More tips on how to cook shellfish properly

As part two of a series of three columns on shellfish, this one will continue to focus on crustaceans (if you missed my previous column on crab and lobster, e-mail me at and I will be more than happy to send it to you).
Crustaceans is the grouping that represent crabs, lobsters, shrimp, crayfish, etc. They are all more “creature-like” than mollusks (the other shellfish category that will be my focus in the third instalment) because of their visible legs and eyes.
They usually are thought of only living in saltwater, which is true for the most part, but there are some forms of crayfish, crabs, and shrimp that also inhabit bodies of fresh water.
Lake of the Woods by Kenora, Ont., where we vacation quite frequently, is a perfect example of this. There are many crayfish to be found and some fishermen focus solely on these for their catch of the day.
The availability of prawns and shrimp is much more common than crayfish. Rarely available live, the markets near the coast will have prawns and shrimp available fresh (never been frozen) but elsewhere, they usually are purchased either frozen or thawed from frozen.
Small shrimp also are available in cans.
Prawns and shrimp as we know them in the market actually are only the tails of these creatures. Some prawns are available with the legs and shell still attached, but rarer are some larger varieties sold in whole form–eyes and all.
When purchasing them frozen, there are many options and you will need to take into account how you plan to serve them when making your selection.
Very small shrimp–whether frozen, thawed, or canned–always are sold pre-cooked. But with larger prawns, one also has the option of purchasing them raw.
Frozen cooked prawns should be purchased for recipes that require little or no cooking of them since they already are cooked. Over-cooked prawns are very rubbery and less flavourful.
Examples of applications for cooked prawns would be for a salad, shrimp cocktail, or for adding at the end of a cooked dish. Proper thawing of your prawns is recommended to prevent bacteria growth.
Whether cooked or raw, the recommended procedure for thawing them is in the refrigerator over a period of 24 hours. This is a gradual thaw that keeps them in a safe temperature storage zone.
If you are in a hurry, then a water thaw can be acceptable as a second choice. This is done by putting the frozen prawns in a bowl in the sink. Fill the bowl with cold water and continue to run a slow stream of cold tap water into the bowl (the water level obviously will overflow so make sure that the drain is open).
Keep running the stream of cold water until the prawns are thawed, roughly 15-20 minutes depending on their size.
Raw prawns purchased fresh, frozen, or thawed obviously need to be cooked but one should never over-cook any shellfish because they become rubbery. They only should be cooked until they just turn pink for optimal flavour and texture, and be served immediately.
Raw prawns are available peeled or unpeeled, with or without tails, and de-veined or not. De-veining of larger prawns always should be done. The “vein” is the long dark intestine imbedded along the top length of the prawn.
If the prawns you have purchased are not de-veined, this can be easily performed by running a knife blade along this line until it is exposed. It then simply can be pulled or scraped out.
Prawns that still have their shell on, but already have been de-veined, frequently are called “zipperbacks.” These are perfect when you want to serve prawns as a finger food when your guests peel them as they eat . . . aptly called “peel and eats.”
Dear Chef Dez:
I heard someone referring to prawns as a 20/25. What does this mean?
Rachel T.
Airdrie, Alta.
Dear Rachel,
This is referring to their size. A 20/25 prawn is large. It means that there are roughly 20-25 prawns per pound.
Therefore, prawns considered to be 32/36 would be much smaller, as there would be an average of 32-36 per pound.
Send your food/cooking questions to or P.O. Box 2674, Abbotsford, B.C., V2T 6R4.
Chef Dez is a chef, writer, and host. Visit him at

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