How not to ruin that most popular—and rightly so—of seafoods.

By Stacey Ballis
March 04, 2020

Shrimp are nearly magical: delicious, low in calories, a healthy part of a balanced diet, and always in season. Ranging in size from teeny tiny bay shrimp to super-giant prawns, they work on every kind of plate. They are great cold or hot, steamed or fried, and are as at home with delicate sauces as they are with big punchy flavors. Shrimp work with every flavor element: sweet, salty, spicy, sour, and even umami. There are shrimp dishes in nearly every culture, and often if you want to explore the food of a new region, shrimp is a great gateway dish.

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But: despite the superpower of shrimp, there’s one thing—and it’s a doozy—that can ruin them.

Overcooking.

A properly cooked shrimp is tender with a little bit of a snap followed by a gentle chew. An overcooked shrimp is rubbery and gummy, the flavor cooked away, and the pleasure trashed. It becomes a sad reminder of its own potential and little more than a sub-par delivery service for cocktail sauce. Here’s how to keep from overcooking the magic out of the shrimp equation.

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How Not to Overcook Shrimp

No matter if you are boiling, steaming, sautéing, grilling, or frying, it is important to watch for clues that your shrimp are done just right. Here are the four elements you can use to keep an eye (and fingertip) on things:

1. Color. Cooked shrimp is a pale milky white with a bright orange-pink on the shell or colored parts of the flesh. Bright opaque white is on its way to being overcooked.

2. Shape. A properly cooked shrimp is gently curved, like a culinary apostrophe, not clenched into a tight circle. If it looks like it is trying to eat its own tail, you have taken it too far.

3. Feel. When pressed with a fingertip, it should not feel mushy, but also should not be super hard. You want firm with a gentle give. Think ripe pear, not apple.

4. Temperature. If you want to wield a food thermometer, consider an internal temperature of 165 degrees, especially when cooking the larger shrimp varieties. And remember: Always err on the side of slightly undercooking, since carryover heat will add a few degrees.

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