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.
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.
- 2 1/2 pounds large (16–20 per pound) shrimp, peeled and deveined (frozen and thawed are okay)
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
- 4 medium cloves garlic, minced, divided
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 teaspoon zest and 4 teaspoons juice from 1 lemon
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
- Freshly ground black pepper
(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.