Cooking with Crawfish Tail Meat
As an ingredient, crawfish tails are a healthy, low-fat source of protein. Cooking with tail meat is quick, easy, and most of your favorite recipes can be modified to use crawfish. The simple addition of crawfish tails can transform sauces, toppings, fillings, and entire dishes into something special and memorable. Crawfish tail meat is usually sold peeled, cooked and ready to eat in one pound vacuum sealed packages. The packaged meat may be fresh or frozen. In either case, before cooking, strain the tails from the flavorful juices in the packaging to use in your preparation. Because the tails are precooked, overcooking can result with prolonged cooking times. Even in a raw state, a crawfish tail takes as little as 60 seconds to cook in a hot skillet. Overcooked crawfish tails taste the same, but become noticeably smaller in size, and their texture will go from firm to tough to mealy.
As with most meats, and especially seafood, seasoning before and during cooking will determine the overall flavor of the dish. Without any seasoning in boiling water alone, crawfish have a rich, buttery, slightly sweet flavor, with a texture lighter than shrimp, and more delicate than lobster. Crawfish meat readily absorbs the surrounding liquid it is cooked in. Keep in mind that the meat is precooked and should not spend more than 10 minutes over high heat absorbing other tasty flavors. The most important seasoning ingredient when cooking any meat or protein is salt. Finding the right balance of saltiness in the dish before adding the crawfish is crucial. As with anything regarding salt or other tastes, it all comes down to personal preference. With a little practice, you will discover how much salt is right for you and your crawfish recipe. Because crawfish have such a unique natural flavor, and require such short cooking time, it is difficult to overpower their taste profile with other dominate ingredients. This versatility makes them a perfect match for recipes with strong flavors like garlic, ginger or curry, and also stands up to heavy dishes with cream, beef, or cheese.
Inside the vacuum sealed package you will find natural juices held in the tail meat colored by a thick yellow substance. Commonly referred to as the "fat", it is hepatopancreatic tissue. This is the main source of the characteristic flavor found in crawfish. Regardless of what you are preparing with crawfish tails, strain this liquid ahead of time and incorporate it. Add it to the earliest stage of preparation that calls for liquid ingredients, and it will permeate the whole dish with rich crawfish flavor.
Besides traditional Cajun and Creole recipes prepared in Louisiana, crawfish are easily incorporated in traditional Southern, American, Mexican, Italian, Chinese, and Thai cuisines. Simply substitute crawfish if a recipe calls for any seafood (shrimp, crab, lobster, scallops, even fish). For other meats substitution is possible, but sometimes modifications in cooking methods, timing, and liquid adjustments may be necessary. Replacing lighter meats like chicken is easy, although pork and beef can be a bit trickier. A good hint when substituting with crawfish or converting a recipe is to realize the size of a crawfish tail relative to the size of the meat in the original recipe. If small pieces of meat are used, it should be a simple conversion. Larger, whole cuts of meat and slow-cooked dishes would render crawfish tails to mush. Using crawfish stock is one easy way to infuse more flavor and allow for longer cooking times without overcooking tail meat. Simply add the tails five or ten minutes before the dish is finished cooking. If you have access to live, or fresh-frozen crawfish, making a stock is quite simple. The shells and heads are the secret, just crush them up slightly and prepare the stock like any other seafood stock. You can get by with using discarded shells from a crawfish boil, but remember they were probably boiled in heavy seasoning and spices that weren’t part of your intended recipe. In the worst case scenario, where you absolutely cannot find any crawfish shells, you can sacrifice a bag of crawfish tails to make your stock. It may be possible to use the tails after the stock is complete, depending on how long it cooked.
Whether you are a novice home cook or a professional restaurant chef, your options are only limited by your own creativity and resourcefulness. As mentioned before, crawfish tails are a very versatile ingredient. Being precooked means you can take any ordinary dish and turn it into something special in minutes. Use them as a topping on meat entrees, pizzas, salads, egg dishes, and even baked potatoes. Use them as a filling or stuffing for other meats, pastas, savory pastries, or crepes. With a few trials, you will soon discover how easy and delicious it is to cook with crawfish tails.