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Recipe: Everything You Need to Know to Make Juicy and Succulent Prawns

Every way to prepare your prawns from sautéeing, to poaching, grilling, and broiling

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By Bon Appetit US | March 26, 2024 | Recipes

In our arsenal of quick-cooking dinners, shrimp is a superhero. The little crustaceans cook in under five minutes, minimizing the amount of time that stands between you and sitting at the table. Lemon-oregano shrimp can be yours in 20 minutes or less. This shrimp and basil stir-fry is ready in just 15! But shrimp is more than a weeknight dinner staple; it’s one of our favorite proteins for making an impressive dinner that doesn’t require too much effort. Case in point: a little shrimp cocktail will turn any occasion into a party. Learn how to cook shrimp perfectly no matter the method, and never wonder “what’s for dinner?” again (okay, that might be a little extreme—but you get the point).

How to shop for shrimp:

Raw shrimp have a brown “vein” running along their back. This is their digestive tract—a.k.a. their poop chute. While it’s technically safe to eat, leaving the matter in will give the shrimp a gritty texture and muddy their flavor; most prefer to remove it before cooking. Now for some good news: You can buy deveined shrimp, which have this unsavory bit already removed—or ask your fishmonger to devein the little buggers for you. Are you the DIY type? We’ve included instructions below on how to devein shrimp yourself.

Shrimp Sizes

Your grocery store is likely to carry a range of shrimp sizes: small, medium, large, jumbo, or colossal, usually categorized by how many shrimp you can expect per pound. The majority of our shrimp recipes call for large shrimp unless otherwise specified (for example, our best shrimp cocktail calls for jumbo shell-on shrimp).

Here’s the trouble: Naming conventions differ based on where you live and shop, so one store's large shrimp might be another’s jumbo. To keep things simple, go by weight whenever available. You’ll typically get 36–40 small shrimp per pound, 31–35 medium shrimp per pound, 26–30 large shrimp per pound, 21–25 jumbo shrimp per pound, 16–20 super jumbo shrimp per pound, or 15 or fewer colossal shrimp per pound. I.e., the higher the number, the smaller the shellfish.

If you’re using a different size shrimp than the recipe calls for, that’s fine—just adjust the cook time accordingly. Smaller shrimp will cook faster than larger ones, while the total time for bigger boys will be a little longer. Here’s associate food editor Kendra Vaculin’s rule of thumb: Cook medium shrimp for approximately 3 minutes, large shrimp for 4–5 minutes, and jumbo shrimp for 6–7 minutes. As for small shrimp, blink and you could miss it, so don’t walk away.

Shell-On or Shell-Off

You can buy shrimp either in the shell or peeled. For the speediest dinners, we prefer peeled, deveined shrimp (less work on your end). But shrimp that’s still in the shell is often less expensive than peeled shrimp, so if you don’t mind doing the work yourself, this could be a good option.

You can also opt to cook shrimp with the shell on—not only do the shells add flavor, but they also keep the shrimp from overcooking and help them retain moisture when exposed to heat. Shrimp that’s in the shell will sometimes come with the head attached, which is where most of the fat is concentrated; some like to cook shrimp with the heads on, twist the head off and suck out the juices. If you do decide to peel your shrimp, save the shells for shrimp stock (the key ingredient in shrimp risotto) or to add fishy flavor to sauces.

Leave the tail on for built-in shrimp handles.

To peel shrimp: Twist off the head (if not already removed) and pull off the legs. Snip the “backbone” of the shell lengthwise with kitchen shears and wiggle your fingers under the shell, pulling it off. Leave the tail on or remove.

To devein shrimp: Use a sharp paring knife to make an incision beside the vein running along the back of the shrimp. Use the tip of the knife to coax out the dark vein; discard. (Wiping your knife on a damp paper towel is a quick and easy way to do this.)

How to cook shrimp, 4 ways:

You can make a delicious, speedy dinner with either fresh or frozen shrimp. If shopping for frozen shrimp, make sure “shrimp” is the only ingredient on the list; some producers plump their shrimp with saline solution, à la Botox, which can prevent them from getting a nice sear. Let the shrimp thaw in the refrigerator overnight, if you think that far ahead, or do a quick thaw by running them until cold water in a colander. Pat the thawed shrimp dry with paper towels, and proceed with your cooking method of choice.

You can marinate shrimp, but don’t let them sit in the marinade for too long (30 minutes, max) or you’ll compromise their texture; in this recipe for Sambal Shrimp Lettuce Wraps, the shrimp hang in the spicy marinade for a mere 10–15 minutes before hitting the pan.

The biggest challenge in cooking shrimp is determining when they’re done. Undercook and they’ll be mushy and translucent; overcook and they’ll be rubbery and nearly inedible. The best way to tell when shrimp are cooked through is to look for visual cues: “Watch for the shrimp to curl and turn opaque,” says Kendra. Undercooked shrimp will be gray and translucent, with uncurled tails. Perfectly cooked shrimp will be opaque with a color ranging from pink or orange, depending on variety. Their tails should curl in slightly to make a C-shape. Overcooked shrimp will be a solid white-pink color, with their tails completely curled into a tight circle.

If you’ve chewed through rubbery shrimp before and don’t want to chance overcooking, Kendra suggests pulling the shrimp off the heat just before they’re fully opaque. Carryover cooking will take them the rest of the way.

How to Cook Shrimp on the Stovetop

There are two primary methods for cooking shrimp on the stovetop: Sautéeing in a hot pan or poaching in boiling water. We’ll start with sautéed shrimp, which you can coat in brown butter or green sauce for a quick, easy dinner.

