Prawn crackers are a crispy, light, deep-fried delight, and it’s not strange that most supermarkets stock them nowadays. But you might have several reasons to avoid buying them.
Perhaps they contain gluten. Perhaps you’re vegetarian. Perhaps you want to avoid MSG. You may have a favourite brand of uncooked prawn crackers. Or perhaps you’re trying to diet, in which case I can’t help you.
I said, uncooked prawn crackers. Not everyone is familiar with uncooked prawn crackers – they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but they may look a bit like translucent bits of plastic.
Bone dry, they keep virtually forever. When fried in hot oil, for seconds, they will expand and turn into the bubbly, crispy crackers that we all know and love. Many a YouTube chef will proudly show you how to fry these ready-made uncooked crackers.
In this post, however, I’ll be showing you two different methods to make these uncooked crackers yourself. The first method is the traditional way to make prawn crackers. I’ve developed the second method to overcome some of the limitations of the traditional method.
Method 1: Traditional
For our traditional prawn crackers, we’ll start from a traditional prawn cracker recipe. It’s written in Indonesian, which is pretty much a guarantee that the recipe is authentic, as they’d prepare it themselves.
What the the traditional recipe comes down to is fairly simple:
- It requires equal amounts, by weight, of tapioca starch and prawns. We’ll scale down from the amounts used in the recipe above.
- These are mixed with “as much as needed” amounts of salt, garlic, sugar, MSG and water to season and to get the right consistency.
- The ingredients are then processed into a smooth dough, which is wrapped in banana leaf and thoroughly steamed.
- The steamed dough rolls are chilled, sliced and dried in the sun, after which they can be stored.
- To finish them off, they’re fried in hot oil.
The amounts in the recipe are not very precise, but this need not be a problem. Sure, there are no definitive amounts of salt, garlic, sugar, MSG and water mentioned, but it stands to reason that we want a well-seasoned dough sausage. Most recipes work well with between 1-2% salt, and we don’t want to go overly sweet – 3-5% of sugar should be plenty. MSG is optional, and a clove of garlic should be plenty (though we can use more if we want to make garlic crackers, which are yummy, too). The amount of water should be such that the dough holds together, but not so much that it gets sticky and hard to handle. So overall, we can use guesstimates and our recipe should turn out just fine.
Perhaps we want to add a bit of black pepper. Or some hot chilli powder. Perhaps we want to leave out the sugar. These are our crackers. So season as you like. I’ve found it’s easier to process the prawns before mixing them with the tapioca flour by the way – the dough gets smoother that way.
Once the dough has a smooth consistency, shape into sausage-like rolls, slightly thicker than an adult thumb.
Roll them into foil, ensuring no moisture can get in. Steam them thoroughly until the dough is fully cooked until the centre – At least 1 hour, possibly up to 3. Once steamed, rinse the sausages, still in the foil, under cold water – This will help the sausages to cool down a lot more quickly than if we just waited for them to cool. Unwrap the sausages – The dough should have turned glue-like and be translucent all the way to the centre.
Now we’ll cut them into as thin as possible slices. To do so, we take a hint from sushi chefs: before every slice, we’ll dip the tip of our sharp knife in a bowl of water, then tap the back of the knife handle to our working surface so the drop of water runs down the entire cutting edge of our knife. Cutting with a wet knife like this helps prevent the sticky glue from sticking to our knife. Arrange the slices on a flat surface…
You could wait until mid-summer, but that’s hardly practical at this point. Or you could dry the crackers for 12 hours in the oven at 70ºC/160ºF (with the oven door slightly open).
The method I prefer is to just put the crackers in front of a running fan. It takes roughly the same amount of time as oven-drying them.
Once the raw crackers are completely dry and hardened, they’re ready to store or fry. You’ll have to fry them in very hot oil, 190°C / 375°F. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can test the proverbial waters by dropping a small piece of cracker into the oil. If it expands and comes floating to the surface in a few seconds, the oil is hot enough.
I could pretend these were the best crackers I ever had. But they weren’t. Although they turned out tasty enough, but they sometimes had a chewy centre. I’ve encountered this before when frying crackers before they were fully dried – so I concluded this was most likely caused by residual moisture. So I dried them for longer, and weighed them in the process to make sure they had finished drying. When my scales indicated that the 25 gram batch of crackers lost less than 1/100 of a gram of water over a 24 hours period, I decided the weight of the crackers was pretty much flat-lining, so it was time to stop drying them. While they still lost some moisture compared to when I originally thought the crackers were dry, it was under half a gram for a 25 grams starting weight; Less than 2% of total weight after initial drying. Hardly significant.
As could be expected, when I fried up the fully dried batch of crackers, they were as chewy as before. What went wrong?
Despite their dry appearance, prawn crackers contain lots of tiny pockets of trapped moisture. With nowhere to go, when the crackers are fried, this trapped moisture turns into steam and forces the crackers to expand. Since the physics of prawn crackers depends on pockets of inescapably trapped moisture, this also means that no amount of extra drying time would have released the last bit of residual moisture.
In turn, this means that the residual moisture content of our crackers after drying depends on the moisture content of the crackers before drying. Less moisture after drying also means there is less moisture to turns to steam during frying, and thus results in smaller bubbles and denser, crispier crackers.
