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Simple and so tasty, Shrimp Salad makes an ordinary day feel extra special. This classic recipe uses tender shrimp, fresh dill, lots of lemon juice, and crunchy vegetables in a light mayonnaise dressing. Try it today for lunch, and you’ll probably make it again by the weekend.
Shrimp are a great sustainable choice when you’re in the mood for seafood. But with all the choices out there, it’s tricky to know what’s what in the shrimp world. Here’s a handy guide for all your shrimp recipes, including buying, sizes, thawing, and cleaning.
Fresh or frozen shrimp?
Unless you’re on the coast, actually watching the shrimp boats come in for the day, your best choice is to buy…. frozen shrimp. That’s exactly right!
Because shrimp are highly perishable, most shrimp are immediately frozen as they’re caught, no matter what. That means most of the “fresh” shrimp you see at the market have already been thawed by someone. That freshness is becoming less fresh by the minute.
Frozen shrimp, on the other hand, are better preserved. You get to take advantage of all that flavorful, fresh shrimp as soon as you thaw them at home. All around, it’s a better deal.
Bags of individually quick frozen shrimp are easy to find, easy to thaw, and come in a variety of sizes and styles.
What to look for when buying fresh shrimp:
If you’re absolutely committed to buying fresh shrimp, here’s how to shop.
First, smell the shrimp. They should never smell like ammonia, which is a big clue that the shrimp are not fresh.
Also, avoid shrimp that are limp, slimy, or even falling apart.
And finally, if the shrimp are whole, meaning that they have heads or bodies, check for black spots. Black spots show up because of oxidation, a sign that the seafood is less than fresh. Like a banana or an apple.
Wild or farmed shrimp?
Wild caught shrimp tend to have more delicious, shrimpy flavor. However, if that’s not in your budget, look for farmed shrimp that are sustainably and responsibly raised. Shrimp farms will definitely advertise this on the label, so it should be easy to spot.
Types of shrimp:
There are dozens of varieties of shrimp: rock shrimp, tiger prawns, spot prawns, and more. For our purposes, though, there are three basic types of shrimp: brown, white, or pink shrimp.
- Brown shrimp are from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast. This is a smaller, warm water shrimp with a delicate flavor. You can identify them by their slightly purple-hued tails.
- White shrimp can be from Mexico, Ecuador, Thailand, China, and other places in Latin America. They’re tender and sweet, with a lighter color and a greenish tail. Commonly exported, this shrimp isn’t always farmed sustainably.
- Pink shrimp are popular because of their taste, which is mild and very sweet. They’re abundant in southwestern Florida and the southeastern Gulf of Campeche. They are light in color, but have a dark blue coloring on their tail.
Unfortunately, when you buy a bag of individually quick frozen shrimp, you don’t always know exactly what variety you’re getting. Read the package labels carefully and visit Seafood Watch for the latest details.
Sizes of shrimp:
So, what exactly are the numbers next to the shrimp? Well, like scallops, shrimp are sorted according to size. The number tells you how many shrimp are in a pound. For example, 16/20 means that there are anywhere from 16 to 20 shrimp in a pound.
Other times, you may see a letter U before a number, like U12. That means that there are approximately 12 shrimp (or Under) per pound. Have a look….
Extra colossal shrimp=U10 shrimp= these are under 10 shrimp per pound
Colossal shrimp=U15 shrimp= these are under 15 shrimp per pound
Extra jumbo shrimp=16/20 shrimp= anywhere from 16 to 20 shrimp per pound
Extra large shrimp=26/30 shrimp= anywhere from 26 to 30 shrimp per pound
With both types of numbering systems, the higher the number, the smaller the shrimp. The lower the number, the larger the shrimp.
Tiny shrimp are good for pasta dishes or fried rice. Larger shrimp, technically called jumbo or even extra colossal, are pricier. They do make a big impression, though. (Think super fancy shrimp cocktail.)
For this shrimp salad, or even Shrimp Ceviche, somewhere in the middle— like 21-25 count— is just fine.
Shells on or off?
In general, shell-on shrimp have more flavor. They haven’t been processed as much, so all of that delicate flavor stays in the shrimp.
Of course, that also means that you get to do a little more prep work to clean and devein the shrimp.
EZ-peel shrimp are shell-on, but have already been split and deveined for you. This takes a lot of the work out of it, but still gives you the flavor of the shell.
Pre-peeled shrimp tend to be more expensive (more processing) but you also run the risk of the shrimp getting overhandled at the factory. If you want picture perfect shrimp, shell-on shrimp may be the way to go.
But if it’s Thursday night and you don’t want to mess with it, I don’t blame you. No judgement if you opt for a bag of shelled, cleaned, shrimp.
The best way to thaw frozen shrimp:
First of all, 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. You can either let the shrimp thaw overnight in the fridge, (making sure to place the bag on a tray or in a bowl in case there’s a hole in the bag– I learned this the hard way.)
- In the sink. For faster thawing, take the shrimp out of its package, put them in a bowl of cold (not warm) water, and let a thin trickle of cold water run into the bowl, letting the excess water go down the sink drain. Depending on the amount you are thawing, the shrimp should thaw in just a few minutes.
Cooked or raw shrimp?
For this recipe, always use raw shrimp. They cook in some seasoned water right before you make the salad, which is an important step.
