Have you ever wondered why, in cooking sinigang na sugpo, the prawns are cooked whole without removing the heads and shells? The answer can be summarized in one word. Flavor. If the heads and shells were removed and discarded, the broth won’t have that rich shrimpy flavor that makes the soup so good.
But why do some soups with shelled shrimps have the same rich flavors? Chances are, the broth was made by simmering shrimp heads and shells. Those are the parts of the shrimp where most of the flavor is found.
The same thing is true with fish. The flesh might be wonderfully luscious but when talking soup or stews, you need the bones for flavor. And that means throwing in fish heads and bones into the pot and simmering them for hours to draw out the flavors and transport them into the liquid.
So, the next time you want to make a shrimp or prawn-based soup or stew, resist the urge to buy shelled shrimps or prawns. I know they’re more convenient. But as good as they are for adding to pasta, making stir fries or dishes like tempura and camaron rebosado, shelled shrimps and prawns just won’t make a tasty soup or stew.
But what about combining shelled shrimps or prawns with bouillon cubes? I used to. There was a time in my life when the mere thought of handling raw shrimps or prawns was too awful to even ponder. Then, I tried making broth with shrimp heads and shells and learned how vastly inferior (and artificial) the taste of broth made with bouillon cubes is. You don’t have to take my word for it. Try making shrimp / prawn broth from scratch, compare and draw your own conclusions.
Is it hard making shrimp / prawn broth? Oh, no! It’s just simmering, pressing and straining. And you can make a huge batch, pour the broth into several containers and freeze what you won’t be using immediately. Here’s how.
Let’s start with fresh shrimps or prawns that you just bought from the market.
Start by pulling off the heads. There’s nothing to it. Hold the body with one hand and the head with the other hand. Pull apart and the head will come off (with a little resistance if the shrimp or prawn is truly fresh).
Next, pry off the shells. If you’re using the shrimps for a stir fry or whatever dish that does not require broth or sauce, go on and devein the shrimps and cook them.
Now that you have a bunch of shrimp or prawn heads and shells, you can make broth.
Place the shrimp heads and shells in a pot and cover with water. Bring to the boil. Use a slotted spoon to skim off any scum that rises to the surface. Cover the pot and simmer.
How long you simmer depends on how concentrated you want your broth. You may simmer the shrimp / prawn heads and shells until the liquid is reduced to half or even a quarter. The flavors of resulting liquid will be so concentrated that you can make gravy or sauce with it. There’s the added advantage that you’ll need small containers to store it so you won’t be taking up a lot of freezer space.
But, if you want a “regular” broth, rich in flavor but not overwhelmingly so, that you can immediately use, or thaw and use as is, simmering for 30 minutes should be sufficient.
After simmering, strain the broth. Place a strainer over a bowl and pour the contents of the pot right into the strainer.
The shrimp / prawn heads and shells will be soft after half an hour of simmering. Use a fork to mash the heads and shells to press all the flavors out of them and into the broth in the bowl. At this point, the shrimp / prawn heads and shells can be discarded.
The broth may be used immediately or cooled and stored in the freezer for a couple of weeks.
You may be wondering why the shrimp / prawn heads and shells were mashed after boiling and not before. Some cooked pound raw shrimp / prawn heads and shells with a mortar and pestle.
Okay, if you’re extracting shrimp juice, you pound them raw. With a mortar and pestle, in the food processor, in the juicer… When you pound raw shrimp / prawn heads and shells, you get a few tablespoonfuls of shrimp juice. Once you’ve extracted the juice, you throw away the heads and shells. That juice is highly concentrated and if you add it to the sauce of a stir fried dish, for instance, you’ll get a terrifically rich dish.
But, for making soup or stew, you don’t need that high concentration of shrimp / prawn flavor. Plus, you won’t won’t get enough liquid by pounding raw shrimp / prawn heads and shells. Long and slow cooking is the way to go to strip the flavors off the heads and shells, and come up with a sufficient amount of liquid with which to make a soup or stew.