Australia’s prawn farmers and fishermen work diligently to supply top quality prawns from ship to store, from water to waiter, and it’s not too hard to choose the best and keep them in top condition to enjoy at home.
Before you buy
The key to maintaining freshness is temperature — the colder the better. So bring a small esky when you buy your prawns, and ask the merchant to give you some ice to go with them — especially if you have other shopping to do and your Australian prawns are going to spend any time in the car.
Use all your senses — prawns should smell like the ocean, feel firm, look bright and lustrous (not slimy). If they are all these things, they should taste great.
Natural prawn colouring can vary from almost translucent for some types of uncooked Banana prawns through to the vivid orange of cooked farmed tigers.
Black heads and spots on the body or discolouration around the joints can indicate a prawn that isn’t in perfect condition, however, even with these, the flesh can still be unaffected, but best to be wary. (Endeavour prawns can still be fresh, even with dark heads click here for more info.) A hint of ammonia or iodine when you smell indicates the prawns are definitely past their best and should be avoided.
Soft and broken shells may not be a decisive indicator of poor eating quality as the shell may be soft because the prawn has just moulted. In this case, use the other checks we outline here.
A comprehensive guide to judging prawn quality can be found by clicking here.
The easiest way to thaw frozen prawns is to put them in an airtight container in the fridge a day before you need them. Keeping them in a sealed container prevents unnecessary cross contamination, dehydration and oxidisation. Thawing at low temperatures helps maintain quality.
If you don’t have much time, place your prawns in a waterproof plastic or zip lock bag and place them in a bowl or sink with cold water.
Once defrosted, return the prawns in a sealed container to the coldest part of the fridge until you need them. Once thawed, prawns should not be refrozen as the quality deteriorates.
Do not leave prawns out at room temperature or put them in the microwave to defrost.
Prawns may also be added to dishes without being thawed as the heat of the cooking with thaw them and any juice they give off will add to the flavour.
If you are not going to cook green prawns immediately after defrosting, it is best keep defrosted green prawns in a salted ice brine (1 part ice 2 parts salted water) for no longer than 3 days. If stored longer than this, they are in danger of developing black spot.
There is a wonderful sense of ritual that comes from peeling Australian prawns. It’s well known that the larger the family, the quicker the family members are at peeling because no-one wants to miss out.
After many years of practice, here is our advice on peeling prawns.
The Fast Way.
- Hold the prawn, body in one hand, the head in the other and twist. The head should come off cleanly.
- Holding the body, grasp as many of the legs as you can between your thumb and the base of your index finger, then peel under and away from you — this should lift off the major sections of the shell as well as the legs. Repeat (if you need to) until all that remains is the tail and one or two of the attached body shell segments.
- Pinch your fingers on the last segment at the base of the tail and that delicious prawn meat should simply pop out — ready to be eaten or cooked.
It’s optional if you want to remove the vein, or digestive tract, that runs down the back of the prawn — and all that is needed is a steady hand. Straighten out the peeled prawn and gently grasp the vein and slowly pull it out. If you find it breaks or is hard to grasp, the pointy end of a skewer is the best way to reach and remove it.
To make it easier, you can also slit along the back of the prawn with a sharp knife and lift the vein away. This deveined section after slicing is a perfect place to put some marinade before cooking.
Did you know?
Prawn farmers often stop feeding prawns before harvest so that the digestive track is empty when they are collected. It means that many farmed prawns don’t require deveining.
Fresh and frozen
Most prawns caught a sea are sorted and packed within moments of being caught. Prawns can then be cooked at sea and frozen, stored fresh in an ice/brine mix or frozen uncooked or “green” at sea.
Freezing prawns soon after catch immediately preserves the quality, freshness and flavour, enabling them to be transported and stored while keeping quality high.
Here’s a great way to save money and ensure you’ll always have prawns year round. All you have to do is make some room in your freezer. Prawns are often packed frozen into 5 kg boxes. This way, they can keep for up to 18 months with no trouble at all at freezer temperatures around -18 degrees. Purchasing a 5 kg box, rather than loose thawed prawns can save you tens of dollars per kilo. 5 kg boxes can be purchased from retailers, ordered online or found at markets. Whenever you need prawns, simply break off the prawns you need from the 5 kg box in your freezer, thaw and cook or serve. Often retailers run specials on 5 kg boxes. It might seem like a lot of prawns for one purchase, but when you have them handy all the time and save money, it makes a lot of sense.
How are prawns processed?
Most whole prawns are simply cooked in salt water and/or frozen.
A majority of prawn processing occurs immediately on the vessel or at the farm. This pure, and simple process means that prawns aren’t just a sustainable source of protein that uses very little land and precious fresh water (link to sustainability section), very little energy is used in processing is necessary from water to plate.