But generally speaking, all pre-cooked shrimp are overcooked, bland, and rubbery. By the time you add them to a recipe, chances are they’ll be dry and flavorless. And then you’ll never crave this salad ever again!
How to clean shrimp:
Typically, deveining and cleaning can be done before or after cooking. It depends on the recipe. For Shrimp Salad, I suggest keeping the shells on while the shrimp cook, to impart more shrimpy flavor. If you’re adding raw shrimp to a pasta or ceviche, clean the shrimp first.
Take off the tail, first, then the rest of the shell should peel off fairly easily.
To devein a shrimp, you need a sharp paring knife. Make a shallow cut right through the shell on the shrimp’s back, from its head to its tail, and then pick out the vein.
Shrimp salad ingredients:
Seasoning the water boosts the flavor of the shrimp while they cook. A tiny bit of sugar, black peppercorns, and lots of lemon and fresh herbs make the shrimp taste great.
- Shrimp. I like 21-25 shrimp, but you can go smaller or larger depending on what looks best at the market. If you like, you can peel and devein the shrimp after you cook them; this keeps the flavorful shells in the cooking water.
- Lemon juice. Or a handful of lemon slices.
- Dill sprigs. Fresh dill has so much more flavor than dried—I think it makes a world of difference in the salad.
- Parsley sprigs. The stems of tender, fresh herbs are great candidates for adding to the broth. They have just as much flavor, so save the leaves for the dressing.
- Whole black peppercorns.
Shrimp Salad dressing ingredients:
Note: there’s a much smaller amount of mayonnaise in this recipe than you think you need. But it works, I promise. It’s a light dressing that doesn’t overpower the shrimp.
- Mayonnaise. A good quality brand, such as Best Foods or Hellman’s.
- Shallot. Or finely minced red onion.
- Lemon juice. Ina prefers a splash of white wine in the dressing, as well as a dollop of Dijon mustard. Personally, I think the lemon juice tastes better.
- Fresh dill.
- Fresh parsley.
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper.
How to make Shrimp Salad:
- First you need to poach the shrimp. This cooking method is more gentle than plunging the shrimp into boiling water; it starts with cold water and medium heat. If you like, you can peel and devein the shrimp after you cook them; this keeps the flavorful shells in the cooking water.
- In a saucepan that can accommodate the shrimp, add the water, lemon juice, dill, parsley, sugar, salt, and peppercorns. By the way, the stems of the dill and parsley are just as flavorful. Use them if you have a limited amount of fresh herbs!
- Then add the shrimp and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the shrimp are pink and just slightly firm. This should take 8 to 10 minutes. Next, remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let the shrimp sit in the broth for 2 minutes.
- Meanwhile, make a large bowl of ice water. Remove the cooked shrimp from the broth and immediately plunge them in to the ice bath to halt the cooking. After 3 minutes, when the shrimp are cooled, remove them from the ice water and place on a few layers of paper towels. Pat dry.
- After that, if you haven’t already, clean and devein the shrimp. Then cut the shrimp in half and cut into bite-sized pieces.
- To make the dressing, whisk the mayonnaise, lemon juice, minced celery, shallot, fresh dill, fresh parsley, and salt and pepper together. At this point, don’t worry if it tastes too seasoned. In a perfect world, the dressing should be fully flavored and boldly seasoned. Shrimp are on the bland side, so they can take it!
- Next, add the shrimp and toss to combine. Adjust the seasoning with more salt and pepper, if desired.
- Then serve immediately or keep the salad chilled in the refrigerator until you need it.
How long does shrimp salad last?
You can serve your shrimp salad right away, or cover it and store it in the refrigerator for up to 1 day. Shrimp is perishable, so please enjoy it as soon as possible.
Tips for making the best shrimp salad you’ve ever had:
- Don’t overcook the shrimp. You want them tender, not rubbery.
- You can size up or down. Smaller shrimp are just as tasty, so don’t worry if the store has 31-40 shrimp. Then you won’t have to cut them into bite-sized pieces.
- Use a low-fat mayonnaise if you want to reduce the fat even more for a healthy shrimp salad.
- Consider buying peel-on shrimp, and peeling and cleaning them yourself. You’ll have a delicious salad, with a little extra work.
Ways to serve shrimp salad:
- On a bed of lettuce, with a spoon and fork so everyone can help themselves.
- Spread on rye toast, crackers, or toasted baguette as an indulgent snack.
- Tucked into lettuce leaves with a wedge of avocado.
- On sandwiches, spread on bread and sprinkled with a dusting of Old Bay seasoning.
- Make spicy shrimp salad, with a chipotle mayo and diced jalapeño in the dressing.
For the shrimp:
- 1 pound extra-large shrimp 21 to 25 per pound, 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 granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon salt
For the salad:
- ¼ cup mayonnaise
- 1 celery rib minced
- 1 small shallot minced (about 2 tablespoons)
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon fresh dill minced
- 1 teaspoon fresh parsley minced
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
To make the shrimp:
- 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. Cut shrimp in half lengthwise and then into thirds.
To make the salad:
- In a medium bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, celery, shallot, lemon juice, dill, and parsley. Add shrimp and toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper (I like ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper).
Meggan Hill is a classically-trained chef and professional writer. Her meticulously-tested recipes and detailed tutorials bring confidence and success to home cooks everywhere. Meggan has been featured on NPR, HuffPost, FoxNews, LA Times, and more.
Wow, was this delicious! Everyone at the picnic loved it.