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.
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 BA’s 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.