Small But Mighty: How to Cook Shrimp

Do you know how to cook shrimp? Even if you don’t, chances are you like to eat it: in the United States, the it is the most popular type of seafood, accounting for over 25 percent of all seafood consumption.

How to cook shrimp

Learn all about shrimp, then master four easy ways to cook shrimp!

Happily, learning how to cook shrimp is not difficult: In fact, in most cases, the less you do with it the better. Mastering cooking shrimp is merely a matter of choosing your shrimp well and honing some simple techniques. 

Here, we’ll offer a well-rounded education on cooking shrimp, starting with an education about what shrimp are and culminating with four easy ways to prepare them.

Cream Shrimp dish

Via Craftsy instructor Raghavan Iyer

What are shrimp?

You could Google it, but we already did it for you: A shrimp is “a small free-swimming crustacean with an elongated body, typically marine and frequently harvested for food.”

Shrimp are generally tiny in size (the smallest varieties can’t even be seen by the human eye!), and can be found on the bottom of the water in nearly every part of the world. There are over 2,000 types of shrimp, which can vary in size and visual appearance, but what they all have in common is that they lack a backbone; instead, they have a rigid exoskeleton (what we call the “shell” in a culinary setting). 

Perhaps more compelling than what shrimp are, however, is what shrimp are not: namely, fish. Despite residing in the ocean and taking up real estate on the same part of restaurant menus, shrimp are not fish. In fact, as part of the arthropoda phylum, they are actually more closely related to centipedes than they are to fish!

What’s the difference between shrimp and prawns? 

Some people call them “prawns” and others call them “shrimp.” Is there actually a difference? Actually, yes, but the differences are quite subtle. According to About.com, the key differences are that shrimp have branching gills and a side plate that overlays segments in front and behind, and they carry their eggs outside of their bodies beneath their tails.

Honestly, though, these differences don’t amount to much once the shrimp (or prawns) are prepped for cooking, which may explain why the terms are frequently used interchangeably in the culinary world.

Shrimp vendor in market

Photo licensed via Creative Commons by Flickr member Susan Sermoneta

Different types of shrimp 

As previously noted, there are over 2,000 varieties of shrimp. We’re not going to cover all of them here, but this is a good introduction to some of the most common varieties. 

Brown shrimp

Brown shrimp are one of the most popular types of shrimp sold in the U.S. Sweet and firm, brown shrimp are among the “shrimpiest” tasting varieties. They tend toward smaller sizes and have a light pink color with distinct gray and brown accents along the shell and tail. While most brown shrimp come from the Gulf of Mexico, they are caught all up and down the eastern coast. The peak season for fresh brown shrimp is June through August.

Gulf pink shrimp

Tender and mild, these large, plump shrimp are primarily caught in the Gulf of Mexico, and are particularly famous in Creole style cookery. While these shrimp proliferate in the winter and spring months, they are caught year-round.

Northern shrimp

Typically caught in the colder waters of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada, these shrimp are fairly small in size. Tender in texture and subtle in flavor, they are well suited to a number of different preparation methods, and their mild flavor makes them versatile in cooking. They are caught most of the year, with some slower months during the winter. 

Pink shrimp

Characterized by a relatively tiny size and a pink hue, pink shrimp are small but juicy, tender and mighty in flavor. Not to be confused with Gulf pink shrimp, they are primarily caught in the Pacific Northwest and along the west coast of the United States. The peak season for fresh pink shrimp is April through October.

Rock shrimp

Rock shrimp don’t look like other shrimp: while they are medium in size, it’s their hard, spiny shell that really makes them look unique. Their “rock-hard” texture gives the shrimp their name. Rock shrimp are prized for their extremely rich, buttery, lobster-like flavor. Particularly caught around Florida, these shrimp are delicate in cooking and only need to be cooked very briefly. 

Royal red shrimp 

A deep-water shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, these characterized by a deep red color (darker than pink shrimp) and a rich, sweet flavor that is sometimes likened to lobster. Prepare simply, to highlight their flavor. While royal red shrimp are caught year-round, they are considered at their peak during the late summer and early fall.

Spot shrimp

These unique-looking shrimp, which are primarily caught in the northwestern United States and lower western Canada, are notable for their size: some varieties are as long as 10 inches. They have a sweet, buttery flavor. Since they have a particularly short shelf life, they are often frozen. 

Tiger shrimp 

Tiger shrimp are enormous — sometimes up to a foot in length (picture a lobster without pincers or tail). Unique striped coloring is what gives them their name. While they are native to Asia, they have recently been found in parts of the eastern United States. Do not overcook tiger shrimp, as they can become overly chewy. 

White shrimp

Prized for their larger size, white shrimp are large, plump shrimp with a clean, classic shrimp flavor. Because of their larger size, they are well suited to grilling as well as more traditional methods of cooking like boiling and sautéing. White shrimp are caught primarily in the southern U.S., both along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. They are also caught in parts of the west coast. The peak season for fresh white shrimp is between May and December. 

