When I started cooking, I made a common mistake about shrimp. I assumed that the thawed shrimp at the seafood counter would taste better than the frozen ones in the bags. I assumed that the ones in the case were fresh. Wrong! It turns out that with very few exceptions, all the shrimp we buy in the U.S. have been frozen at some point, so unless you have a unassailable source for truly fresh shrimp — say, a friend with a shrimp boat or a fishmonger who buys them live — you’re better off buying from a retailer who keeps them frozen.
But this situation is far from bad. The shrimp in the bag (IQF or Individually Quick Frozen) are processed and quick-frozen pretty much as soon as they’re caught, and if they’re handled correctly, they’re a great ingredient for two. At the markets where we shop,several varieties of shrimp, including wild caught and domestic, with and without shells, are available in bags weighing from one to two pounds. We always have a bag in the freezer for quick weeknight dinners.
But don’t think that because you’re using the same ingredient, you’ll be eating the same thing every night. Not only do shrimp feature prominently in cuisines ranging from Mexican to Italian to American, but different cooking methods also add variety. Learn these five techniques for cooking shrimp and you’ll be able to use this great ingredient with perfect confidence.
Shrimp cook very quickly, so sauteeing is a classic way of preparing them, either plain or, as in the recipes here, tossed with sauce after cooking. The shrimp pick up the flavor of the garlic they’re sauteed with, and they stay juicy and tender because they’re removed while the sauce is finished, then added back in just to rewarm.
- Shrimp and Pasta with Tomato Cream Sauce
- Sauteed Shrimp with Toasted Garlic Sauce
- Spaghetti with Shrimp and Arugula
In some recipes, rather than being cooked separately, raw shrimp are added directly to a sauce and simmered just until done, resulting in a succulent texture and a hint of shrimp flavor in the sauce. When using this cooking method, add the shrimp only when the dish is almost completed, and keep the sauce at a bare simmer. Otherwise, you risk overcooking the shrimp.
- Shrimp and Red-Eye Gravy (aka Shrimp and Grits)
“Velveting” is a Chinese technique in which shrimp are briefly marinated in a mixture of cornstarch, egg white and rice wine before cooking in water or oil. The thin coating helps to protect the delicate flesh of the shrimp and keeps them incredibly tender. While the velveting step in this recipe for curry noodles does increase the prep time slightly, it’s well worth it. Remember to remove the shrimp from the cooking water before they’re completely done, because they’ll need to reheat in the sauce and will finish cooking then.
Once you have the technique down, try velveting a few ounces of shrimp to add to any Asian dishes, such as ginger-scallion noodles.
- Curry Noodles with Shrimp
Poaching in plain or seasoned water is a common technique for shrimp that are used chilled, such as in shrimp cocktails or salad. There are two secrets to perfect poached shrimp. First, keep the water well below the boil; it should barely be simmering. Boiling water will toughen the shrimp. Second, make sure you have a way to remove all the shrimp from the cooking liquid at once, so they don’t cook unevenly.
After poaching, shrimp are often chilled immediately in an ice bath to stop the cooking process. In both these recipes, however, I remove the shrimp from the poaching liquid just before they’re completely cooked and let them cool gradually so they pick up flavors from spices and citrus juice.
- Shrimp Salad Sandwiches
- Mexican Shrimp “Ceviche” Cocktail (photo on page 1)
Compared with the previous cooking methods, deep (or shallow) frying is relatively aggressive. Because shrimp are so delicate and cook quickly, they need a protective coating when fried. I find a three-stage coating with flour, egg and panko (Japanese bread crumbs) to be easy, reliable and delicious. The panko provides a light but crunchy coating while the shrimp inside stays moist and tender. If you use very large shrimp with this method, you may wish to butterfly them before coating so that the interior cooks at the same rate as the coating.
When you’ve mastered this technique, you can add panko fried shrimp to all kinds of dishes from Caesar salad to tacos.
- Panko Fried Shrimp