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The Secret to Cooking Shrimp

Updated on December 5, 2014
robertzimmerman2 profile image

Robert is from south-east Florida and serves the world as a reference librarian. Also a musician, Bob plays bass in a Indie cover band.

Shrimp grilled on skewers
Shrimp grilled on skewers | Source

Do You Know the Secret to Cooking Shrimp?

What's the Secret to Cooking Shrimp? Those tasty morsels from the Sea and are known as prawns in many parts of the World. 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 or chewy? This article will teach you about cooking shrimp perfectly 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. Our business catered to VERY discerning customers who demanded only PERFECT shrimp for their extravagant parties. MY shrimp received rave reviews from our happy customers!

Using my cooking shrimp secrets, you will get compliments from excited guests when they enjoy your cooked shrimp dishes.

Shrimp over rice
Shrimp over rice | Source

Size Your Shrimp to the Dish

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.

Common Sizes of Shrimp

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 South Florida 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 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.

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!

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.

A BIG part of great shrimp is to thaw them correctly! This adds to the prep time so plan ahead!

— Bob Zimmerman
Shrimp cooked with the shell on
Shrimp cooked with the shell on | Source

Planning Ahead

Use Frozen Shrimp for Convienience

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.

THAWING THE SHRIMP - 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.

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

The Details Make the Difference!

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.

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 CAREFUL 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 wherever 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!

Shrimp with cheese sauce
Shrimp with cheese sauce | Source

Cooking Your Shrimp

Timing is the Secret to 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 - 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. Some folks like to flatten out the shrimp before coating. If you want to try this, just slice the shrimp lengthwise about halfway 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. 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 - 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.

Sautéing - 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.

Shrimp Gumbo
Shrimp Gumbo | Source

Sauteed Shrimp Dishes

Remember to Experiment and be Flexible!

I don't even use recipes for my creations! I just use the ingredients I have. In my house we always have white and brown rice and (of course!) frozen, uncooked shrimp. Since we eat gluten free, pasta we eat is not made from wheat but it works the same. We also add quinoa for additional variety. If you don't know about quinoa, check it out, you will be amazed.

I always cook rice/quinoa in a rice cooker; it is so easy I can't imagine doing it any other way. I sometimes mix different varieties of rice together and sometimes mix in some quinoa. The rice cooker takes about 15-20 minutes to finish so I start that first. Again, make extra for leftovers.

You will need a large pan with matching lid to sauté the vegetables in a sauce before adding the shrimp (THE VERY LAST STEP). I could cook the vegetables in my rice cooker; it has a steamer basket, but I like burnt, buttery taste of sautéed much better.

Now put a good amount of olive oil and butter into the pan and let it heat up on a low-medium temperature. Add chopped vegetables and put the lid on and set a timer for 5 minutes. Since the vegetables are hard we are using sauté and steam to soften them up fast. After 5 minutes, stir up the mix and re-cover. This time, wait 4 minutes then stir again.

It's time to add your preferred sauce. You could put just about anything in as long as it is a semi-liquid. I've used salsa, tomato sauce, Thai peanut sauce, Spicy V-8 juice, pesto with extra olive oil, or whatever! Use enough to almost cover the vegetables and throw in any seasonings you like, especially when using a bland base like tomato sauce. Cover the pan again and wait another 6-8 minutes depending on how soft you like the vegetables.

It all comes together quickly so you have to be on your toes. After the last 6-8 minutes of cooking, the vegetable/sauce mix is ready for the shrimp. Also, the rice will be done very soon so you should have large bowls ready to serve the meal. Ideally, the vegetable/sauce/shrimp mix is done and off the stove right when the rice cooker shuts off.

Now for the shrimp! Take the lid off the pan and set it aside, you won't need it again. Pick up your bowl of raw, cleaned shrimp and dump them into the vegetable/sauce mix. Gently stir it up so the shrimp are covered in sauce and turn DOWN the heat to low. This is important! We do not want to overcook the shrimp! Set your timer for 2 minutes.

When the 2 minutes are up, stir the mixture around making sure you are flipping the shrimp over to the other side as best you can. When done the shrimp will have changed from translucent grey to white and orange. They also curl up. TURN OFF THE BURNER! The shrimp will finish cooking with the heat of the sauce but now you have some breathing room to put your freshly cooked rice into the serving bowls.

If you started the rice too late or made too much and it's not finished - THEN take the pan off the burner so the shrimp do not overcook. However, if you are lucky (or experienced), your rice is ready for the serving bowls and you can spoon the vegetable/sauce/shrimp mix on top of the rice.

As you put the first shrimp into your mouth and bite you will taste shrimp cooked just right, not tough and rubbery like most shrimp out there. My method of cooking shrimp (timing and turning off the heat) let the shrimp cook completely but times it so that they are perfect when served.

Shrimp cooked on skewers
Shrimp cooked on skewers | Source

On the Grill

Again, Timing is THE SECRET!

Grilling shrimp is THE way to enjoy large shrimp. I like to mix up a light sauce of olive oil and spices to brush onto the shrimp. If I'm using really large shrimp, I coat them with the oil mix and put them right on the grill. If they are normal "large" shrimp I put them on wooden skewers then brush them with the spicy oil. Be sure to leave about 6 inches to use as a "handle". Another option for bigger than average shrimp is to put them on double skewers which make it easier to flip them over as the shrimp do not spin on the skewer!

Either way you have to be very attentive so as not to overcook your shrimp. One reason the extra jumbo size are better on the grill is they are thick enough not to cook in seconds. Yes, SECONDS! A modern grill can be controlled somewhat but the temperature can vary for many reasons, clogged jets, gusts of wind, etc can mean your shrimp might be ruined instantly. Put your flame adjustment to a low setting.

