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Shrimp 101: 3 tips to get Perfect Prawns, everytime

Prawns or Shrimps (the difference is more linguistic than taxonomic, the British calls them Prawns while the Americans prefer Shrimp; I use the terms interchangeably) are perhaps my favorite aquatic things to cook with. 

Packed with high-quality proteins, minerals and bit of good fat, their mellow taste and bouncy texture make them a one-of-a-kind guilt free indulgence. They cook super fast and hardly require any prep work, making them the perfect comfort food when you’re in a hurry.

A kitchen all-rounder, their likable yet subtly sweet flavor beautifully adapts to nearly everything – from a citrusy Ceviche to rich Butter Pepper Garlic and fiery Indian coastal curries. In my opinion, the affordable small to medium sized ones pack more flavor than the showy Tiger prawns.

However, all this simplicity comes with a price - Prawns are deceivingly difficult to get just right. By just right, I mean – plump, juicy and bursting with a taste of the waters they came from. To master cooking these little beasts, we must understand them. These Crustaceans are essentially Protein + Water; up to 83% of their of body weight is just water. This is why they shrink so noticeably while cooking – you are essentially squeezing out that water by applying heat. The rest is mostly protein (13 %), Omega 3 rich fat (1-2%), Carbohydrates (<1%) and Minerals (1-2%). Most of the protein or flesh is the muscular tail of the shrimp, which helps it escape predators (the irony!). The minerals are holed up in the exoskeletal structure (shells).

Now that we know what we’re dealing with, here are the 3 tips that’ll change the way you cook prawns, forever:

1.      Brine: Brining meat is a tried and tested technique to prevent meat from drying out. It works when an ionic salt solution penetrates the meat through osmosis. The salt ions end up denaturing the protein tissues, unwinding them to absorb more water. The salt also seasons the meat evenly. By all means, dunk those prawns into a brine for at least a few hours and up to overnight. How much salt you need to add depends on your taste buds and how long you’d be brining the shrimps for. I suggest starting with a tablespoon per 200 grams of prawns. You immediately notice the plumper body and firmer flesh when you fish them out of the brine.

2.      Make most of the shells: The shells are where the real flavor lies, apart from being a mineral warehouse. Don’t be naive by discarding them at the fishmonger. Many like cooking with the shells on, but I find it too taxing to pry out the shells between gobbling down a mouthful, especially with small/medium sized prawns. Here’s how to get that prawny flavor with the convenience of shelled shrimp – ask the fishmonger to shell your crustaceans and pack them separately. It's a good idea to devein them now. The black thread-like vein is the prawn's digestive track and makes for an unappealing presentation, slight grit, and awkward imagination. 

a.      If you’re grilling or stir frying, do this - Sauté the washed shells in unsalted butter (because you brined like a pro) or olive oil for 10 minutes and strain. The fat readily absorbs flavor and can be used to baste your grilled shellfish or stir fry. You can also use this technique while deep frying prawns like in a Prawns Tempura or a Prawns Koliwada.

b.      If you’re making a curry or soup, do this– Sauté the washed shells with a little butter for 10 minutes then add enough water to cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain the for a flavor-packed stock to go as your curry/soup base. You can also use the stock for making the most flavor-packed Prawns Biryani or Shrimp Scampi. Using a pressure gets the job done even quicker.

c. You could get creative in the sautéing stage and add herbs or aromatics for even more flavor. I usually add minced garlic, which seems to complements nearly everything crustacean.

3.      Know when they’re done – Prawns are cooked the moment their flesh turn opaque and they just begin to curl. Once they curl up into a 'C' – they’re overcooked. As you're getting maximum flavor using the prawny fat or stock anyway and your prawns are pre-seasoned with brine, heating them any further will only make them chewy without adding an extra flavor.  Stop cooking them the moment they start curling; they will continue to cook with the residual heat on their journey into your mouth!

Here's a heart-warming and ridiculously simple recipe for the Prawns Chowder I made recently:

1. Heat up the prawn stock and whisk in some flour. Stir continuously to prevent lumps. The more flour you add, the thicker your chowder will be.

2. Brown some minced garlic with unsalted butter on the side; add it to the stock.

3. Stir in some dried chives, fish sauce and egg whites. Finally, add your brined prawns and cook for one to two minutes. Serve immediately

Happy cooking!       

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