AmazingRibs.com is supported by our Pitmaster Club. Also, when you buy with links on our site we may earn a finder’s fee. Click to see how we test and review products.

The Science of Shrimp

There are many types of shrimp and prawns, and in the wild they are among the most important animals in the ocean food chain. Fish love them, whales love them, and humans love them.

Related to lobster, crawfish, and crabs, there are at least half a dozen common varieties harvested for food, and some are even farmed. Best of all, they don’t require much prep, and they cook quickly. You can boil them if you wish, but you know they are better grilled!

Buying shrimp

As with so many other seafoods, shrimp caught and flash frozen at sea or on the docks will usually be better than raw shrimp shipped cross country and left sitting in the grocery store for days. Flash freezing at very low temps keeps the ice crystals small so they don’t destroy as many cell walls as slow frozen shrimp. This prevents moisture loss. Just defrost frozen shrimp in the fridge.

Shrimp have no bones. They have an outer shell called an exoskeleton made from a sturdy variety of compounds. For culinary purposes, shrimp has four parts: (1) The head and legs which go all the way back to the end of the large solid shell called the carapace, (2) the abdomen, which is the good stuff, (3) the swimmerets, and (4) the tail.

Shrimp come in three forms: (1) Whole, (2) headless with shell, swimmerets, and tail attached, and (3) head, shell, swimmerets, and tail removed.

And they come in many sizes. “Jumbo shrimp” is among the goofiest terms in the culinary world. Shrimp are sold by the pound, and headless shrimp are measured by the number of shrimp per pound. Shrimp labeled 31/35 means there are 31 to 35 per pound and should be called medium but are sometimes called large. The size names can vary from merchant to merchant sometimes, and tend to be inflated like condom sizes. 16/20 are called jumbo, but I consider them large. U-12 and U-10, meaning under 12 or under 10 per pound, are called colossal or super colossal. For this reason, better recipes give you the count per pound rather than a size name.

All this reminds me of the time feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem testified before Congress on birth control and advocating that the smallest condom size be “large” saying that she just couldn’t envision men asking a pharmicist for a small.

Similarly, I recommend large shrimp. Small shrimp can be tedious to clean. Large shrimp are easier. Small shrimp are cooked through before they get dark on the outside. Large shrimp take longer and benefit from dark grill marks. Small shrimp are easy to overcook. Large shrimp are easier to monitor and cook properly. I recommend large shrimp, 16/20 or larger.

Leave the shell on, remove the head and vein

Shrimp shells protect the delicate meat from overcooking and, because they contain chitin (pronounced KITE-in), which is rich in sugars, they contribute flavor to the meat. If you marinate shell-on shrimp, the shell blocks much of the marinade from reaching the abdomen meat, and shrimp meat absorbs more marinade than almost any other meat. If there are a lot of spices, herbs, or marinade on the outside of the shells, however, they get on your fingers and then on the meat as you eat. Your fingers become like brushes, a part of the seasoning process.

I recommend cooking shell on, but this is problematic because the digestive tract, called the vein for some odd reason, sometimes contains grit, and many people find it unappetizing. You can buy shrimp that are already cleaned, with heads, swimmerets, shells, veins, and tails removed, but they cost more because this can only be done by hand. Doing it yourself is easy. You can leave the shell on and still remove the vein, thus exposing more meat to seasoning or marinade, and this is the best of all worlds.

Some people even eat the shells, swimmerets, and tails if they are soft enough. They are tasty, covered with seasonings, smoke from the grill, and laten with nutrients. This can be dangerous because there is a pointy tip called the telson between the two fins on the tail. If you are a shell eater, snip off the point of the telson before cooking so it won’t lodge in your throat and interrupt dinner with a trip to the emergency room.

Start by breaking off the heads at the point where the large solid shell, called the carapace, meets the smaller segmented shell sections of the abdomen. Then rip off the legs. If you wish, leave the tails on. They make nice handles when eaten with your fingers or when dunking in sauce or melted butter. For stand-up cocktail parties, remove the tails so people don’t have to figure out what to do with them after they eat the shrimp.

peeling shrimp

The vein runs along the convex side, the back of the abdomen. Sometimes it is hard to see, especially if the shrimp hadn’t eaten much before being killed. Sometimes it is black when filled.

Cutting Shrimp

With a scissors cut the shell all along the center of the back opposite the legs all the way to the tail.

shrimp vein

With a sharp paring knife, cut through the flesh until you see the vein. Cut from the head end all the way to the tail.

removing shrimp vein

When the vein is exposed, slip the tip of your knife under it and gently lift. It should all come out in one piece. If it breaks, repeat the action. Now rinse and pat them dry. Some recipes call for butterflied shrimp. After you remove the vein, just extend the cut you made a little deeper, but not all the way and spread the two halves open.

Shell on is best for sit down affairs on picnic tables covered with newspaper. It is sloppy and not a good idea for those formal black tie and ball gown affairs you like to throw. For these, I recommend shelled and cleaned.

