It’s time to start honing your BBQ skills – and there’s no better place to start than with Australia’s favourite shellfish.

Even more than a Bunnings sausage in bread on a Sunday, BBQ prawns are an iconic Australian dish.

Despite what Paul Hogan would have you believe, however, it’s not quite as simple as throwing a prawn on the barbie. From the prawn size and species, to the heat of your grill, considering a few factors will make you a boss of the barbecued prawn.

To find out how to cook prawns on the BBQ like a pro, we consulted two of The Star’s seafood specialists. Here’s their top tips.

The king prawn is king

It’s no wonder we love our prawns – some of the best come from Australian waters.

Chef de Cuisine Chris Mcleay from Garden Kitchen & Bar
Chef de Cuisine Chris Mcleay from Garden Kitchen & Bar

At Garden Kitchen & Bar at The Star Gold Coast, Chef de Cuisine Chris Mcleay needn’t go far for his favourite BBQing prawns – Australian king prawns from the Sunshine State. “Queensland prawns are highly regarded due to their sweet yet firm texture,” he says.

For Flying Fish at The Star Sydney, Executive Chef Peter Robertson looks further south for his king prawns – to South Australia’s pristine Spencer Gulf, the world’s most sustainable king prawn fishery.

From wherever they hail, the rich taste, superb texture and moist flesh of Australian king prawns make them perfect for grilling over flame.

Bigger is better

Although Paul Hogan’s ‘shrimp’ faux paus still stings, it was also off for another reason –there’s nothing shrimpy about the best prawn specimens for the BBQ.

Fisherman grade prawns based on size, U6 being the largest (around 12 prawns per kilo) down to U30 (60-plus prawns per kilo). Chris and Peter recommend sticking to U10 and up, which gives you more prawn to wrap your tongs around.

To shell, or not to shell

Seafood eaters often fall into two camps – those who can peel a prawn with their eyes shut, and those that prefer the ease of a shell-free prawn.

When grilling their famous BBQ Spencer Gulf prawns in chilli oil, the Flying Fish team goes shell-on, butterflying prawns from tail to head with kitchen scissors. The shell protects the flesh, Peter says, trapping in moisture. He starts by cooking the prawns quickly cut side-down, before flipping the shell onto the grill for the remainder and applying a butter or oil marinade to cook into the exposed meat. 

Chris, meanwhile, peels and deveins the body, but leaves the tail and head on for some “structural integrity” (and to retain the tasty juices and flavours from the head). This method also makes for easier eating, too.

Go hot or go home

If you can’t stand the heat, step away from the BBQ. Chris likes to use coals to fire his BBQ, Peter prefers wood, but they agree that it’s best to work with a hot grill.

“Being a chef, I think the hotter the better for the BBQ,” Chris says. “What the high heat does is allow for a nice crust on the prawn, locks in flavour and means the prawns will not stick to the BBQ.” At low temperatures, prawns can stick, break apart and lose a lot of their moisture.

No one likes a rubbery prawn

If you have that one friend or relative whose definition of BBQing is charring meat until it bursts into flames, gently remove the tongs from their reach. An overcooked prawn is an unequivocal BBQ fail – chewy and devoid of flavour.

Prawns need very little time on a hot BBQ – no more than two minutes or so, Peter says. His method of butterflying prawns lets you watch the meat as it cooks; he suggests stopping when it’s opaque but still slightly glossy in the middle. “They stay nice and sweet that way”.

Chris recommends waiting for the prawn skin to turn a vibrant orange to remove them from the grill. “Once they come off the BBQ, allow them to rest for a minute or two and they will be ready to go,” he says.

To get you started, Chris and Peter have shared their go-to prawn marinade recipes:

Peter’s at-home prawn marinade

  • Olive oil
  • Garlic, minced
  • White soy (shiro shoyu)

Combine all marinade ingredients. Butterfly the prawns and coat in marinade, then refrigerate for 30-40 minutes. Place prawns straight on a hot BBQ grill and cook until just opaque.

Chris’ classic prawn marinade

  • Olive oil
  • Garlic, minced
  • Salt
  • Fresh herbs
  • Fresh lemon

Combine oil, garlic, salt and the herbs of your choosing, then coat prawns and marinate for at least a few minutes. Transfer prawns onto a very hot BBQ until just cooked. Serve drizzled with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle more salt if needed.

Chris’ recheado-inspired prawn marinade

  • Kashmiri chilis
  • Peppercorns
  • Fresh ginger, grated
  • Butter
  • Fresh lime

Combine chilis, peppercorns and ginger in a mortar and pestle and crush to a paste. Transfer the paste onto the BBQ hotplate and fry until fragrant. Add prawns and a generous knob of butter and cook until just done. Serve with a squeeze of lime.