Learn how to poach shrimp in a flavorful broth with lemon, herbs, and peppercorns. This gentle cooking technique always results in perfectly tender, outrageously delicious shrimp for your favorite recipes.
Lighten up! Poach a whole bag of frozen shrimp for Shrimp Salad, Vietnamese Spring Rolls with Nuoc Cham, or a classic Shrimp Ceviche that makes you feel like you’re on a beach in Mexico. There are so many other fresh fish and seafood recipes for you to try, from Grilled Fish Tacos with Cabbage Slaw, to the ins and outs of making ceviche at home.
There’s something so irresistible and luxurious about a big plate of chilled, poached shrimp at a party, especially when there are a few fantastic dipping sauces nearby. And maybe a giant ice sculpture…how do they get it so clear???
When the craving for icy cold shrimp hits, don’t leave the cooking to the “experts” at the grocery store and by a pre-packaged tray of shrimp cocktail. Chances are you’ll get rubbery, past-their-prime, overcooked shrimp that don’t have much in the way of flavor.
Some poaching methods plunge the raw shrimp into boiling water, but I like to slow things down a bit. With this easy method, you can cook shrimp at home and get delicious, plump, perfectly tender prawns each and every time.
It starts on the stove, with the shrimp and aromatics together in cold water. As the water heats up, the shrimp cook gradually. Once they’re pink and just barely firm to the touch, they’re removed from the heat. Then they steep in the seasoned broth for a few minutes before getting plunged in an ice water bath. That’s all there is to it.
Shrimp are sustainable, low in fat, and a great way to lighten up your menu. I always have a bag of two in the freezer, (right next to the ice sculpture) just in case.
So, bring on the shrimp!
When to poach shrimp:
Hot recipes, such as pasta dishes, fried shrimp, and stir-frys will require the shrimp to be cooked another way. Butter poached shrimp, for example, is technically a recipe all its own with shrimp simmered in tons of butter and eaten in the sauce.
Seasonings for poached shrimp:
I like to use the same ingredients in a traditional Bouquet Garni—mostly just a handful of fresh herbs and their stems, lemon, and peppercorns. They can mingle in the poaching water, if you like—no need to bundle everything together.
- Dill. Fresh dill, stems and all. Waste not, want not.
- Parsley. Fresh parsley, stems and all—just as much flavor.
- Lemon. Squeeze the juice out of the lemon to add to the liquid, then go ahead and add the lemon wedges, too. Use 2-3 lemons for every pound of shrimp.
- Black peppercorns. 1 teaspoon of whole black peppercorns for every pound of shrimp.
- Salt. 1 teaspoon for every pound of shrimp you plan to poach.
- Sugar. 1 tablespoon for every pound of shrimp you plan to poach.
Other optional ingredients:
- Garlic cloves.
- Coriander seeds.
- Celery leaves.
- Cilantro, stems and all.
- Bay leaves.
- Pink peppercorns.
- Dried chile peppers.
How to poach shrimp:
If you’re using frozen shrimp, thaw them before poaching. Also, if possible, leave the shells and tails on, removing them afterwards—they add great flavor to the poaching liquid.
- First, find a saucepan that can accommodate the amount of shrimp you plan to cook. Add the raw shrimp, herbs, lemon juice, sugar, salt, peppercorns, and squeezed out lemons. Then fill the pot with cold water, covering the shrimp by 1-2 inches.
- Turn the stove on to medium heat. Cook, stirring the shrimp frequently. Keep an eye out. As soon as the shrimp turn pink and are just firm to the touch, remove the pot from the heat. Depending on the size of shrimp you’re cooking, as well as the amount of water in the pot and size of the pot, the cooking step could take 8 to 10 minutes or longer.
- Once you remove the shrimp for the heat, cover the pot and let the shrimp sit in the broth for 2 minutes.
- Meanwhile, make a large bowl of ice water. When the two minutes are up, immediately drain the shrimp and plunge them into the ice bath to halt the cooking.
- After a few minutes, the shrimp should be fully cooled. Take them out of the water and gently pat dry with paper towels.
- Finally, devein and remove the shells if you desire.
Cleaning and deveining shrimp:
You can clean and devein raw or cooked shrimp. It all depends on the recipe. For example, if you’re making Coconut Shrimp, clean and devein before cooking.
If you’re making cold poached shrimp for shrimp cocktail, you can do it after cooking. But, I personally prefer to do it before cooking no matter what.
- To devein a shrimp, you need a sharp paring knife or pair of kitchen shears. Make a shallow cut or snip right through the shell on the shrimp's back, from its head to its tail.
- Then pick out the black or green vein that runs along the back and discard it.
To take the shell off a shrimp, start by pinching off the tail, then the rest of the shell should peel off fairly easily.
Buying fresh vs frozen shrimp:
Surprisingly, your best choice is to buy…. frozen shrimp. That’s exactly right! The exception to this rule is if you live right on the coast, where shrimp boats come in and sell directly to you.
The reason frozen shrimp are better is because they tend to be highly perishable. As soon as they’re caught, shrimp are frozen right on the boats.
The majority of the “fresh” shrimp you see for sale have already been thawed out, and they’re getting less fresh every moment.
Frozen shrimp, on the other hand, are just as fresh as when they were caught. All you have to do is thaw them.
Bags of individually quick frozen shrimp are easy to locate, easy to thaw, and come in a variety of sizes and styles.