Grilling shrimp

A very light dusting of baking soda raises the pH and that helps with browning as does a very light dusting of sugar. Be careful, too much baking soda can impart a slight metallic flavor, and too much sugar can burn. Pat the shrimp dry with paper towels first. If the surface is too wet it won’t brown. You don’t need to salt them, they should have enough salt in them already. Brush the shrimp with vegetable oil or melted butter to prevent sticking. I like to mix some spices in the oil. My Memphis Dust is my favorite but a blend of freshly crushed garlic and some chipotle powder is about all you need. I like to use a grill topper which also helps with browning. But you can use skewers. If you use just one, they will spin and not flip, so use two to hold them steady. Grill over direct heat, not full blast, about three to four minutes on each side depending on the thickness of the shrimp. Cook until the shrimp hits about 130°F and it turns bright pink on the outside and pearly white in the center and they get some grill marks. Be careful not to overcook shrimp!

shrimp skewers

Save the heads, shells, and tails

If you wish, you can save the heads, shells, and tails and boil them to make shrimp stock. Start by sautéing them in butter until they turn pink. The oils in butter extract flavor. Then cover with 2″ or so of water and simmer for a few hours reducing the volume. Taste until it is the strength you want. Then season with salt, herbs, whatever. You’ll then have a rich shrimp flavored buttery stock that you can use as a base for sauces or soups or for boiling rice or couscous.

Related articles

Published On: 3/24/2013 Last Modified: 3/10/2021

  • Meathead - Founder and publisher of AmazingRibs.com, Meathead is known as the site's Hedonism Evangelist and BBQ Whisperer. He is also the author of the New York Times Best Seller "Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling", named one of the "100 Best Cookbooks of All Time" by Southern Living.


If you help us, we’ll pay you back bigtime with an ad-free experience and much more!

Millions come to AmazingRibs.com every month for quality tested recipes, tips on technique, science, mythbusting, product reviews, and inspiration. But it is expensive to run a website with more than 4,000 pages and we don’t have a big corporate partner like TV network or a magazine publisher to subsidize us.

Our most important source of sustenance is people who join our Pitmaster Club, but please don’t think of it as a donation. Members get 21 great benefits. We block all third-party ads, we give members free ebooks, magazines, interviews, webinars, more recipes, a monthly sweepstakes with prizes worth up to $2,000, discounts on products, and best of all a community of like-minded cooks free of flame wars. Click below to see all the benefits, take a free 30 day trial membership, and help keep this site alive.


Post comments and questions below

grouchy?

1) Please try the search box at the top of every page before you ask for help.

2) Try to post your question to the appropriate page.

3) Tell us everything we need to know to help such as the type of cooker and thermometer. Dial thermometers are often off by as much as 50°F so if you are not using a good digital thermometer we probably can’t help you with time and temp questions. Please read this article about thermometers.

4) If you are a member of the Pitmaster Club, your comments login is probably different.

5) Posts with links in them may not appear immediately.

Moderators

  Max

Click for comments...

Spotlight

These are not ads or paid placements. These are some of our favorite tools and toys.

These are products we have tested, won our top awards, and are highly recommend. Click here to read how we test, about our medals, and what they mean.

Use Our Links To Help Keep Us Alive

A big part of this site is our unbiased equipment and product reviews. We love playing with toys and we have no problem calling them the way we see them. Some companies pay a finder’s fee if a reader clicks a link on AmazingRibs.com and buys a product. It has zero impact on our reviews, zero impact on the price you pay, and the sites never tell us what you bought, but it has a major impact on our ability to keep this site alive! So before you buy, please click our links. Here’s a link that takes you to a page on Amazon that has some of our favorite tools and toys: https://tinyurl.com/amazingribs


Grilla Pellet Smoker proves good things come in small packages

We always liked Grilla. The small 31.5″ x 29.5″ footprint makes it ideal for use where BBQ space is limited, as on a condo patio.
Click here for our review on this unique smoker


Bring The Heat With Broil King Signet’s Dual Tube Burners

3 burner gas grill

The Broil King Signet 320 is a modestly priced, 3-burner gas grill that packs a lot of value and power under the hood. Broil King’s proprietary, dual-tube burners get hot fast and are able to achieve high, searing temps that rival most comparatively priced gas grills. The quality cast aluminum housing carries a Limited Lifetime Warranty.

Click here to read our complete review



Surely you know somebody who loves outdoor cooking who deserves a gift for the holidays, birthday, anniversary, or just for being wonderful. There he is, right in the mirror! Here are our selections of best ideas, all Platinum or Gold Medalists, listed by price.

Click here to see our list of Gold Medal Gifts


Finally, A Great Portable Pellet Smoker


Green Mountain’s portable Davy Crockett Pellet Smoker is one mean tailgating and picnic machine. But it’s also gaining popularity with people who want to add a small, set it and forget it pellet smoker to their backyard arsenal. And with their WiFi capabilities you can control and monitor Davy Crocket from your smart phone or laptop.

Click here to read our detailed review and to order


Our Favorite Backyard Smoker

The amazing Karubecue is the most innovative smoker in the world. The quality of meat from this machine is astonishing. At its crux is a patented firebox that burns logs above the cooking chamber and sucks heat and extremely clean blue smoke into the thermostat controlled oven. It is our favorite smoker, period.
Click here for our review of this superb smoker


Is This Superb Charcoal Grill A Kamado Killer?


The PK-360, with 360 square inches of cooking space, this rust free, cast aluminum charcoal grill is durable and easy to use. Four-way venting means it’s easy to set up for two zone cooking with more control than single vent Kamado grills. It is beautifully designed, completely portable, and much easier to set up for 2-zone cooking than any round kamado.

Click here to read our detailed review of the PK 360

Click here to order directly and get an exclusive AmazingRibs.com deal


Blackstone Rangetop Combo: Griddle And Deep Fryer In One


The flat top does the burgers and the fryer does the fries. Use the griddle for bacon, eggs, grilled cheese, and so much more. And why deep fry indoors when you can avoid the smell and mess by doing it outside!

Click here to read our detailed review and to order