the meat. A surefire indication that your chillo is finished cooking is when the flesh goes from a pink, translucent color to flaky and opaque white in appearance.
- For the fillets, dredge them in a light flour coating to seal in the garlic-lime marinade. This coating also helps to protect the flesh from overcooking in the hot oil.
- The frying oil should be 365°F before adding the red snapper to the pan. The fillets cook quickly, and you want the oil to have time to brown and crisp up the skin, without overcooking the flesh.
Ways to Adapt This Recipe
If you don’t want to fry your fish, go ahead and grill or broil it in the oven instead of frying it! Skip the breading, and instead lay your fish on an oiled grill or sheet pan. Grill or broil it for three minutes on each side, or until the flesh turns white and opaque.
What to Serve With Red Snapper?
Fish Is Best Served Made to Order
Because fish is easily overcooked, it’s best to pan-fry the red snapper and serve it right away. I also recommend marinating only for the time called for, as the acid in the lime juice will begin to “cook” the flesh as it marinates. The al ajillo (garlic sauce), however, may be prepared a day in advance and either warmed or served chilled.
More Favorite Puerto Rican Recipes
- Salmorejo (Stewed Crab and Tomatoes with Rice)
- Pastelón (Plantain "Lasagna")
- Arroz con Tocino (Rice with Salt Pork)
- Asopao de Camarones y Gandules (Rice Stew with Shrimp and Pigeon Peas)
- Air Fryer Tostones
Chillo al Ajillo (Pan Fried Red Snapper in Garlic Sauce)
- For the marinade:
- 4 garlic cloves, crushed
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
- 4 red snapper fillets, skin on
- juice of 1 lime
- For the al ajillo or garlic sauce:
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 4 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 2 teaspoons lime juice, freshly squeezed from about half a lime
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- pinch of ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro, optional
- To fry the fish:
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, sifted, for dredging
- 2 cups vegetable oil, for frying
Score and marinate the red snapper
Score the skin of the red snapper with 1/4-inch diagonal cuts.
Using a mortar and pestle or a food processor, mash or pulse the garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, and olive oil until they form a paste.
Squeeze the lime juice onto both sides of each red snapper fillet. You don’t want to douse them with the lime juice; you’ll only need a thin layer of it. Divide the garlic paste equally among the fillets, then spread it onto both sides of each fillet.
Allow the fish to marinate for 20 minutes in the refrigerator while you make the al ajillo (garlic sauce).
Prepare the al ajillo sauce
In a small saucepan, heat the olive oil, butter, and garlic together over medium heat. When the mixture begins to simmer, add the vinegar and lime juice to the pot. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer the sauce for 5 minutes.
Add the salt and pepper to the sauce and remove it from the stove. Allow it to cool for 10 minutes. Stir in the cilantro before transferring the sauce to a serving bowl. The sauce will separate as it sits, so be sure to stir it before serving.
If you plan to make this in advance, cover the bowl and store it in the refrigerator. The al ajillo sauce will keep for 2 days and may be served cold or warm.
Preheat your frying oil
In a 14-inch, tall-sided skillet or pan, heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat.
While you’re waiting for the oil to heat, dredge the fish fillets in the flour. Shake off any excess flour so all that remains is a light dusting.
Fry the fish fillets
Once the oil begins to ripple in the pan, or when it reaches 365°F, gently slide two snapper fillets into the hot oil, skin side down.
Fry the fillets for 3 minutes before carefully flipping to the other side. At this point the fish is delicate, so when flipping, take care not to break the fillets apart. Fry for an additional 4 minutes, or until the flesh takes on an opaque white color. Repeat the cooking process with the remaining fillets.
Once the fillets have been fried, transfer them to a platter lined with paper towels to absorb any excess oil. Store the fried fish in a warm oven (set to 170°F) while you fry the remaining pieces.
Serve your snapper while hot with the garlic sauce on the side or spooned on top of the fish. Leftovers may be stored in the refrigerator for 2 days and reheated in a 300°F oven, or microwaved until warmed through.