When sautéing shrimp on the stovetop, opt for a large skillet, which will allow them plenty of space to cook without overlapping. Cooking shrimp in a single layer gives each shrimp maximum contact with the hot surface, resulting in an evenly caramelized exterior. Once you drop the shrimp in the hot pan, don’t move them, which will interfere with the browning process—you only have a few minutes to develop that golden crust, so make every second count. If you plan to coat your shrimp in a sauce, you might think the sear isn’t so important, but those browned bits contribute deep flavor to any sauce, so let those shellfishies be.

Remember that shrimp cook lightning-fast, so keep an eye on the pan and don’t you dare walk away to check on whatever’s in the oven. This is not the time for multitasking. This is time to focus.

Okay, last question: Should you sear the shrimp in oil or butter? The answer is both. Kendra likes to sear shrimp in olive oil, then add butter at the end, spooning it over the shrimp (a.k.a. basting) as the butter melts.

Heat a stainless-steel or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Season 1 lb. large peeled deveined shrimp with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add 2 Tbsp. olive oil to the pan, then arrange shrimp in a single layer on the bottom of the skillet.

Cook without moving for 2 minutes for medium shrimp, 3 minutes for large shrimp, or 4 minutes for jumbo shrimp. Flip shrimp and continue to cook, tossing, until the shrimp are just cooked through—1 minute for medium shrimp, 1–2 minutes for large shrimp, or 2–3 minutes for jumbo shrimp. Add 1 Tbsp. butter to the pan; as it melts, toss to coat shrimp.

Remove shrimp from heat and serve.

To make garlic butter shrimp, add 2 cloves of minced garlic to the pan with the olive oil. Finish the sautéed shrimp with more kosher salt if needed and red pepper flakes.

Add some quick-cooking veg to the pan to make it a complete meal.

How to Poach Shrimp

This technique is most commonly deployed for shrimp cocktail, but poached shrimp are a great make-ahead option. After dropping the peeled shrimp in a pot of boiling water, you’ll want to dunk them in ice-cold water to stop the cooking process. Use them in Shrimp Vuelve a La Vida or Cold Shrimp in Dill Cream Sauce.

Scoop 8 cups ice into a large bowl and set aside. Combine ¼ cup Diamond Crystal or 2 Tbsp. Morton kosher salt with 6 cups water in a large saucepan—the water should taste salty, like the sea. Add additional seasonings as desired, such as lemon juice (plus their rinds), smashed garlic cloves, whole peppercorns, or a spring of fresh thyme.

Bring liquid to a boil, stirring to dissolve salt, then remove pot from heat. Add 1 lb. jumbo shell-on shrimp, deveined, and poach, uncovered (1½–2 minutes for large shrimp, 2–3 minutes for jumbo shrimp, 3–4 minutes for super-jumbo shrimp, or 5+ minutes for colossal shrimp).

Immediately add reserved ice to saucepan to rapidly chill the liquid and stop the cooking. Let shrimp sit in ice bath 10 minutes. Drain, pat dry, peel, and pat dry again. Cover and chill until ready to serve. Shrimp can be poached and peeled 1 day ahead—keep chilled until ready to use.

How to Cook Shrimp on the Braai

Tired of burgers and hot dogs? Tossing shrimp on the grill is our favorite way to level up any standard cookout. When grilling, we like to use shell-on shrimp; the shell provides a protective barrier from the flame. Check out our recipes for grilled shrimp with old bay and aioli or grilled shrimp with palapa for inspiration.

If grilling peeled shrimp, thread them on a skewer for easier maneuvering and to minimize the risk of losing the little guys to the coals (particularly important if you’re working with smaller shrimp). No skewers? Cook them in a grill basket.

Prepare grill to medium-high heat (between 350–400°). Lightly oil the grill grate to prevent the shrimp from sticking.

If using shell-on shrimp, season 1 lb. large shell-on shrimp with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper and toss with 1 Tbsp. oil. Place directly on grill grate and cook for 3 minutes, flipping halfway through.

If using peeled shrimp, season 1 lb. large peeled deveined shrimp with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper and thread on skewers (about 3–4 shrimp per skewer). Place directly on grill grate and cook for 3 minutes, flipping halfway through.

Remove shrimp from grill and dress as you please.

How to Cook Shrimp in the Oven

Not quite grilling season? You can cook shrimp under the broiler to similar effect. We use this speedy method to make shrimp tacos or Shrimp With Feta and Tomatoes. Here’s how to do it:

Place a rack in the highest position in the oven. Heat the broiler.

Season 1 lb. large shell-on shrimp with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper and toss with 1 Tbsp. oil. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and broil for about 2 minutes. If your shrimp are opaque and springy to the touch, they’re done. If not, remove from broiler and flip each shrimp onto its other side. Broil again until shrimp are cooked through, 1–2 minutes.

Shrimp recipes? We’ve got plenty.

Sautéed or grilled shrimp need little more than a squeeze of lemon juice to shine, but the versatile protein can take on countless flavor profiles. Go the Italian route with classic shrimp scampi or bring Cuban flair with turmeric mojo sauce. Grilled shrimp lettuce cups make a cooling summer dinner, as do shrimp tacos with pineapple. Sriracha-garlic butter shrimp? Guaranteed winner. Cajun shrimp and grits? We’ll have it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Speaking of dinner: If you’re feeling social, call up some friends and host your very own shrimp boil.

Shrimp can get crispy, too—crunchy coconut-sesame shrimp make an excellent party appetizer, while pan-fried shrimp over cabbage slaw make a wonderful main. Add shrimp to a salad or noodle bowl, poach it in ghee, or serve simply with a sidecar of melted butter and lemon wedges.

This story originally appeared on Bon Appetit.