Monday, 14 September 2009

Which Prawn? - A Simple Guide

Buying prawns can be very confusing as many sizes and varieties are available. Firstly one has to get their head around the difference between warm and coldwater prawns with the warm ones then being split into saltwater and freshwater. Then of course there are cooked, raw, peeled, whole, headless block……….

So let me tell you what I know about the prawns and shrimps that are most readily available.

North Atlantic Pink Shrimps

These are the favourite of the ‘pint of prawns’ or the classic prawn cocktail. Caught mainly in the high North Atlantic (Greenland, Norway, Faros, Latvia) they are cooked, processed and frozen on board and these will always be sold frozen or defrosted in the UK. The shell on variety are some of the tastiest prawns you will ever lay your hands on; juicy, firm and sweet.

On the other hand the peeled varieties are pretty dam tasteless hence best being covered in a Marie Rose sauce and served with iceberg lettuce. Always buy the shell on variety.

North Atlantic Brown Shrimps

The majority of the UK’s are caught inshore from Norfolk, Lancashire or off the Welsh coast. Some of the most famous British products use these including Baxters and Morecambe Bay potted shrimps. They are all cooked before sale and can be bought in 2kg bags or pints of shell on, generally frozen or defrosted, or as peeled with clarified butter. The alternative is to buy small packets of peeled Dutch or Belgium peeled brown shrimps known as crevette grise, but although they are tasty they are packed in a modified atmosphere and do contain a number of preservatives.

North Atlantic Fresh Shrimps

Occasionally you will be lucky enough to stumble across raw fresh hand net caught shrimps from areas around Poole bay in Dorset and the south west. So unusual that we will not dwell, but if you see them buy them. Avoid orange ones as they died in the nets and the fresh ones may still be twitching of flipping – a real treat in flavour.

North Atlantic Prawn - Langoustine

These are the cream of the crop when it comes to prawns. Caught in the high cold waters of the North Atlantic they are sought after by the French, Italian and Spanish. The two catch methods, Creels (pots) and bottom trawled offer two totally different products that hold substantially different price tags. Langoustines can be bought frozen whole and in tail form but neither products represent the true quality of the product. They can also be bought fresh and these are known as dipped due to the addition of preservative called sodium metabisulfite to prolong the product life. This is usual for all imported fresh prawns as they undertake a quick degradable process; it is a legal carried out practice across the world and perfectly safe. The ultimate Langoustine is a live product that offers the utmost taste and texture. These are expensive but really do give the finest taste of any prawn.

Warm Saltwater Prawns – Raw

The most commonly seen prawn on a fishmongers slab is the raw black or white tiger prawn. The black are usually larger and generally wild. Many will know them as Madagascan prawns, a term used by a lot of outlets, but this is a bit misleading. The majority do, however, come from African waters further North. There are a few wild white tiger prawns available, also African, but more often than not you will find farmed products; usually from Brazil, Ecuador or other south American countries and some Asian countries. There are some certified organic prawns from Ecuador but I have never been able to find anyone to supply this product. These prawns can be fairly expensive so look for the following. The heads need to be attached and not hanging from the body. Avoid prawns with very orange heads. Also look for a nice firm springy tail. All of these prawns have been frozen irrespective of what the man behind the counter may say. They are a warm water, highly degradable product that travels from another continent - they have to be frozen. However, if you follow the tips above with what to look for you will be buying a high quality tasty product. Just to note the large black wild tigers can be bought in frozen 1kg boxes which reduces cost.

Both types of prawn are very good options for head turning starters, impressive main courses, tempura or on barbeque. They are an expensive item to have peeled as an addition to a curry as other cheaper options are available. The very large black tigers, known in the trade as U10s (a size grade) make an excellent alternative to lobster meat in pasta or risotto dishes.

Warm Saltwater Prawns – Frozen

The quality of these products varies immensely and are tarnished with much bad press regarding farming methods and local habitat destruction (mangrove) issues. Salination and chemical pollution of drinking water and agricultural land also frequently result from prawn farming. An interesting, but a little out of date article on farming prawns in Vietnam et al. can be read here Is it OK to eat tiger prawns? It is well worth a browse but as with all ‘fish stock’ related newspaper articles try to filter the scaremongering ‘shock’ factor.

These prawns offer good value. The peeled and de-veined variety is a must for curries and bbq skewers when a heavy marinade of chilli and garlic is used. They offer little in taste and sometimes can be a little earthy. The texture is ideal for the aforementioned cooking methods but maybe avoid in few strong flavours are used in the dish. The other main variety of frozen prawns is smaller black tigers frozen whole in blocks of about a kilo. Not really sure what these really offer apart from being cheap. Have tried a few times and can come across a little powdery in texture

Warm Freshwater Prawns – Frozen

These are one of the most commonly used type of prawns in a restaurant. Bought in frozen water blocks, usually headless, and generally defrosted under running water. Personally i have not sold or eaten these so have little opinion on the product.


  1. Thanks for taking the time to post. Interesting article.

  2. I had always wondered what the key differences are. Very well written and informative article. To get a Perfect 10/10 from me you'd have to review the Warm Freshwater Prawns though.