If you use the skewer (or double skewer) method, put the skewers on the grill so the extra "handle" section sticks off the grill. That way you won't burn your finggies! Lay out the skewers with some space between them and set your timer (or count "one thousand-one, one thousand-two") for 45 seconds. Flip the skewers over and time for 45 seconds again. IF THE SKEWERS CATCH FIRE - YOU HAVE THE HEAT WAY TOO HIGH!

Take the skewers off the grill and put them on your serving plate. They will continue to cook until they cool down a bit but they should be just right. Again, when done the shrimp will have changed from translucent grey to white and orange. Now some folks prefer their shrimp a little more done so if that is you, just add a bit more time for each side. With the really large shrimp the cooking time should be longer, say a minute and a half to two minutes and you flip them with a pair of tongs. You can experiment by adjusting the cooking time per side or adjusting your grill temperature. Once you know the time per side you just do it that way every time. One advantage of cooking shrimp this way is that since shrimp is cooked individually you can "custom cook" for each guest! This includes different coatings/spices in different bowls for dipping.

If you want to try the really large shrimp in the oven or broiler - GOOD LUCK! Because you cannot see what's going on it becomes very difficult to time cooking and easy to overcook your shrimp. A toaster oven might be a choice but then your toast will taste like shrimp!

Experiment!

Great Cooks Are Not Perfect

Remember that cooking is an adventure and requires flexibility. You can follow a recipe exactly if you want, but I have more fun and enjoy my meals more when there is a little unpredictability.

Learning the secret to cooking shrimp is one of the easiest ways to add variety and excitement to any meal. Try my ideas yourself, learn from your mistakes, but KEEP TRYING! Every great cook has made mistakes and learned along the way. You can too!

What is YOUR Favorite? - VOTE NOW!

My favorite way to eat cooked shrimp is -

See results

© 2012 Robert Zimmerman

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    • profile image

      ladymackay 22 months ago

      fried in butter and oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, garlic, couple dashes of hot sauce and worcestershire. mmmmmmm

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      large shrimps are suitale for bbq, roasting, mediums are great with spicy sauce and stir fries, the small shrimps are great with fried rice

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 2 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      I worked selling seafood for a few years. We catered to rich people and restaurants. We use a deveiner machine, it missed a few but did a halfway decent job. Great hub.

    • Charito1962 profile image

      Charito Maranan-Montecillo 2 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      I love eating shrimps that are fried, grilled - and baked! Try eating them topped with molten butter and cheese. It's just sinfully delicious!

    • robertzimmerman2 profile image
      Author

      Robert Zimmerman 2 years ago from SE Florida, USA

      Thanks!

    • profile image

      mich 2 years ago

      I enjoyed reading your informative article on shrimps which I love! Thanks.

    • MortyB profile image

      MortyB 3 years ago

      You are making me hungry - it's shrimp tomorrow for sure, and on the grill!

    • mel-kav profile image

      mel-kav 3 years ago

      Love shrimp - especially on the grill.

    • DANCING COWGIRL profile image

      Dancing Cowgirl Design 3 years ago from Texas

      Yummmmmmmmy ideas for shrimp!

    • profile image

      LadyDuck 3 years ago

      Beautiful lens on shrimps.

    • SamiPearl profile image

      SamiPearl 3 years ago

      This is the best explanation of thawing and cleaning frozen shrimp I've ever read! This is my favorite way to cook shrimp: https://hubpages.com/food/cooking-adventures-from-... I don't always make the sandwich shown here. The shrimp by itself is amazing.

    • Chris-H LM profile image

      Chris-H LM 4 years ago

      Thanks for the expert advice. My sweetheart makes the best fried shrimp I've had in my life (and I live close to where the shrimp boats come in). They are to die for! Just the right amount of hot sauce.

    • profile image

      Bartukas 4 years ago

      I love shrimp very nice lens!

    • studyaids profile image

      Steve Jones 4 years ago from Birmingham UK

      Great lens, I never thought shrimp cooking could be so interesting

    • rasnasah profile image

      rasnasah 4 years ago

      yummy shrimp .I love shrimp.

    • captainj88 profile image

      Leah J. Hileman 4 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

      Every tip is great; the shrimp look delicious. Like!

    • robertzimmerman2 profile image
      Author

      Robert Zimmerman 4 years ago from SE Florida, USA

      @Titia: Thanks Titia, great to see you again. Having a true fisherman's market sounds wonderful.

    • Titia profile image

      Titia Geertman 4 years ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

      I don't think I've ever eaten frozen shrimps. As the fishing docks and market are only 15 minutes away from where I live, I always buy fresh shrimps or whatever fish I like. The fishing boats move out on Monday, return on Friday so there's always super fresh fish on Saturday. Nice informative article and now I'm hungry LOL

    • profile image

      LauraGraig 4 years ago

      I LOVE them so much. I order shrimp dishes at restaurants since the one I cook never comes out as good. Enjoyed reading this helpful, perfect lens. Thanks for sharing your methods.

    • robertzimmerman2 profile image
      Author

      Robert Zimmerman 4 years ago from SE Florida, USA

      Tonight I made stirfry using coconut and olive oils, frozen mixed vegies (corn, carrots, string beans), a small baked potato I had left over (cut small) , Pad Thai Sauce (lots), Thai Fish Sauce (little), and (of course) SHRIMP!

      It was goooooood, and I'll have leftovers for a couple lunches this week.

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