One of the most broadly appealing ways to prepare any white fish is by breading it and either frying or baking it. The crumbs provide a beautifully golden exterior and a pleasant textural contrast, also adding flavor to the sometimes-bland fillets. Baking the fish can cut down on the amount of fat in the finished dish, but with thin fillets such as tilapia there's also a risk of overcooking the fish. You can minimize this by toasting the crumbs ahead of time.
Boneless fillets are usually baked relatively hot, at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. For most kinds of fish that gives a cooking time of approximately 10 minutes per inch of thickness. With tilapia, that can be problematic because the fillets are relatively thin and baking time can be unmanageably short. Tilapia is also very lean, and its naturally low fat content means the fillets dry out badly if they're overcooked. Breading the tilapia provides a protective coating that minimizes drying, but the breading itself introduces new problems.
In the classic breading process, you'd dredge the fillets first in flour and shake off any excess. Next you dip the tilapia in milk, which soaks into the flour and makes a sticky paste, and finally press the fillets into the breadcrumbs. When the crumbs are baked or fried, they'll toast to a golden brown, adding a pleasant complement to the delicate flavor of the fish. Unfortunately, it takes several minutes for the crumbs to toast in the oven, especially if you want to avoid spraying them with oil to encourage browning. That means the tilapia can be overcooked before the breading toasts.
The obvious solution is to toast your crumbs ahead of time. Measure the quantity of regular breadcrumbs, whole wheat breadcrumbs, panko-style crumbs or cracker crumbs called for in your recipe, and pour them into a heavy skillet. Heat the skillet on a medium burner, shaking it periodically to mix the crumbs and prevent those on bottom from scorching. When the crumbs are toasted to a uniformly golden brown, pour them onto a wax-paper-lined sheet pan to cool. For a richer flavor and deeper golden color, mist the crumbs lightly with oil or melted butter as they toast.
Cooking Your Tilapia
Bread the fillets using the classic technique, but substitute your cooled, toasted crumbs for plain crumbs. Place them on a parchment-lined sheet pan, and slide the pan into an oven preheated to 350 F. Ordinarily you'd need a higher temperature to toast the breadcrumbs, but in this case, it's unnecessary. Turn the fillets after eight minutes, and continue baking them for another five to seven minutes depending on their thickness. If you cut into one with a fork, the thickest portion should be white all the way through but just slightly opaque at the very center.