Tips for buying the freshest shrimp:
Here’s how to shop when you’re committed to buying fresh shrimp at the market.
- Smell the shrimp. Fresh shrimp should smell of the sea, briny and sweet. Avoid shrimp that smell like ammonia.
- Inspect the shrimp. Stay away from limp, slimy shrimp. If you’re buying whole shrimp, check for black spots on the shells. Black spots develop from oxidation, a sign that the seafood is less than fresh.
What’s better: wild or farmed shrimp?
Wild caught shrimp tend to have more bold, shrimpy flavor, but they can cost more. If you have a budget, search out farmed shrimp that are sustainably and responsibly raised. Most shrimp farms will advertise this right on the label, making it easy to spot.
Types of shrimp:
There are so many varieties of shrimp: rock shrimp, tiger prawns, spot prawns, and more.
But in general, for most of us, there are three basic types of shrimp: brown, white, or pink.
- Brown shrimp are from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast. They tend to be smaller and have a delicate flavor. You can identify them by their slightly purple-colored tails.
- White shrimp come from Mexico, Ecuador, Thailand, China, and other areas throughout Latin America. They’re sweet, tender and sport a greenish tail. Unfortunately, this shrimp isn't always sustainably farmed.
- Pink shrimp are very popular because mild and very sweet flavor. They live in southwestern Florida and the Gulf of Campeche. They are light in color, but have a darker blue tail.
Unfortunately, when you buy a bag of individually quick frozen shrimp, you don't always know exactly what variety you are getting. Therefore, my advice is to read the package labels carefully and visit Seafood Watch for the latest shrimp farming updates.
Decoding shrimp sizes:
Ever wonder what the numbers are next to the shrimp? Other than the prices, that is!
Well, similar to scallops, shrimp are sorted by size. The number indicates how many shrimp come in a pound. For example, the numbers 16/20 tells you that there are anywhere from 16 to 20 shrimp per pound.
Occasionally, you may see a letter U before a number, like U10. That means that there are approximately 10 shrimp (or Under) per pound. So...
Extra colossal shrimp=U10 shrimp= under 10 shrimp per pound
Colossal shrimp=U15 shrimp= under 15 shrimp per pound
Extra jumbo shrimp=16/20 shrimp= 16 to 20 shrimp per pound
Extra large shrimp=26/30 shrimp= 26 to 30 shrimp per pound
Predictably, the higher the number, the smaller the shrimp. The lower the number, the larger (and more expensive!) the shrimp.
Tiny shrimp are great choices for pasta, stir-fry, or fried rice. Bigger shrimp, technically called jumbo or even colossal, make big impressions. (Think super fancy shrimp cocktail or shrimp skewers.)
Shells: on or off?
Almost always, shrimp with the shells on taste shrimpier. Another way to look at it is that they haven’t been processed as much at the plant, so all of that delicate flavor stays where it needs to…in the shrimp.
It takes a little more prep work to clean and devein the shrimp, but I think it’s worth it.
- EZ-peel shrimp have the shells, but have already been split and deveined for you. This takes a lot of the work out of it for you.
- Pre-peeled shrimp require more processing, so they cost more. However, the delicate shrimp can get overhandled at the factory.
Long story short, if you want gorgeous, picture perfect shrimp, buying shell-on shrimp may be the way to go. But if it’s Thursday night and you just can’t even, I don’t blame you. No judgement whatsoever if you opt for a bag of shelled, cleaned, frozen shrimp.
How to thaw frozen shrimp:
Very important: you always want to thaw frozen shrimp before cooking them. That's the only way they'll properly cook.
When it comes to thawing frozen shrimp, you have a couple safe options:
- In the refrigerator. Let the shrimp thaw overnight in the fridge, (place the bag on a tray or in a bowl in case the bag has a tiny hole-- I learned this the hard way.)
- In the sink. For quick thawing, open the bag and put them in a bowl of cold (not warm) water. Then turn on the sink and let thin trickle of cold water run into the bowl, letting the excess water flow out of the bowl and into the sink. Depending on the amount you are thawing, the shrimp will thaw in a few minutes.
Quick and easy shrimp cocktail sauce:
What? You think I’d just leave you hanging without a super delicious cocktail sauce for dipping all that shramp? No way!
- 1/2 cup tomato ketchup
- 2-3 tablespoons prepared horseradish (start with 2—if you like more heat, add one more)
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Tabasco sauce, to taste
- Combine the ketchup, lemon juice, and horseradish in a small bowl.
- Add a squirt or two of Tabasco, then taste.
- Adjust with horseradish and more hot sauce if desired.
- Chill until ready to serve.
How to Poach Shrimp
- 1 pound extra-large shrimp 21 to 25 per pound, raw, peeled, deveined, and tails removed
- 2 cups water
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice from 2 to 3 lemons, squeezed halves reserved
- 5 sprigs fresh dill
- 5 sprigs fresh parsley
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon salt
- In a medium saucepan, combine shrimp, cold water, lemon juice, lemon halves, dill sprigs, parsley sprigs, sugar, whole peppercorns and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until pink and firm to the touch, about 8 to 10 minutes.
- Remove pan from heat, cover, and let shrimp sit in broth for 2 minutes. Meanwhile, fill a medium bowl with ice water. Drain shrimp and discard lemon halves, herbs, and spices.
- Immediately plunge shrimp into ice water until chilled, about 3 minutes. Remove from ice water and pat dry with paper towels. Use in recipes such as shrimp salad, pasta, salad, etc.