The humble prawn is a much-loved crustacean, eaten the world over. From Seafood gumbo to Prawn cocktail, prawns form an integral part of many iconic dishes. Confusion often rises around the differences between prawns and shrimp, and usually this is just down to where in the world you come from and what you call them (though there are some differences on a more technical level). In the UK, generally speaking, the ‘shrimps’ we refer to are from the North Atlantic region and tend to refer to small, salty brown shrimp, found in potted shrimp. The ‘prawns’ we think of refer to the slightly pinker specimens found in prawn Cocktail, or larger members of the family such as King or Tiger prawns.
Prawns can be purchased in a range of states - raw or cooked, shelled or whole, fresh or frozen. Although they all have their merits, by far the most flavourful option is fresh, raw prawns with the head left on, as the juices from the head give many prawn dishes a good punchy flavour. Buy as fresh as possible, as the flavour of the prawn deteriorates rapidly. For this reason, prawns from far away shores, such as King and Tiger prawns, are either cooked as soon as they are caught, or frozen before being shipped to the UK. If you want super-fresh raw prawns, you will have to settle for the slightly smaller (though just as delicious) Northern prawn, which luckily are one of the most sustainable shellfish you can get in this part of the world.
To check the freshness of a prawn, look at their tails to make sure that they are still firm and taut. Store prawns in an airtight container in the fridge or in the freezer for up to 3 months.
Prawn sustainability varies greatly, depending on the type of prawn and where they were caught or farmed. It’s always good to check with the MSC’s Good Fish Guide to take note of the most sustainable choices before buying.
Prawns are a versatile ingredient that can be cooked using a range of methods - poaching, grilling, pan-frying or as a tempura are all common techniques. Before cooking, many people prefer to remove the intestinal tract running down the back of the prawn, known as ‘de-veining’, but if you’re serving the prawns in their shells this isn’t possible. For dishes like tempura, the prawns will need to be shelled and de-veined prior to cooking.
All of these methods take no more than 5 minutes to cook, as prawns cook very quickly, so try not to overcook them, or they will become tough and rubbery.