Shrimp bisque is a luscious, smooth and flavorful chowder-like soup. It has an elegant pink color and tastes so good you'll want to serve it for dinner parties and more.
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As the weather gets colder, soup comes on the menu more and more. Some of them are more throw-veg-in-a-pot then blend, others make use of a stash of fresh homemade stock such as Scotch broth and avgolemono soup.
All those are tasty and comforting, but if you are looking for an elegant option for entertaining or otherwise something that bit more special, bisque is the way to go.
What is a bisque?
A bisque is a French style of soup that is made from seafood which is smooth, creamy and with a real depth of flavor. You can make it from a range of different seafoods including lobster, crab and shrimp/prawn.
In most cases, you use the shells to help flavor the stock, giving a really deep flavor. Traditionally, you blend the shells up with the rest of the soup before straining to get every last drop of flavor from them.
For this version, you don't need any additional fish stock, just the stock you make from the shrimp shells and heads as you prepare everything else. But as you can see below, this has a lovely rich pink color and adds lots of flavor.
Layers of flavor
Bisque is all about layers of flavor, with a smooth, creamy texture. Flavor comes in a few forms:
- A tasty stock made from the shells.
- Brandy and white wine (or sherry in some versions).
- Vegetables softened in butter as the base (often "mirepois" ie carrot, onion and celery though here I didn't include celery).
- Cream to add that extra bit of luscious, rich smoothness.
I won't lie, a bisque is certainly not quite as quick as some other soups since you have a couple extra steps, but it's definitely easier than you might think and entirely worth it.
How do you thicken bisque?
There are a few different ways to thicken this soup. The classic way is to use rice cooked in broth and add this to the mixture that you strain to make the final soup. This way always seems very un-French to me, and you might think it becomes grainy. But once you strain the mixture, it is in fact wonderfully smooth.
Another option is to use the more typical flour or corn starch, often made into a slurry first as you might use to thicken sauces. This is probably the easiest, in some ways, but I have to say I like the rice in there.
The third way to thicken this is with cream. While it doesn't thicken quite as much, it does add a lot to the luscious texture and flavor. It's not necessarily the healthiest, though, so personally I add a little to get some of benefits without it being too much, but otherwise use rice.
Some recipes cook the rice in one pot, and make the stock with the shells and the vegetable base in another. Here I have made the stock from the shells separately then strained that in to the vegetable mixture which I add the rice to.
My rationale for this are twofold. First, you still get the bulk of the delicious flavor from the shells, but it saves any gritty bits sneaking through.
Secondly, it doesn't take any longer to cook this way and it makes the straining a little easier at the end. You have less solids to hold back/press and all are fine to eat anyway. This saves it getting too cold and needing re-heated much if at all.
Steps and tips to make this soup
First of all, start with whole, shell on shrimp/prawns and separate the shell and heads to make stock. Devein the shrimp and chop them, ready to cook a little later.
I know this may seem a little fiddly when you can buy ready-prepared shrimp, but you want those shells to make a simple, delicious stock, and it's really not hard once you get in the flow of things.
As your shrimp stock is simmering, quickly cook the shrimp and set them aside. Soften the vegetables well, then deglaze with brandy.
If you like, you can flame the brandy as is the classic way, but if you are nervous, you can skip this. It will just take slightly longer to cook off the alcohol and you don't get that slight 'burnt' (in a good way) flavor.
Either way, once the liquid is relatively thick, add the wine and reduce that as well. Then strain the shrimp stock and add that along with the rice. Simmer until the rice is cooked.
Once the rice has cooked, blend everything together and strain. Straining might seem like an extra step, but this is how you get the really smooth, creamy texture (even before adding the actual cream). Without it, the rice and vegetables are typically still a bit lumpy, however good your blender is.
Make sure you use a really fine strainer or cheesecloth. Also, press through some solids as they help thicken the soup.
Finally, add the cream and if it has become cool, re-heat the soup a little. Just make sure you don't boil the mixture after adding the cream.
To serve, place some of the cooked shrimp in the middle of each bowl and pour the soup around them. This is a relatively rich soup, so you don't really want huge bowlfuls. But there is still plenty to enjoy.
Can you prepare this ahead?
You can make either just the shrimp stock or the whole soup, up to where you add the cream, ahead of time. For both, you can refrigerate for a day or two, or freeze and defrost as needed.
Then, when you are ready, defrost in the fridge overnight, if frozen, and pick up where you left off. If almost finished, just warm through without boiling before stirring through the cream.
Shrimp bisque might take slightly longer to make than some soups, but the result is certainly worth the little extra effort. It's smooth, creamy, elegant and delicious. This soup would be perfect for a dinner party, date night or really any excuse you like.
Try these other seafood soups:
- Irish fish chowder
- Cullen skink (Scottish smoked haddock chowder)
- Romesco de peix (technically more of a stew, but this Catalan dish is well worth trying)
- This Thai tom yum soup from Eating Thai Food also looks worth a try.
- Plus get more appetizers and comforting fall recipes in the archives.
- 12 oz raw, shell-on shrimp 340g prawns, or slightly more (see notes)
- 4 cups water 480ml
- 2 oz onion 55g, approx ½ small
- 2 oz carrot 55g, approx ½ carrot
- 3 tbsp butter 45g, divided
- 1 tbsp tomato paste tomato puree
- 3 tbsp brandy
- ¼ cup white wine 60ml
- ¼ cup medium grain rice 50g
- ⅛ tsp dried thyme
- ⅛ tsp salt or to taste
- ⅛ tsp ground pepper or to taste
- ¼ cup heavy cream 60ml double cream
- Remove the skins and heads from the shrimp and set aside. Devein the shrimp by cutting into the outside of the shrimp and removing the usually black string-like 'guts'. Chop each shrimp into roughly 3 - 4 pieces.
- To make the stock, first if you like, cook the shrimp heads and shells in a little butter (around ½ tbsp/7g) for a minute or two. in a medium pot over a medium heat. You can skip this if you are short of time, but it helps get a bit of extra flavor from the shells. Add the water to the pot then cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat slightly and let the mixture simmer for around 30-35 minutes, preparing the rest as it simmers.
- Meanwhile, peel and finely dice the onion and carrot.
- Warm 1 tbsp of the butter in another medium pot over a medium-high heat until it bubbles. Add the shrimp pieces and cook for a minute or two until cooked through. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
- Add the remaining butter, let it melt then add the onion and carrot. Cook until both soften and the onion is translucent, around 10-12 minutes, but without letting them burn.
- Add the tomato paste and stir through. Let it cook a minute then add the brandy. If you like, you can warm it ahead of time and set it alight as you add to quickly burn off the alcohol and give a bit of extra flavor. If you are unsure, you can just cook it a minute or two longer to cook off the alcohol - it should become almost syrupy.
- Next add the white wine and let it reduce, stirring regularly, by at least half.
- By this point, the stock should be about ready. Strain the shrimp stock with a fine strainer into and add it to the onion-carrot mixture. Add the rice, thyme and season with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for around 10 minutes until the rice is cooked through.
- Blend the soup well and add the cream (see notes). Then, pass through a fine strainer (or cheesecloth-lined wider strainer). Press through the solids so that you get through a good amount of them coming through as they help thicken the soup.
- If needed, return the mixture to the heat to warm through. Take care not to let it boil.
- Place a small stack of the cooked shrimp in the middle of each bowl (use smaller, flatter bowls if possible). Pour the soup around the shrimp so some still show through then serve.
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