People seem to gravitate towards prawns at this time of year – something about them just screams summer – so today's back to basics guide takes a look at this gorgeous shellfish in all its glory.

As part of our Back to Basics series, we’re looking at some common ingredients to help make sure our readers are making the most of the great produce that we have access to here in Ireland. Previously we looked at scallops, housekeeper’s cut of beef and chicken thighs; today we're looking at prawns.

What are prawns?

Prawns are decapod crustaceans, which means they have 10 legs and a firm exoskeleton. There are many different types of prawns, such as king prawns and tiger prawns, but the most common type available in Ireland is the Dublin Bay prawn, which is technically a langoustine and not a prawn at all. 

The terms prawn and shrimp are used interchangeably, as there is no true scientific definition for either, but shrimp generally refers to a smaller, sweeter crustacean. 

Prawns have a narrow body, curled tail and long antennae along with a brittle shell. Before cooking, the shell and flesh usually have a blue or grey hue before turning a pink colour with white flesh when cooked. 

Purchasing and storing prawns

As with all seafood, it's important to go to a fishmonger where possible. They will be able to advise you on which type of prawn to buy, offer you cooking tips and much more.

There are a few things you should always look out for when buying prawns. Fresh prawns will not have a fishy smell – if they do, they're old – but should smell fresh and like the sea. They should also look moist, but not wet. It's best to avoid any prawns that look dry or have cracked shells.

Fresh prawns, whether raw or cooked, should smell fresh and clean, not fishy, and should look moist. Avoid any that look dry or that have broken or cracked shells. If you are buying shell-on prawns, make sure to double the amount required by your recipe.

Prawns can go off quite quickly so it's best to buy them on the day you plan to use them. Keep them in the fridge in a sealed container or their original packaging until you're about to use them.

Preparing prawns

Shell-on prawns require quite a bit of preparation before they can be eaten, but once it's very easy once you get the hang of it. Shells can be removed before after cooking, but if you can, we recommend leaving them on through cooking for an extra boost of flavour. 

The prawns then need to be peeled, so start off by holding the body in one hand and twisting off the head with your other hand, reserving the head for stock. To peel the body, flip the prawn over so that you are looking directly at its belly, then prise open the shell to remove the prawn. The very tip of the tail can be left on or removed depending on your personal preference. Always keep any shell and the prawn head to use in a flavourful shellfish stock or bisque. 

When the prawn has been removed from the shell, check for the intestinal tract, which will look like a black line running down the back of the prawn. It's not strictly inedible, but it's very gritty and detracts from the prawn's overall appearance. Most people also find it quite off-putting, so we think it's best to remove the tract, which is called deveining. To devein a prawn, use a small, sharp knife to make a shallow cut along the black line then remove the tract with the knife.

Recipe inspiration

Prawns from Las Tapas De Lola

Prawns from Las Tapas De Lola

How do you like to eat prawns? Let us know in the comments below.