Seafood

4 Little Genius Tricks to Make All Your Shrimp Dinners Better

May 31, 2017

I've been on a quest to make my shrimp dinners fall more consistently under the juicy, perky, mega-delicious banner instead of the sometimes dry or curiously mushy one. Shrimp are precious, and not cheap—they should be great every dang time.

All roads led back, as they often do, to J. Kenji López-Alt of the Food Lab column at Serious Eats and multi-award-winning book. As always, Kenji's work armed me with techniques that I will now remember and use every time—just as I flip my steaks obsessively every 30 seconds, and smash the dickens out of every burger, thanks to him.

After conducting several nights of side-by-side-by-side tastings in various kitchens with my bewildered husband, my favorite shrimp bites came from the 4 simple tricks nested within Kenji's recipe, which add very little more time or effort and outsized success.

Feel free to mix and match the 4 techniques below depending on your mood, time, and available supplies—they will all pamper your shrimp to some degree—or try them all at once in Kenji’s recipe for Grilled Shrimp Scampi-ish(1) with Lemon and Garlic.

1. Dry them really, really well.

Don't just pat them with a paper towel, but let them air-dry for a good hour or more in the fridge. Chef Dan Kluger leaves his for two hours. Kenji explains the drying-for-juiciness concept well: The surface of the shrimp won’t brown until it’s dry, and the longer it takes for the surface moisture to steam off, the more the middle heats up, too—so by the time you have a dry, searable surface, your poor shrimp are precipitously close to overcooked and tough.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“A couple of weeks ago, I was confronted with what to do with shrimp that were nearing their use by date, but it had been years and years since I last had cooked them. Did pretty much all you included (save for the baking soda thing, which is in my headspace only for fried chicken and for broccoli, but I'll definitely do next time). As for drying the shrimp? I used a salad spinner to great effect. ”
— Paul G.
Comment

This general principal is true of all things you sear, from pork chops to cauliflower steaks, but the window of cooked-to-overcooked for shrimp is much narrower, so it's extra important to give them a head start. The shrimp are bouncier, juicier, and very much not curiously mushy as a result.

2. Salt them a little bit ahead (a.k.a. dry brine).

In my testing, this was one of the most noticeable differences in making shrimp taste more delicious and more like themselves, and it should surprise no one. The same chemistry that helps turkeys and chickens to stay moist while seasoning them all the way through helps shrimp, on a much … shrimpier (and therefore quicker) scale. Use about 1 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of shrimp.

3. Add baking soda to the brine

Curveball! Baking soda is alkaline, bumping up the pH, which makes browning and the good flavors that come with it happen faster (we’ve also seen this in Ideas in Food’s genius crispy oven chicken wings). And it’s in such a teeny amount (about 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda for every pound of shrimp) that you won’t taste any suspicious soapiness, especially if you’re adding any other flavors to the mix—like the garlic, parsley, and lemon here.

4. Pack them onto the skewers

When the shrimp are snuggled close on skewers, head to tail, their inner bits are more protected while you singe their outers—I’ve used this technique for both grilling and searing in cast iron (and I’m guessing it would work great under the broiler, too). The skewers are also handy for suspending them in the fridge for dry time (refer to point #1). They will make you laugh every time you open the fridge.

(1) As Kenji points out in The Food Lab, the phrase Shrimp Scampi is redundant and therefore a little absurd (the Italian translates to shrimp shrimp), but regardless, this reminds me a grilled version of scampi, with its lemon, garlic, and parsley, so I added the Scampi. With an -ish.

Photos by Mark Weinberg

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps a genius dessert? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thank you to our Special Projects Editor/Stylist/Crustacean Fan Sarah Jampel for sending me down this rabbit/shrimp hole.

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9 Comments

jennifer November 26, 2017
Thanks for this great information. The problem I have with this article, though, is that the steps are not in sequential order. It was a real head-scratcher for me until I clicked through to Kenji's recipe. Sure enough, order of steps are: brine, skewer, dry, cook.
 
Julie M. January 31, 2018
thank you ! I was wondering the same thing so I figured I'd check the comments and bang answered right off !
 
Amy June 9, 2017
I soak them in saltwater for 15-30 and then dry them out before cooking. Kinda revives em back to life. Next time will try the baking soda part.
 
Ellie L. June 4, 2017
Great recipe! I will try this:) What about just grilling shrimp deveined but leaving the shells on for more flavor?
 
carswell June 3, 2017
I have been salting shrimp before cooking for years - I discovered that one inadvertently and it really does make a difference to the finished texture and taste. <br /><br />I do pat mine dry first but I am willing to try the air dry in the fridge.
 
David June 3, 2017
One of the tricks I read somewhere about how Chinese restaurants make their Broccoli-Beef so amazingly tender is that they use baking soda brine - 1/4 tsp baking soda to a tblsp water in a pound of thinly sliced beef. I have used that trick with just about EVERY meat I cook - whether it be stir-fried orange chicken (not deep fried) or thick & meaty pork chops. It works awesomely!<br /><br />I will start drying my meats, now!
 
Jaye B. June 5, 2017
David - I'm curious about your brine method. How much brine would you make for 4 meaty pork chops and how long would you let them sit in the brine? In other words, how do you expand your 1/4 tsp/1 tbsp formula?
 
Paul G. June 1, 2017
This is a very helpful article. A couple of weeks ago, I was confronted with what to do with shrimp that were nearing their use by date, but it had been years and years since I last had cooked them. Did pretty much all you included (save for the baking soda thing, which is in my headspace only for fried chicken and for broccoli, but I'll definitely do next time).<br />As for drying the shrimp? I used a salad spinner to great effect. <br />
 
zaqary May 31, 2017
I love the written format on these instructionals, however a very short video would be a nice addition. Especially for the visual learners. I know there is a lot of video content out there, but I think Food52's take on things would be simple, classy and different.