Smoked shell-on shrimp: the gateway to at-home smoking

Shrimp Getty Images/Christina Reichl Photography
Shrimp Getty Images/Christina Reichl Photography

I've always found the practice of food smoking intimidating. Discussions about wood chip types and temperature gauges generally make me want to run and hide, as does the prospect of a hulk of bone-in meat demanding 10 hours to cook (which, let's face it, usually ends up taking closer to 12).

When my husband suggested we try a smoked shrimp recipe from barbecue expert Steven Raichlen's stellar 2016 book, "Project Smoke." I geared up for my usual insolent protest, until my husband described the process:

Rinse and dry the shell-on shrimp; no cures, no brines — hell, no seasoning. Place them on an oiled rack in a smoker preheated to between 225 and 250°F (or, in our case, in a preheated charcoal grill containing a few handfuls of dry or soaked wood chips). Smoke for 30 to 60 minutes, peel and serve — hot! Or cold! Or with a dilly dipping sauce if you're fancy!

Wait, that's it? 

Simplicity aside, the gentle tinge of smoke lends savory depth to the sweet, toothsome shrimp, which has made this easy yet impressive recipe a favorite for dinner parties and Sunday afternoons.

"I think smoked shrimp is an excellent entry point to smoking because it's really just shellfish and smoke," said Raichlen, who hosts "Barbecue University" on PBS and has written 31 books, including "The Barbecue Bible" and "How to Grill." "It will quickly and easily lead you to things like oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, all of which are also easy to smoke."

Now I've done it.

Raichlen first came across this century-old shrimp smoking technique while visiting Bornholm, a Danish island in the Baltic Sea and the former smoked fish capital of Europe.

"If you drive around this relatively flat island, every couple hundred yards you see towering white brick chimneys," said Raichlen. "At one point there were 80 or 90 smoekhouses there, smoking everything from obvious salmon and eel to less obvious shrimp and herring. Being in the Baltic Sea facing the North Sea, it was kind of perfectly located as a source of seafood and a shipping point for dispersing it around Europe."

Smoked shrimp
Smoked shrimp

Smoked shrimp (Photo courtesy of Maggie Hennessy )Bornholmers smoke their seafood with local beech wood chips. Alder, which can be easier to find stateside, has a similarly delicate flavor profile that won't overpower the shrimp like mesquite or applewood might. The only drawback is that smoked shrimp can be harder to peel — particularly thinner-shelled shrimp that have recently molted. But you can facilitate this step by deveining the shrimp at the start of the process. To do this, make a lengthwise slit down the back of the shrimp with kitchen shears. Pull out the black vein using the tine of a fork or the point of a bamboo skewer. If this all seems too fiddly, remove the shell altogether, except the tail, and smoke the shrimp following the same method. Check them a little sooner for doneness; they will feel firm when cooked.

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