What NOT to Do When Cooking Shrimp

8 Common Cooking Mistakes That Can Spoil Your Shrimp

Common shrimp cooking mistakes
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Shrimp is America's favorite seafood. Hooray! You've got good taste, America. But before you get busy with these curvaceous crustaceans, make sure you're not committing one of these shrimp-cooking faux pas.

  • 01 of 08

    You Bought Fresh Shrimp

    Wait, this is a mistake? That seems to make no sense. Fresh is always better than frozen, isn't it? Well, yes, if you're buying live shrimp from a tank, or from the ocean, then those are truly fresh and thus better than frozen.

    Otherwise, what we're talking about are those not-frozen shrimp you see displayed atop a pile of ice in the seafood case. They aren't frozen now, but they were. Now they're thawed and have been sitting there who-knows-how-long, slowly succumbing to...MORE spoilage, or someone buying them, whichever comes first. Don't be that someone.

    This goes double for whole shrimp (i.e. ones with their heads still attached). The heads contain an enzyme that can quickly turn the flesh mushy if not separated from the body immediately after they're caught. Freezing pauses this process, but thawing starts it right up again.

    The right way: Buy IQF (individually quick frozen) shrimp in the shell and defrost (and peel) them yourself.

  • 02 of 08

    You Defrosted Them Improperly

    So far, so good. But thawing is where people generally go wrong next. We can quickly rule out the most egregious methods, like the microwave, or thawing on the kitchen counter. What's left?

    The very best way to defrost frozen shrimp is in a colander in the refrigerator overnight. The colander is so any liquid drains away. Shrimp will soak up that liquid and turn soggy and mushy, so good drainage is crucial.

    The next best way is to seal the shrimp tightly in a Ziploc bag, with all the air...MORE pressed out of it, and then run cold water over the bag for 5–10 minutes. The bag is important. Don't run water directly onto the shrimp or they'll become waterlogged. And whatever you do, don't use warm or hot water.

    The right way: Thaw your shrimp in a colander (with a bowl under it) in the fridge overnight.

  • 03 of 08

    You Overcooked Them

    Like most seafood, shrimp don't need much cooking time. Their muscle fibers are much shorter than in meat or poultry, and the connective tissue that bundles them together is much thinner.

    Thus, fish and seafood cook much faster than meat and poultry. Not to mention, in the case of shrimp, they're small, so it doesn't take much time for heat to penetrate them. Whereas beef or poultry are cooked through at 160F, shrimp are fully cooked when their teeny little interiors reach 120F....MORE They'll go from a translucent bluish-green (it varies depending on the type of shrimp) to an opaque pink or white. If they curl up into tight little O's, they're overcooked.

    The right way: Cook shrimp until they're opaque and pink, but before they curl up.

  • 04 of 08

    You Didn't Clean Your Shrimp

    We mentioned the heads, now let's talk about the guts. The digestive tract, to be exact. Other than the idea of it, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with eating shrimp poop. The shrimp itself is basically a large sea insect, and you're already eating it. Still, the shrimp gut can also contain sand and mud, which while you might not taste it, the gritty texture will be none too pleasant. The solution: Devein your shrimp.

    The easiest way is with a pair of kitchen shears. Simply snip...MORE through the shell right along the outer curve of the shrimp, from the cut end toward the tail, and scrape out that little black wiggly bit. The beauty of this method is that if you want to, you can peel the shells off right then, or leave them on, according to your need.

    The right way: Devein your shrimp before cooking using a pair of kitchen shears.

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    You Left the Shells On

    People in many parts of the world eat shrimp with the shells on, and it's not considered a big deal. They're crunchy! The shells are also super-tasty (see #7 below). But in North America it's normal to remove the shells before eating, so your decision is: Will you remove the shells before cooking? Or after? Or will you not remove them at all, and leave the task to your guests?

    This is a tricky question, but most people find it messy and a hassle to peel each shrimp before eating it —...MORE especially if they're being served as hors d'oeuvres at a cocktail party. Or in a pasta dish, where you have to pick the shrimp up and get sauce all over your fingers. No!

    The right way: Unless you're certain your guests are the sort who relish the shells, make it easy on them and remove them before serving. (Although leaving the tailfins on is acceptable.)

  • 06 of 08

    You Took the Shells Off

    You knew this was coming, right? Whether it's best to leave the shells on or off is like so many things: it depends. Notwithstanding everything you just read above, one scenario when it is not only acceptable but indeed preferable to leave the shells on your shrimp is when you're grilling them.

    The shells protect the shrimp from the intense, dry heat of the grill, so you're less likely to overcook them, and they'll still be juicy when you bite into them. Leaving the shells on also...MORE helps them keep their shape, instead of curling up as they're prone to do. As for the mess of peeling, if you're grilling, you're probably eating outside anyway.

    The right way: Leave the shells on if you're grilling them (and see #8 below).

  • 07 of 08

    You Threw Away the Shells

    So you peeled the shrimp before cooking them. Good! But for heaven's sake, don't just throw the shells in the trash! The shells of crustaceans (that means shrimp as well as lobster, crayfish, and crab) are loaded with flavor. So much so that an entire cooking technique, for making a bisque, was invented for the purpose of extracting it. It involves roasting and then simmering the shells along with some aromatic vegetables, then using the liquid as the base for the soup.

    Whether you choose...MORE to make bisque (you should!) is up to you, but you can also use the shells for making a flavorful shrimp stock or consommé. Store the shrimp shells in a Ziploc bag in the freezer until you're ready to use them.

    The right way: Hang on to those shrimp shells: They're worth their weight in culinary gold.

  • 08 of 08

    You Forgot to Skewer Them

    Grilling is a terrific way to cook shrimp. But shrimp cook quickly — two minutes per side is generally about right — so you don't want to waste time flipping them one by one. By the time you get to the last ones, they've cooked for three minutes rather than two.

    Skewering the shrimp makes it easier to turn them, and not only helps prevent one of the little fellows from slipping through the grate, it also helps them keep their shape. But take note: a single skewer is not enough. Try...MORE flipping a row of shrimp on a single skewer and they'll just spin around on the skewer like reels on a slot machine. A double skewer will prevent that​ and makes flipping shrimp a snap.

    The right way: Grill you shrimp (in their shells) on a double skewer.