The Spanish are some of Europe’s most enthusiastic consumers of fish and seafood, putting away an impressive 46kg per person per year – as Barcelona-born chef Frank Camorra observes, “Judging by the number of shells on tapas bar floors, I reckon that figure is mainly made up of prawns”. Sizzling earthenware dishes of garlicky gambas are a mainstay of the tapa repertoire, served swimming in aromatic oil to be sucked from the shells with a satisfyingly slurp, then mopped up with crusts of bread – perfect summer finger food with a few cold beers, or a chilled glass of bone-dry sherry. Happily, it’s also one of the simplest tapas to make, so if you can’t make it to Spain this year, you can at least taste the place at home.
Few recipes are specific about the type of prawns required, but they need to be both raw and, in most cases, shell on, so in practice this means king prawns, because I’m yet to find a source of raw cold water prawns, despite their arguably superior flavour. Sam and Eddie Hart use larger tiger prawns in their book Modern Spanish Cooking, while José Pizarro suggests vivid red carabineros in one video – both can be substituted for king prawns in the recipe below, though you’ll need to increase the cooking time slightly.
The Harts, Floyd on Spain and Camorra’s book Movida leave the prawns whole, Pizarro removes the shells but leaves the heads and tails on, while Elisabeth Luard shells them completely in her book Tapas, as does J Kenji López-Alt on Serious Eats. I’m torn; I enjoy the process of peeling the prawns and, yes, sucking out all the lovely goo from the heads, but it can’t be denied that most of the flavour of the garlic oil ends up on discarded shells rather than the meat, so Pizarro’s approach seems the most sensible, unless you, like me, will happily lick them clean, too.
López-Alt, however, reckons that “throw out the shell and you’re missing out”, pointing out that they “pack a sweet, flavourful punch” that’s perfect for infusing the cooking oil alongside more usual ingredients. In his recipe, I peel the prawns, then fry the shells for 10 minutes with garlic and chilli, until I have a terracotta-red, aromatic oil with a nutty, distinctly prawny flavour that reminds me slightly of Sichuan chilli oil with dried shrimp. It’s an extremely good thing with a hunk of bread, and a piece of genius when combined with Barcelona-based chef account Bien de Pimienta’s trick of decanting the contents of the heads into the pan, so their rich, sweet contents don’t go to waste.
López-Alt also marinates the prawn meat briefly in salt, garlic and bicarbonate of soda, explaining that “salt acts like a brine, helping the shrimp retain their juiciness, while baking soda causes the flesh to turn a little crunchy”. Salt aside, none of my testers can tell the difference in a side-by-side comparison with an unmarinated prawn, so I decide to skip this step.
Though you don’t want to overwhelm the delicate crustaceans, this is not a time to be shy with the garlic. Most recipes simply sauté the prawns with chopped or sliced garlic, but both Pizarro and López-Alt take the time to infuse the oil with its flavour before introducing the prawns, with the latter also adding crushed garlic to the marinade, and sliced garlic to the already-flavoured oil in the final stage. I find it all too easy to over-brown the garlic when adding everything all at once, so it seems more sensible to add it in two stages, first smashed, to infuse the oil, then sliced at the end, so it cooks without crossing the line into bitterness.
Camorra brushes his prawns with a vivid, green garlic and parsley oil, which is the perfect choice if you choose to barbecue your prawns, while if you’d prefer a dish you can serve cold, consider making a simple alioli, or garlic mayonnaise, as in the Hart brothers recipe.
The other ingredients
Chilli is a common addition; Pizarro uses the fresh kind in one of his videos, but we agree that dried chilli gives the dish a deeper, richer heat. Floyd suggests cayenne pepper, López-Alt chilli flakes or a piece of guajillo chilli, and Luard small dried chillies, with Jenny Chandler adding a pinch of paprika, too. The small dried chillies look pretty and give the kind of subtle heat I think this dish demands, but cayenne makes a good substitute, while chilli flakes should be deployed with caution if authenticity is a concern – as with the garlic, it’s important still to be able to taste the prawns.
One benefit of using chilli in the final stage of the process is that it adds colour to the dish, much like the chopped parsley that’s also popular. Parsley isn’t my favourite herb, though, and I only really enjoy it whizzed up in Camorra’s ajo y pereril marinade, where the fire of the garlic tames its peppery flavour, but other testers assure me that it adds a welcome touch of freshness to the dish, and I can see that it looks nice, so I’ve included it as an optional extra.
Less aesthetically pleasing, but arguably more important is the acidic ingredient in all but the simplest recipes, from the subtle, toasty notes of a dry sherry in Floyd and Chandler to López-Alt’s more strident sherry vinegar, Bien de Pimienta’s cider vinegar and Movida’s lemon juice. Though garlic-infused oil is delicious in itself, for me this touch of acidity makes it a more interesting, well-rounded dish – and the oil even more delicious to finish off with bread. I favour sherry vinegar for its sweet, slightly nutty flavour, but use what you have.
On the subject of that oil, it’s perhaps the second most important ingredient here (Pizarro keeps adding “just a little bit more”) – in this recipe, it’s less a cooking medium than a sauce in its own right, so don’t be shy with it. After all, this is a dish to be shared with friends. In theory at least.
Traditionally, gambas al ajillo is cooked and served in the same sizzling cazuela, a shallow, earthenware dish that looks pretty and saves on washing up. However, as López-Alt points out, serving the prawns in this hot pan means they carry on cooking long after you’ve removed them from the heat, which is less than ideal with seafood. Decant them into a cazuela, by all means, but cook them in a pan (though Camorra’s barbecued versions are also very popular, if you’d like something a bit different).
Again, if you’re serving the dish cold, you might prefer to poach the prawns in heavily salted water, as the Hart brothers recommend, as an alternative to frying, which has the advantage of keeping them nice and juicy, as well as seasoning them, but for proper gambas al ajillo, you need those prawns to get up close and personal with the garlicky oil in the pan, ready for you to lick off your fingers – because, really, this is not a dish for forks. Just make sure you all wash those hands thoroughly first.
Perfect garlic prawns
Prep 5 min
Cook 15 min
Serves 4 as a tapa
8 raw shell-on king prawns
4 garlic cloves
120ml olive oil
4 small dried chillies or 1 tsp cayenne pepper or paprika, or ½ tsp chilli flakes
1 tsp sherry vinegar or lemon juice
1 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and pepper
Using a small sharp knife, shell the prawns, leaving just the very end of the tails on. Sprinkle the meat with a pinch of salt and set aside.
Squeeze the prawn heads into a small bowl.
Peel the garlic and squash two of the cloves with the flat of a large knife. Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium-low heat, then add the squashed garlic and the prawn shells and heads.
Fry, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes, until the shells are a deep pink, making sure the garlic doesn’t burn. Meanwhile, finely slice the remaining garlic.
Pass the oil through a sieve and discard the solids. Return the oil to the pan over a medium-high heat and add the chillies.
Fry for a minute or so, then add the prawns. Cook for a minute more, then add the garlic and cook, stirring, for a further minute – the prawns should be just cooked through.
Stir the vinegar into the prawn head bowl, then stir this mix into the pan, along with the parsley. Season and serve at once with plenty of bread.
• Gambas al ajillo, gambas al pil pil, garlic prawns – however you know this Spanish classic, what’s your favourite way to eat it? Heads on, heads off, spicy with chilli or bright with lemon juice – and, most importantly, fingers or forks?