From Sunday tailgates to barbecues and back-to-school gatherings, we are all ramping up our entertaining. I know that in my family, the mark of a really awesome party was always an ample shrimp platter. Those white and pink curls spiraled around a punchy cocktail sauce (bottled but boosted up with extra lemon and fresh horseradish) meant we weren’t messing around. Sure, there were plenty of parties with just chips and dips, but when we broke out the shrimp, you knew it was a special occasion.
WATCH: How to Make Air Fryer Coconut Shrimp
Most of us either buy pre-cooked shrimp at the seafood counter, or bags of frozen cooked shrimp from the grocery store. And there is, let me be clear, no shame in that whatsoever. If you don’t know how to cook shrimp, or have to prep for a huge crowd, those are very good options.
But what if you are hosting a small gathering and want to flex some kitchen skills? Is there a benefit to prepping and cooking shrimp yourself?
Oh yes, friends. Oh yes, there is.
Read more: Scrumptious Shrimp Recipes
From a health perspective, the only drawback to pre-cooked shrimp (fresh or frozen) is the salt content. Precooked and prepped shrimp have sodium added as a preservative, and it can mean that a 3-ounce portion of these babies have over 800 mg of sodium, or over a third of your recommended daily intake. For people on a low-sodium diet, who are watching their blood pressure, or just keeping an eye on sneaky salt, this is a whammy. In comparison, shrimp that is either fresh (looking at you Gulf Coast lucky people) or wild caught and quick frozen on the boat, the untreated shrimp is only about 100 mg of sodium for the same size portion.
Then you have the cost factor. Cooked, prepped shrimp is much more expensive than raw, shell-on shrimp. They are charging you for the work. Recently, at one local grocery store, the cooked and prepped shrimp was $18.39 per pound, versus $8.99 per pound for the same size shrimp raw with the shells on. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather do the work and be able to afford twice as much shrimp, or better-quality beer to drink with it.
Get the recipe: Shrimp Fajitas With Mango-Lime Slaw
Secondarily, looking beyond your basic shrimp cocktail situation, a lot of recipes call for raw shrimp. So, if you want to get your scampi on, learning how to prep shrimp is a very good idea.
There are two methods I use for prepping shrimp, one for serving chilled, one for cooking. And by prepping, I mean dealing with the two things in the shrimp you should not eat, the shell and the vein. The shell, that chitinous exoskeleton that contains the meat, is not dangerous to eat, but it isn’t exactly delicious. And the vein, that black stripe that runs down the center of the back of the shrimp is, to be blunt, not a vein at all but rather a poop chute. Again, it is not dangerous to eat this, you will not get sick, and it doesn’t impact the flavor. Removing it is mostly an aesthetic decision. It is a little more important in large shrimp because it can be so pronounced. A lot of chefs don’t bother at all with medium to small shrimp. Sometimes when you get the shrimp out of the shell you can see that it isn’t really there, so it’s a matter of personal choice.
If you are going to just make a platter of cooked shrimp, you are going to want to cook it in the shell, to retain moisture and prevent waterlogging, and then peel and devein after cooking. If you need raw shrimp to cook with, you are going to peel and devein when raw.
Get the recipe: Lowcountry Shrimp and Grits
Buy your shrimp
Your local fishmonger or grocery store should have an okay selection, be sure to ask about the source. Almost no shrimp get to market without being frozen at some point, but you want wild-caught flash frozen if you can get them instead of the salt solution frozen. My pro-tip is to seek out a local Asian market if you have one near you. Their turnover on seafood tends to be high, and their selections are often superior. I am lucky enough to have two Korean markets and a Japanese market near me and almost always source my seafood at one of them. Most places will have a variety of sizes, and most will have the heads already off.
Get the recipe: Firecracker Shrimp
For cooked shrimp
To begin, you are going to want to prep an ice bath, because shrimp go from perfectly cooked and tender to superball rubbery in far less time than you think, so having a large bowl filled half with ice and half cold water to stop the cooking is essential.
Once your ice bath is ready, make your cooking brine by adding some salt, cracked pepper, lemon peel and a bay leaf to your pot of water. For every pound of shrimp you are cooking, you want 2 quarts of water with 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, one teaspoon of cracked pepper, two large strips of lemon zest and one bay leaf. Bring the brine to a rapid boil over high heat, then dump in your shrimp and turn the heat off and move the pot off the hot burner. The water will immediately stop boiling. Give the shrimp a stir and watch them closely. They will start to pinken and curl up. This will take between 2 and 4 minutes depending on the size of your shrimp (2 for small to medium, 3 for large, 4 for jumbo). You want a gentle curve, not a tight circle, so about half the way between the natural curve when you put them in and a tight circle.
When you see that they have curled over, immediately fish them out with a large sieve or spider, and dump them into the ice bath, swirling them in the ice to chill them out and stop the cooking. Do not just dump the pot of hot water with the shrimp into your ice bath. If you don’t have a way to get them out quickly, drain them in a colander first and then dump them all in the ice bath. Let them rest in the ice bath until fully cooled. If your ice melts too fast, add more.
To peel, simply run your thumb along the underside of the shrimp at the joint of the little legs. You should feel that seam separate, and you will be able to pop the shrimp out of the shell. Many people leave the tails on for perceived ease of sauce dunking, but I happen to fall into the camp that prefers not to deal with discarded shrimp tails sitting around the house on cocktail plates, and so I peel fully, no one has as yet complained. You do whatever makes you happy. Once the shrimp are out of their shells, to devein, run a sharp paring knife down the center of the back of the shrimp, and then run the shrimp under cold water to wash the vein out. Store wrapped in damp paper towels in a Ziploc bag in the fridge until you want to serve. Serve on a chilled platter or over ice. Eat within 2 days.
Get the recipe: Shrimp Fettuccine Alfredo
For raw shrimp
Raw shrimp are a little bit harder to peel, because the shells have not been made brittle by cooking, so I usually take a small pair of scissors and cut the underside of the shell in the center, from the head end to the tail, and then use both thumbs to pry it open like opening a book until you hear a crack. You should then be able to run your thumb under the shrimp on the curved side to remove. Remove the vein in the same way as you would for a cooked shrimp, then prep according to your recipe directions. (You can also still cook them the same way as you do above for the peeled shrimp if you choose, I just find it easier to peel after cooking.) Use peeled, prepped raw shrimp within one day.