Had I been able to slice thinner slices, some more moisture might have been able to escape through additional exposed surface area. But I sliced as thin as I could. But still, there are a few things that can be done to improve on our reference recipe:
- Use less prawn, which was the only source of moisture in the above recipe – but also the main flavour component. Based on previous experiments, I’d suggest reducing the amount by about a quarter. Note that I used individually quick-frozen (IQF) prawns, which may have had a higher moisture content than fresh prawns. It may be worth it to pat dry your prawns before adding them to the dough.
- Prior to drying the slices, we could refrigerate the “sausages” for a day or two, or putting them into the freezer until slightly firmed. This will allow us to cut thinner slices – which would then result in increased cracker surface area and therefore less moisture trapped in the end result. Of course, it would also delay the end result.
Method 2: High tech, gluten-free veggie crackers
I’ve developed my own method for making crackers because someone didn’t like prawns. This was perfectly fine while we could easily buy veggie crackers, garlic crackers and bitternut crackers, but after moving abroad, that was no longer an option.
So I revisited the recipe, and the very first thing I noticed was that without the prawns and without gluten, tapioca flour doesn’t hold together as a dough. It just turns into a non-Newtonian sludge, much like corn starch. Just as well; I’d just make a batter instead of a dough, and steam it on the indentation of a saucer, using up about a teaspoon of batter and making one cracker at a time. Each cracker would take between 4 and 5 minutes to steam into a slice of glue – any shorter and it would have dull spots, which would not fry up properly. I nearly burned my fingers every time I took a saucer out of the steamer. The slices of glue peeled off easily under the running water I used to cool them down. At least I knew there was a way.
On my first attempt, I used 2 parts of vegetable stock to 1 part of tapioca flour (by weight). This resulted in quite thick crackers, with large bubbles, reminding of pork rind in structure – sometimes a bit chewy in the center. In fact, the texture was quite similar to the above prawn crackers. Because of this, I expect reducing the prawns in the reference recipe above by a quarter to a third would greatly improve the texture.
For my second attempt, I used equal amounts of stock and flour by weight, resulting in a texture not unlike Thai-style crackers – with very small bubbles, quite thin and crispy. These were rather nice and delicate, but this wasn’t texture I was looking for at the time.
I went for a happy medium and found the texture I wanted at around 100 grams of tapioca flour to 150 grams of liquid.
After finding out I could dry the crackers in front of a fan, the next breakthrough was when I found out the microwave worked a treat to cook the crackers. The resulting crackers did seem slightly denser than steamed ones though – so I slightly increased the moisture for the microwave version.
20-30 seconds on high, cooking 3 crackers at a time, was a lot faster than I could steam them. I no longer had hot steam burning my fingers, they were just as good, and I could “steam” 3 crackers at a time, allowing me to make about a hundred of them in an hour. Perhaps this newfangled technology has its place in the kitchen after all!
As for the flavour, I always enjoyed the kick of Thai-style crackers, the nutty taste of sesame of the vegetable crackers and of course lots of umami.
So here’s the method I came up with. As always, you can adapt it to suit your tastes and needs
- Using 100 grams of tapioca flour, 160 grams of water, make a batter and blend in flavourings to taste – For instance, a deseeded chili, a clove of garlic, a tablespoon of sesame seeds, a teaspoon of sugar, salt & pepper to taste and 1 lime leaf.
2. Stir the batter to evenly distribute the ingredients, then put a spoonful of batter on the indentation of a clean, dry saucer.
3. Microwave for about 20 seconds on full to cook the batter (you may be able to cook several at a time). Under running water, peel off the slice of glue. It should be transparent without dull spots. Move the slice of glue to a drying surface – Ideally something reasonably flat and flexible to help you peel off the crackers once dried. I use a plate covered with cling film.
4. Dry your saucer and repeat the procedure until you’ve used up all your batter (approx. 40 crackers). Leave to air dry. Pointing a fan at the crackers will speed up the drying but air drying does work as well. Congratulations! Your crackers can now be stored, ready to fry.
5. Fry your crackers at approx. 190°C (375°F) in oil with a high smoke point – Sunflower oil or groundnut oil. Pictured below: Raw cracker (left) vs. fried cracker (right)
6. Delicate and light, your prawn-free crackers are now ready to munch. Enjoy!
Tips and suggestions:
- Try using candle plates for extra big crackers (make sure your microwave is perfectly horizontal).
- Try adding a little bit of baking powder for extra light crackers
Have you made these crackers? Questions/suggestions? What’s your favourite flavouring combination? Leave your comments below!
** If you need proof or want to do some real food science, make two batches of crackers made with the same amount of tapioca flour but different amounts of water. Steam and slice, then and graph the weight of both batches over time until their weight flattens out. As both batches contain the same amount of dry matter, if moisture is not trapped, then both batches will end up with roughly the same amount of moisture and they’ll end up weighing the same. If moisture does get “inescapably trapped” and “no further amount of drying will dry them out further”, then the batch of crackers with the higher percentage of starting moisture should end up weighing more than the dryer batch, despite having started from the same amount of dry matter.