Shrimp pad thai

Via Craftsy instructor Nancie McDermott

Different sizes of shrimp

What makes a shrimp classified as “small” versus “jumbo”? This can be confusing — the so-called “jumbo” shrimp at a restaurant might more closely resemble what are labeled “medium” at a grocery store’s seafood department. Instead of relying on the description, look at the count specified. This signifies how many shrimp will be in a pound. So, for instance, if you’re purchasing a pound of “16-20 count” shrimp, there will be 16-20 shrimp packaged for you. 

How to buy shrimp 

Sure, there’s a preferred way to buy shrimp: directly from the shrimp boat that has just come in to the pier! However, due to geographical restraints, this may not be possible. So if you’re headed to the grocery store, what should you look for? 

If buying fresh shrimp, look for specimens that look firm and smell neutral. If the shrimp in question appear limp or slimy, are dotted with black spots or give off an ammonia-like smell, just keep on moving. 

If the closest ocean is a day’s drive away or more, frozen shrimp can actually be a better choice than fresh shrimp. Honestly, what appear to be “fresh” in your grocery store seafood department are more often than not thawed from frozen! The shrimp are often frozen shortly after being caught, which actually preserves their freshness, assuring that if you can’t have freshly caught shrimp in your entree, you can at least have a pretty good approximation. 

If you buy shrimp that is still frozen, let it thaw before cooking by placing them in a colander. This will take 30 minutes or less. 

Deveining shrimp

Photo via Craftsy blog

Before you cook your shrimp

Before you cook, you’ll need to prep the shrimp for cooking. Typically, the heads are already removed, but for many cooking methods, you’ll need to remove the shells and devein the shrimp. For the proper method of preparing shrimp for cooking, check out our step-by-step guide to how to devein shrimp.

How to cook shrimp 

Here are some of the easiest and tastiest ways to cook up your crustaceans. 

Boiled shrimp

Boiling

  • 1/2 pound shrimp
  • 4 cups water
  • Pinch of salt 

Step 1:

If applicable, thaw, peel and/or devein your shrimp. Leave the tails on.

Step 2:

In a large pot, heat the water and salt over medium-high heat until it comes to a rolling boil.

Step 3:

Add the shrimp and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 2-3 minutes, or until opaque and pink. 

Step 4:

Remove from heat and drain the water. Transfer the shrimp into a bowl atop an ice bath to halt the cooking process and keep the shrimp from becoming chewy. Your shrimp is ready to serve or to be added to the recipe of your choosing. 

Sauteed shrimp

Sautéing 

  • 1/2 pound shrimp
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons oil, butter or other cooking fat
  • Salt, pepper or other seasonings, to taste 

Step 1:

If applicable, thaw, peel and/or devein your shrimp. Leave the tails on.

Step 2: 

In a large skillet with ample room to spread out the shrimp, heat the oil (or other fat) over medium-high heat. 

Step 3:

Once the oil is shimmering, add the prepared shrimp. They should sizzle when they hit the pan. Reduce the heat to medium. Sprinkle with the seasonings of your choice.

Step 4:

Cook, stirring frequently, until the shrimp have become opaque in color and the tails have darkened. This will take about 3-4 minutes. Make sure that both sides of the shrimp are exposed to heat.

Step 5: 

Remove from heat and turn the shrimp out of the pan. They are ready to eat or to be added to the recipe of your choosing. 

Grilled shrimp

Photo licensed via Creative Commons by Flickr member Mike McCune

Grilling

  • 1/2 pound shrimp
  • 2 tablespoons oil, melted butter or liquid fat of your choice
  • 1/2 lemon
  • Salt, pepper and seasonings of your choice

Step 1: 

Heat up your grill (alternatively, heat a grill pan over high heat on your stovetop).

Step 2:

If applicable, thaw your shrimp. Butterfly and devein, but do not remove the shells. Leave the tails on.

Step 3:

Brush the shrimp with oil (or other fat) and squeeze lemon juice on top. Sprinkle with salt, pepper or other seasonings to taste.

Step 4:

Grill the shrimp until they turn opaque and pink, about 2 minutes on each side.

Step 5:

Remove from heat, and serve immediately or add to the recipe of your choosing.

Roasting 

  • 1/2 pound shrimp
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons oil, melted butter or other liquid fat
  • Salt, pepper and seasonings of your choice

Step 1: 

Preheat your oven to 400 F. Grease or spray a rimmed baking sheet with non-stick spray.

Step 2:

If applicable, thaw, peel and/or devein your shrimp. Leave the tails on.

Step 3:

Scatter the shrimp on the sheet and drizzle with olive oil (or other fat). Sprinkle with salt, pepper, or seasonings of your choice. 

Step 4:

Place the pan in the preheated oven. Cook for 6-8 minutes, flipping the shrimp at the 3-minute mark. To detect doneness, look for an opaque finish and pink color.

Step 5:

Remove from the oven, and serve immediately or incorporate into the recipe of your choosing. 

Storing shrimp 

Cooked shrimp can be frozen for up to 2 weeks but will not keep for very long in the fridge — up to 2 days. It will taste best if consumed the same day made.

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