Gambas al ajillo, garlic prawns, is a delicious classic Spanish tapas served throughout tapas bars in Spain.
During spot prawn season, we love making gambas al ajillo, or garlic prawns tapas. Vu and I fell in love with this dish after trying it at Costa Brava many years ago. It’s the dish that we never fail to order when we go to a Spanish restaurant. Flavored with plenty of garlic, a touch of cayenne and paprika, and a splash of wine, our version of gambas al ajillo will make you fall head over heels for this popular Spanish tapas.
- Prawns: we like using fresh spot prawns for their sweet and juicy meat. Gambas al ajillo is also known as camarones al ajillo or garlic shrimp. Feel free to substitute the spot prawns for extra large or large head-on prawns or shrimp. Use head on shell on (HOSO) prawns or shrimp size 26/30.
- Olive oil: use the best quality olive you can find. You’ll need plenty for this dish.
- Garlic: garlic is one of the key ingredients for this dish. There’s no substitution. Use as much as you like. Both Vu and I love garlic so we put around 6-8 cloves of garlic depending on how big they are. Crush the garlic lightly with the back of your knife to release the oil then slice them thinly.
- Cayenne: I love to add a bit of cayenne for some heat but feel free to skip it if you don’t like it spicy.
- Paprika: I love the smokiness that paprika lends to gambas al ajillo. Use sweet paprika for this recipe.
- Alcohol: a splash of sherry, white wine, or Spanish brandy gives it a wonderful flavor.
Do I Need to Shell the Prawns Before Cooking
In Spain, gambas al ajillo is served both shelled on and without. It’s entirely up to you. If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, leave the shells on. I like to keep the shells and heads on so they don’t shrink during the cooking process.
Tips for Keeping Spot Prawns Fresh
When you buy live spot prawns you have to work fast or they will spoil. Immediately get them into a cooler or on ice after you purchase them. Avoid putting them in tap water or the chlorine in the water will hasten their death. If you’re not cooking them right away, remove their heads and leave the tail on ice.
Spot prawns have an enzyme in their brain that starts spreading as soon as they die and turns the flesh soft and mushy. If you see prawns with black spots, that means the enzymes have started spreading. You can fry the heads tempura style or make a prawn stock out of them. Put the tails on ice, cover them with a cloth and keep them in the fridge for up to two days until you’re ready to cook. Before cooking, simply give them a quick rinse in water and let them dry on a few sheets of paper towel.
How to Make Gambas al Ajillo
Traditionally this dish would be cooked in a flameproof terracotta dish and served directly in the dish. If you don’t have one, you can use a regular frying pan like I did. If your pan is not large enough to hold all the prawns, divide the ingredients in half and cook them in two batches.
To make the gambas al ajillo, add olive oil, garlic, and cayenne to the pan and let the garlic cook until fragrant. Add the prawns in a single layer, season with paprika and salt. Add a splash of white wine, then flip the prawns, and let them cook until pink. Even after you turn off the heat, the prawns will continue to cook in the sauce so avoid overcooking or the meat will become rubbery.
You don't need much with gambas al ajillo. Serve it with freshly chopped parsley, a squeeze of lemon, and extra sea salt. We love peeling off the shells and enjoying the rich juice from the heads and the garlicky, sweet prawn meat with a splash of lemon juice. My husband prefers to dunk the meat in alioli (garlic mayo) that we buy in large tubs from Costa Brava. Make sure to have some crusty bread to mop up all the juices and a nice glass of white wine to wash it all down. You can enjoy this famous tapas in the comfort of your home without a flight to Spain.
Gambas al ajillo
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 6-8 garlic cloves, lightly crushed with the back of your knife, then thinly sliced
- 2 dried dried Cayenne chillies (or other dried chillies) (optional if you don't like spicy)
- 1 pound raw spot prawns (with heads and shells on)
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
- A pinch of sea salt
- 2 tablespoons white wine (or sherry)
- 2 tablespoons small handful of fresh parsley, chopped, for serving
- Lemon wedges for serving
- Crusty bread for serving
- In a wide frying pan over medium heat, add the garlic, chillies, and gently fry for 1 minute until the garlic is softened but not browned.
- Turn up the heat to high, add the prawns in a single layer, paprika, and salt and fry for 1 minute. Add the wine, flip the prawns, and cook for two minute until the prawns turn pink.
- Serve the prawns immediately with a chopped parsley, extra salt, and lemon wedges. Be careful not to burn yourself as the oil and pan will stay hot for several minutes.