What NOT to Do When Cooking Shrimp

8 Common Cooking Mistakes That Can Spoil Your Shrimp

Common shrimp cooking mistakes
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When it comes to seafood, shrimp is America's favorite seafood. Shrimp (or prawns) are widespread, abundant and there are thousands of species adapted to a wide range of habitats. The commercial shrimp industry hauls in $50 billion each year thanks to that little curvy crustacean. 

Shrimp don't usually take long to cook, they usually taste better deveined, and there is a special way to prepare them if you are using a grill. There are at least eight things you need to remember about shrimp before getting a shrimp dinner to your dining table.

Take a look and make sure you are not committing one of these shrimp-cooking faux pas.


  • 01 of 08

    Do Not Buy "Fresh" Shrimp

    Why is this a mistake? You would think that fresh is always better than frozen, right? Well, yes, if you're buying live shrimp from a tank, or from the ocean, then those are truly fresh and are better than frozen.

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

    It is even a double whammy if you get whole shrimp (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 up again.

    The best way to buy shrimp is as individually quick frozen (IQF) shrimp in the shell and defrost (and peel) them yourself.

  • 02 of 08

    Do Not Defrost Them Improperly

    You got frozen shrimp, that's good. Now thawing is usually where you can go wrong next. It should go without saying that you never use a microwave for defrosting shrimp or never leave out shrimp to thaw on the kitchen counter. 

    The very best way to thaw shrimp is to place them in a colander in the refrigerator and let it defrost overnight. The colander is there so any liquid drains away. You do not want the shrimp to soak up that liquid and turn soggy and mushy.

    If you do not have all night, then the next best way to defrost shrimp is to seal the shrimp tightly in a Ziploc bag, with all the air pressed out of it, and run cold water over the bag for 5 to 10 minutes. The bag is important. If you run water directly onto the shrimp, they will become waterlogged. And whatever you do, do not use warm or hot water.

  • 03 of 08

    Do Not Overcook Them

    Like most seafood, shrimp does not 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. If they curl up into tight little O's, then you know they are overcooked.

    Fish and seafood cook much faster than meat and poultry. Not to mention, in the case of shrimp, they are small, so it does not take much time for heat to penetrate them. Whereas poultry is cooked to 165 F, shrimp are fully cooked when their teeny little interiors reach 120 F. You pretty much know they are cooked when they go from a translucent bluish-green (it varies depending on the type of shrimp) to an opaque pink or white. 

  • 04 of 08

    Do Not Skip Cleaning Your Shrimp

    The black vein that runs along the back of the shrimp is its digestive tract. 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 is not pleasant. The simple solution is to devein your shrimp.

    The easiest deveining method is to use a pair of kitchen shears. Simply snip 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. This is a two-for-one method, you can peel the shells off right then, or leave them on, according to your need.

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Do Not Leave on the Shells for Guests

    People in many parts of the world eat shrimp with the shells on, and it's not considered a big deal. They're crunchy and super-tasty.

    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—especially if they are being served as hors d'oeuvres at a cocktail party or in a pasta dish where you have to pick the shrimp out and get sauce all over your fingers. 

    Make it easy on your guests and remove the shells before serving. Although, if you leave the tailfins on, this is acceptable.

  • 06 of 08

    Do Not Remove Shells When Grilling

    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 will still be juicy when you bite into them. Leaving the shells on also helps them keep their shape, instead of curling up as they are prone to do. As for the mess of peeling, if you are grilling, you are probably eating outside more informally anyway.

  • 07 of 08

    Do Not Throw Away the Shells

    You have peeled your shrimp before cooking them. It seems natural to just toss the shells in the trash, but do not. Toss them instead in water to make a shrimp stock or consomme. Shrimp shells are worth their weight in culinary gold.

    The shells of crustaceans (shrimp, 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 the flavor in the shells. 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 to make bisque (you should!) or not, store shrimp shells in a Ziploc bag in the freezer until you are ready to use them.

  • 08 of 08

    Do Forget to Skewer Shrimp on the Grill

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

    Skewering the shrimp (with shells on) makes it easier to turn them. It not only helps prevent the shrimp from slipping through the grate, but it also helps them keep their shape.

    Although, a single skewer is not enough. You need a double skewer. If you try flipping a row of shrimp on a single skewer, they'll just spin around on the skewer like the reels on a slot machine. A double skewer will prevent that and makes flipping shrimp a snap.