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Cooking Shrimp

The Secret to Cooking Shrimp

What’s the Secret to Cooking Shrimp? Those tasty morsels from the Sea are also known as prawns in many parts of the World and they are the main ingredient for many types of dishes.

But, are YOU happy with the results when you cook shrimp? Do YOUR shrimp often turn out tough and chewy? This article will teach you how to cook perfect shrimp every time!

I have been cooking shrimp all my life and I worked as a professional shrimp cooker! That’s right, I cooked hundreds of pounds of fresh shrimp each day. We had two Seward restaurants that catered to VERY discerning customers who demanded only PERFECT shrimp for their extravagant parties. MY shrimp received rave reviews from our happy customers and we were famous not just in Seward, but all of Alaska!

Now, thanks to modern technology (The Internet), everyone can learn from my experience and achieve the same results. Using these shrimp cooking secrets, you too will get magnificent compliments from your guest when they enjoy YOUR shrimp dishes.

Shrimp Sizes

Shrimp are available in several sizes which are listed by numbers such as 41 – 50. This tells you the average number of shrimp in a given weight, usually per pound. The number is a range because shrimp are not exactly the same size/weight but vary one to the other.

There are variations in how shrimp are sold as well. The most common are these, 1) Head on & shell on 2) Headless/shell off with the tail on 3) Headless/shell & tail off.

They can be sold uncooked or cooked, frozen and “fresh”. I say “fresh” because “fresh” shrimp are usually just thawed from frozen 5 pound blocks so they are not really FRESH as never been frozen.

If you live near a seaport you can find truly FRESH shrimp more often but it’s getting harder. You might check around and get connected with a local fisherman who can give you a call when they have FRESH shrimp. That way you know they are FRESH.

Commonly available sizes of shrimp range from U – 10 (under 10 per pound) to 61 – 70 per pound.

The smaller sizes tend to be headless, peeled and cooked since the average person would go insane trying to clean and cook (or cook and clean) very small shrimp.

The larger ones tend to be sold uncooked as these often go on the BBQ or oven. This is not necessarily bad but if you want medium shrimp (31 – 35 sized) head on, in the shell, this may be a good way to buy them.

You need to find a fish market or grocery where the people working there seem to know what they are talking about and are honest when answering your questions. Even though I live in Alaska I usually get my shrimp at the local “Super” grocery. Basically because I’m lazy!

I look for bags I can view the shrimp to make sure of the size and general appearance. Make sure you get a re-sealable bag. That way you can take out some of the shrimp easily, re-seal the bag, and leave the remainder in your freezer for another day.

We need to select the type of shrimp based on the meal we will use them in. Here are some things to consider about the ways shrimp are used in dishes. I’ll be focusing on headless shrimp since most people buy them that way. I’m all about keeping it simple so here are some general guidelines.

small size shrimp

1) SMALL SHRIMP – If you want to throw some in a salad or even make a sandwich based on shrimp, you should pick small, cooked, shell/tail off. The best place to get these would be your favorite grocery store in the frozen food section. If you want to fry them “Popcorn” style then definitely get uncooked shrimp with no shell or tail.

2) MEDIUM SHRIMP – For shrimp cocktail, scampi, pasta, rice, gumbo and fried shrimp you should look for medium sized shrimp but I recommend getting the uncooked, tail off kind. These are best purchased frozen in re-sealable bags. For shrimp cocktail or fried shrimp, most people (not me) prefer the tail to be left on because it makes a good “handle” to hold the shrimp while dipping. Again, for fried shrimp, get them uncooked!

3) LARGE SHRIMP – These are the big ones you use on the BBQ or in the oven (baked or broiled). Here you should pick frozen (REAL fresh if you can get them), headless, shell on shrimp. One reason to keep the shell on is when using very large shrimp (a classic oxymoron) on the BBQ. The shrimp will not stick as readily and be easier to grab to flip over.

The down sides to this are that your guests will have to remove the shell from a hot shrimp and that you have not removed the “vein” which (in my view) lowers the taste.

Personally, I buy large shrimp frozen shell on or off depending on price but shell off preferably. I will remove the shell or tail and clean out the “vein”.

