5 Mistakes to Avoid When Cooking Shrimp

Don't let these common pitfalls come between you and perfectly-cooked shrimp.

Shrimp is the most popular type of seafood in the U.S., and for good reason: it's delicious, nutritious, relatively inexpensive, it cooks up quickly for weeknight dinners, and it always feels a little luxe. Plus, it's incredibly versatile. At the risk of sounding like Forrest Gump famously listing all the ways the "fruit of the sea" can be cooked, shrimp is the star of countless dishes including shrimp cocktail, gumbo, scampi, and coconut shrimp — to name a few.

But this crowd-pleasing crustacean can also be tricky to shop for, prep, and cook. And no one wants to spend their money on shrimp that's past its prime or ends up dry and overcooked. So here are the five most common mistakes to avoid when cooking shrimp so you end up with fresh, sweet, and succulent results every time.

Mistake #1: Buying the Wrong Shrimp

Our favorite crustacean comes in many different forms — raw and pre-cooked, teeny-tiny Bay shrimp to colossal prawns, farm-raised or wild — which means there's a shrimp for every dish and every budget. It may seem like there's a lot to know, but don't be intimated. Really, there are just a few key things to keep in mind.

First: in general, wild-caught shrimp tastes better than farm-raised (and it's usually more pricey, too.).

Second: the numbers like "36/40" you often see on the packaging or displayed in the fishmonger's case, refer to the size. They estimate how many of that size shrimp would be in a pound (so the higher the number, the smaller the shrimp.) Larger varieties are usually more expensive than smaller sizes, but bigger isn't always better. It might be worth it to spend the money on the larger size if you're going to grill them whole, but it's probably not worth the splurge if you're chopping them up to make shrimp burgers.

The third thing to keep in mind is freshness: if you're lucky enough to live near a fish market that gets shrimp straight off the boat, shop there first. If you're nowhere near the shore, you may be better off buying shrimp that was frozen as soon as it was caught, before it was shipped. To ensure you are starting with a quality product, cook fresh shrimp the day you buy it and avoid types that are pre-cooked, are mushy, or smell like ammonia (a sign of spoilage). Also, avoid buying "previously frozen" shrimp and then re-freezing it at home.

Mistake #2: Improper Thawing

Shrimp are delicate and cook in a flash, so they should never be thawed in the microwave, or even in warm or hot water. Defrosting on a counter isn't a good idea, either, since they can spoil quickly.

Instead, thaw shrimp overnight in the fridge, inside a colander set inside a bowl to catch excess water. Or if you don't have time, seal them in an airtight bag and place them in a bowl of cold water until they defrost (it's not ideal to put shrimp straight in the water since they'll absorb some of it, diluting their flavor.)

Mistake #3: Overcooking the Shrimp

Chances are you're overcooking your shrimp — most of us do. Since shrimp can go from raw to tough, dry, and overcooked in the span of a few minutes, it's easy to do. To turn out perfectly-cooked shrimp, look for two visual cues.

First, pay close attention to color and opaqueness. As soon as the thickest part of the shrimp opposite the tail has turned pink and gone from that milky translucent look to opaque, it's done. If you're cooking shrimp on a grill or in a skillet, don't wait for the color and opaqueness to change completely before flipping them — do it as soon as you see the bottom half of the shrimp is pink and opaque to avoid overcooking.

The second visual cue to look for is the shape. When shrimp form a "C" shape, they're cooked. But when they curl into a tight "O" shape, they're overdone. If you think of the "C" as "cooked" and the "O" as "overcooked," it's easy to remember.

Shrimp cook up really quickly — in as little as a minute or two on the high heat of a grill — so trust these visual cues and resist the urge to cook them for a few more minutes "just to be safe" for the best results.

Hawaiian Garlic Shrimp Scampi
Chef John

Get the Recipe: Hawaiian Garlic Shrimp Scampi

Mistake #4: Not Deveining

You'll probably agree that removing the individual digestive tracts of a batch of shrimp has got to be one of the most unpleasant cooking chores out there. Eating that stringy black vein won't hurt you. But since the taste can detract from the otherwise sweet, delicate flavor of shrimp, deveining is not a step you want to skip.

You don't need a special tool — a sharp paring knife will do the trick (avoid dull knives, which will rip up the delicate flesh). But some cooks are more comfortable cleaning shrimp with a pair of deveining shears. Not only are they made especially for the task, but they're safer to use, and come in especially handy if you want to clean the shrimp but leave the shells on (scissors let you cut right through the flesh to the vein, leaving the shell still attached).

Or — better yet — skip this messy chore altogether by letting your fishmonger do the deveining for you.

Mistake #5: Throwing Away the Shells

We're used to de-shelling shrimp before cooking, but there are actually times it's better to leave them on. For high-heat cooking methods like grilling, leaving the shells attached gives the delicate flesh a little bit of protection from the flames, ensuring tender, juicy results.

The rest of the time, you probably don't give a second thought to tossing those shells away after you're finished cleaning. But both the shells and heads are packed with incredible flavor. Instead of relegating them to the trash, save them to make homemade shrimp stock you can sub in for water or meat stock in seafood recipes like jambalaya, bisque, or paella.

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