Do you use dried shrimp in your own kitchen? If not, then you really should think about adding this very versatile foodstuff to your pantry. Like mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, or Conpoy, the drying process highly concentrates the flavors of shrimp and produces a tremendous umami-punch that makes them very useful indeed. If you would like to learn how to prepare and use dried shrimp in recipes, along with tips for buying and storing them, then read on…
A Brief Introduction to Dried Shrimp
Dried shrimp come in a whole range of sizes; from tiny, papery little things to some that are quite large and fleshy. They are traditionally made by salting the freshly caught shrimp and then drying them in the sun, but, nowadays, commercial dryers are used as well.
Both the saltiness and the dryness of commercially prepared products can vary considerably, but, as a general rule, the larger ones tend to be a bit softer and moister than the smaller. These variations are not only considerations when it comes to actually using them, but also in terms of purchase and storage.
In Chinese, there is a distinction made between the larger variety, which are known as蝦米 (pinyin: xiāmǐ), and the tiny varieties, known as 蝦皮 (or ‘xiāpí’ in Mandarin).
The Chinese name for the larger ones means ‘shrimp rice’, reflecting their somewhat grain-like appearance, whilst name for the smaller ones means ‘shrimp skin’.
The latter name, ‘shrimp-skin’, is actually rather accurate in that, after drying, there is very little left of the original freshly caught shrimp other than the shell and appendages. Surprisingly, however, these tiny little papery ones are every bit as flavorful as the larger types.
How to Buy and Store Dried Shrimp
Dried shrimp are widely used all across China and south-east Asia, and they are also used in the cuisines of India, Africa, and Latin America, and even in the Cajun cooking of Louisiana, where they are sometimes added to gumbos, and the like. Accordingly, there are many brands and varieties to choose from, both in stores and online. Most varieties come packaged in plastic, as in the above picture, but if you are fortunate enough to live close to an Asian market or Chinese grocery, you can sometimes find them on sale in bulk quantities and displayed loose in open containers.
The range of colors you should look for vary from a light tan to a pretty orange-pink. If the contents of a package are excessively dry and brittle, or if the colors have become gray, or a dark brown, then it is best to pass on them and look for your dried shrimp elsewhere.
The length of time you can store dried shrimp will depend primarily on their residual water content. The smaller, drier sort will tend to last a little longer, but as they get very dry and change color the flavor will eventually fade. The larger, softer ones, in contrast, have more moisture and have more of a tendency to ‘go off’ if kept improperly, or for too long. This will usually be apparent by an ammonia smell and, once they reach this stage they must be discarded.
Since drying foodstuffs has long been a way to preserve them, you can, in theory at least, store your dried shrimp in any cool dark place. In practice, however, it is better to keep both the small dry shrimp, as well as the larger, moister ones in an air-tight container in the fridge. These can easily last for months, but check frequently and discard if the flavor has been lost or becomes questionable in any way.
How to Soak Dried Shrimp for Use
Generally, dried shrimp are reconstituted by soaking in water before they are used. This, however, is not always necessary: Some people, for instance, like eating them as a simple snack… much like, say, peanuts with a cold beer… and, in that case, they can be popped into one’s mouth without any preparation required. Likewise, in recipes involving boiling, poaching, or steaming, such as in soups, stews, or even boiled rice, then dried shrimp can be added at the beginning of the cooking process without any soaking being needed.
Soaking dried shrimp requires nothing more than covering your shrimp with water and letting it sit until softened to the desired degree. The water, despite what you may read in some recipes, can be either cold, warm, or boiling, with the latter being preferable if you need to speed up the softening process as much as possible.
The actual length of time required to reconstitute by soaking will depend on the size of the shrimp, and how dry they are to begin with. With some of the smaller varieties, a soaking of no more than ten or fifteen minutes will suffice, but, with larger ones, a few hours may be needed. In many cases, if you are doing a lot preparation work ahead of time, you can simply put the soaking shrimp in a covered container in the fridge and let them sit overnight.
However long you soak your shrimp, do not discard the soaking water! If you throw this away, you will also be throwing away a lot of precious flavor. In almost all cases, the soaking liquid can be incorporated into the very same dish for which the shrimp are needed, but, even if not, you can add the flavor rich liquid to your stock-pot, or put it into the freezer for later use in soups, or the like.
There is one other preparation issue which needs minding… Some dried shrimp can have some, or even all of the shell remaining, especially with the larger varieties, and in the above picture you can actually see the odd leg, and a few largish shell fragments apparent in this batch of partially chopped, soaked shrimp.
The larger bits of shell and appendages can be very tough and will do nothing to improve the quality of your finished dish. You can, of course, individually examine and ‘clean’ each and every shrimp but this can be a finicky process and, in most cases, you can get away with keeping an eye out for any big bits and removing them as necessary.
Dried Shrimp can be added whole to some dishes but, for others, particularly with the larger variety, you may wish to chop them up a bit, either coarsely or more finely depending on the dish. If you are planning to do a series of dishes that require reconstituted shrimp chopped, ground, or minced to a particular consistency, you can do up a large batch and store it in the fridge or freezer until required.
How to Use Dried Shrimp
In many dishes, just a small amount of shrimp can be added as a flavoring agent, but there are also other preparations where they are a substantial ingredient in their own right. Commercially, they are included as a major ingredient in the popular Chinese condiment known as XO Sauce and in south-east Asia especially, they are often a major component in a wide range of different spice blends for ‘curry’ type dishes and the like.
In the home kitchen, dried shrimp add a wonderful flavor boost to stuffings for dumplings, as well as for meatballs, soups, stews and condiments. One very popular use is in fried or boiled rice.
In boiled rice, illustrated in the above picture, whole or partially chopped dried shrimp can be added as is to the boiling water at the same time the rice is added. For fried rice, dried shrimp can be reconstituted and the soaking liquid added to the water when initially boiling the rice, with the shrimp being added in when later frying it. In either case, as in countless other dishes, these little umami bombs can transform a plain dish into something terrific.