Then I impale the shrimp on wood skewers, coat them with a spicy oil mixture so they are easy to manage and do not stick to the grill.

Thawing Frozen Shrimp

Ok, you have your meal planned and your shrimp selected – what next? Thawing the shrimp! In this section I will assume you are using a variety of frozen shrimp and have everything else laid out for your dish.

You could just take the bag out of the freezer and put it in the refrigerator the night before, right? Well, if you did that they would have been soaking in whatever water was around them for several hours and are soggy. That would remove flavor and make the texture less meaty. You want the shrimp to be JUST thawed and Here is how I do it.

Get yourself a large plastic bowl (or similar, it’s only to hold the water) and put it in your kitchen sink. Take out the shrimp you need for the dish you are preparing, figure about 8-10 shrimp per person depending on the appetites of your guests (more if you are making extra for leftovers). Put the shrimp into the bowl and reseal the bag and put it back into the freezer.

frozen shrimp

Next, run COLD water into the bowl until the shrimp are covered. Wait about a minute, and drain out the water. Next, run more water to cover the shrimp. This time wait about 3 minutes. Again drain and run water to cover the shrimp one more time.

Now wait about 5 minutes or until the shrimp are no longer frozen but are still quite cold. Drain ALL the water from the bowl and GENTLY squeeze out any remaining water from the shrimp.

Here’s where a lightweight plastic bowl works best since you can hold it tilted with one hand and squeeze the shrimp with the other. Now you are ready to clean the shrimp before cooking.

Final Cleaning Shrimp

Are you up to performing some “minor surgery?” Shrimp have something running through the top part of their body called the “vein”. It is like a thin tube which can be clear or with a dark, gritty substance in the tube.

I put “vein” in quotes because this is actually the shrimp’s intestine so if it is dark it’s filled with shrimp poop! Someone long ago realized that calling this a “vein” would get people to eat more shrimp and they were right!

Ok, now that I have you all grossed out we will focus on removing the “vein”. Once this is cleaned out the shrimp will not have any grit or sand that affects the texture more than the taste. EATING SHRIMP WITH THE VEIN CAUSES YOU NO HARM!

You’ve likely eaten shrimp this way at restaurants and never knew it. When you cook your own shrimp the way I suggest you will notice an improvement in taste and texture.

One thing to note is often the “vein” will not be very noticeable since it is clear. Once you do a few you will see what I mean. Either way, when each shrimp is clean, toss it into the other bowl. You may shred a few shrimp getting the hang of it. Don’t throw them out they taste just as good!

There are special tools for cleaning shrimp. The most common is called a “deveiner” which is a plastic device with a handle and a thin, curved extension. They are usually red for some reason, perhaps to find them easily. They work best for cleaning shrimp with the shell on.

For shrimp without the shell or even the tail, I would rather use a small shrimp knife. Check out the links I have provided for these tools. There is an inexpensive machine to do this if you are lazy.

I work standing in front of the sink with the bowl of shrimp on my left. If I’m doing a lot of shrimp, I have another bowl to throw the cleaned shrimp into. If I’m only doing enough for two people I just use the original bowl.

I hold the deveiner or small knife in my right hand. Pick up a shrimp in your left hand and hold it with your palm up and so the back of the shrimp is up and the tail is toward you.

By the way, shrimp shells are best thrown out in the trash and not run into the garbage disposal. Just accumulate the shells/legs/etc toward the side of the sink and when you are done, scoop the whole mess into the trash.

cleaning shrimp

First let’s go over the way you would clean shrimp with the shell still on. I’m right handed, so I’ll tell it from that perspective. If you are lefty, just switch hands and you will be fine.

Remember to do this over the sink with good lighting and the faucet gently running cold water. These directions are for large or medium shrimp, for small shrimp just get the cooked ones with no shell/tail.

The red deveiner tool is best for this. You need to hold the shrimp with the tail AWAY from you. Hold the deveiner so the thin curved end has the tip curved DOWN.

Notice on the shrimp you are holding there is an indentation in the meaty end where the head used to be. Insert the tip of the deveiner into this indentation and while holding the shrimp firmly, push the deveiner through the length of the shrimp.

BE CAREFULL NOT TO IMPALE YOUR HAND OR FINGERS. The tip of the deveiner should follow the cavity where the “vein” runs and split the top of the shrimp (including the shell) open. Now you can strip the shell (and legs) off the shrimp (leaving the tail on if you wish).

You’ll now see the “vein” somewhere, still attached to the very end of the shrimp. Just pull it out with your fingers or scrape it out under the running water.

Now, if you are using shrimp without the shell (tail on or off) they often have not been thoroughly cleaned out at the shrimp factory so I like to check out each one and clean if needed.

I like to use a small knife to slit the back of the shrimp open, or sometimes just the very end where the tail was BUT I hold the shrimp in my left hand differently. I still hold it with my palm and the back of the shrimp up but I flip it around so the tail end is toward me. Then CAREFULLY I run the knife down the back of the shrimp whereever it is no cut already.

Perhaps just the very end of the tail is uncut. Just expose the “vein” and clean it out. Again, use your fingers, the tip of the knife, and the running water to remove the “vein”. When you are all finished, remember to gently squeeze and drain the shrimp.

If you find yourself getting tired – TAKE A SHORT BREAK! Remember – SAFETY FIRST!

Cooking Shrimp

Now comes the fun part and soon you will have your reward of a delicious shrimp meal. I’ll break this section down by the type of dish you might be creating so you’ll get a better idea of how timing is so important in properly cooked shrimp.

Frying Shrimp

I’ll mention this first because I do not fry shrimp much for several reasons. With frying you need to choose the type of oil you prefer (usually for health reasons), heat the oil correctly, coat the shrimp with breadcrumbs, batter or whatever and drop them in a few at a time so the oil does not cool too much.

Also have ready a proper wire scoop and a heat resistant tray and lots of paper toweling to put on the tray and absorb the oil. You can also use a splatter screen if you think you’ll make a mess.

Some folks like to flatten out the shrimp before coating. If you want to try this, just slice the shrimp lengthwise about half way through and flatten it with a large knife.

As far as getting the texture of the shrimp meat the way I like, frying becomes all about finding the right length of time to keep the shrimp in the oil AND taking into account that when removed from the oil, the shrimp keep on cooking for a couple of minutes.

deep fried shrimp

So, if you want to fry shrimp right you need to experiment with a thermometer (to check oil temperature). This way you can fry up a few at various times (I’d do it in seconds not minutes) then make a chart to keep track of it all. You will have to let each batch cool before taste testing.

The main thing I’d be tasting for is that “just done” texture. Squishy means not done enough and rubbery means done too much.

Once you get the time and oil temperature you can reproduce great tasting fried shrimp by using that formula.

Just make sure you do not put too many shrimp in the oil at one time (lowers the temperature which throws off your time) and allow time between each batch, watching your thermometer, for the oil to come back up to the correct temperature.

Boiling Shrimp

Boiling shrimp has much the same situation as frying only you can see the meat of the shrimp easier and you can cool the shrimp in cold water to stop their cooking. Water temperature is less of an issue, you can see that it is boiling! You can also add some seasoning to the water but I prefer to go plain and season the shrimp later.

Since boiling shrimp is just as much trouble as frying, I don’t usually bother. I just purchase frozen cooked shrimp for what I need and thaw them out in water as I mentioned before. But if you want to give it a try, here is the right way.

Make sure your boiling pot is large so the shrimp can float around uncrowded. Ideally, you should use a pot with a basket that fits inside with a handle. That way you can load the shrimp in the basket and lower the basket into the boiling water.

You also need to have your sink ready with another pot or bowl filled with cold water into which you will dump the shrimp to stop them cooking.

Like frying, timing is the key. Experiment by doing small batches and writing down the time and taste results.

Sauteed Shrimp

This is my favorite way to make shrimp! This changes plain ingredients like rice and pasta into fantastic meals with ease. The basic idea is to create a mixture of sauce, vegetables, and shrimp that is poured over or mixed into the rice or pasta. These dishes are fantastic as lunches some make extra!

First, prepare enough shrimp for your needs. Select a variety of chopped vegetables about 1 – 3 inches in size. I actually find that frozen vegetables are great as they are already chopped, come in a variety of mixtures, and I can re-seal the bags with large plastic clips.

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