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How-To

How to Make Barbecued Shrimp

Huge, buttery—but not actually barbecued—shrimp are a deliciously messy New Orleans tradition.

Fine Cooking Issue 128
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Food in new orleans can be untidy: gravy-laden po’ boy sandwiches, muffulettas dripping with seasoned olive oil, and—best of all—barbecued shrimp, for which we happily don bibs. Don’t let the name fool you, though— there is no grill or barbecue sauce involved in this dish. Instead, picture huge, juicy shrimp dripping with butter, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, and spices. Although no one’s quite sure where the name comes from, what is clear is that its great taste has earned this dish a spot in the canon of New Orleans classics.

Get the recipe: New Orleans-Style BBQ Shrimp

A New Orleans dish with Chicago roots

Barbecued shrimp was invented about 60 years ago at Creole-Italian eatery Pascal’s Manale. Legend has it that Chicago native Jimmy Sutro introduced barbecued shrimp to the restaurant in the 1950s. Jimmy was a friend of the owner’s family who loved to visit New Orleans and play the horses. When he wasn’t at the racetrack, he was hanging out in the restaurant. During one of those visits, Jimmy described a shrimp dish he’d enjoyed back home. The Pascal’s Manale kitchen went to work, putting a New Orleans spin on the Chicago recipe.

That original barbecued shrimp recipe remains a Pascal’s Manale secret, but is said to contain nothing more than whole, head-on shrimp baked with margarine, salt, and black pepper. A simple showcase for a beloved local ingredient, it became an instant hit.

A few tweaks to the original

Many New Orleans chefs have put their own spins on this dish, while staying true to the spirit of the original. Mine looks similar to the Pascal’s Manale classic, but there are some big differences. I just can’t bring myself to use margarine instead of butter, and I sauté the shrimp(rather than bake them) so that I can keep an eye on them and pull them from the heat as soon as they turn pink. They finish cooking in a covered pan off the heat. This gives them more time to absorb flavors without overcooking.

In addition to the classic salt and pepper—I use ground for flavor and crushed for texture—I spice things up with garlic, a nod to the dish’s Italian-Creole roots, and Worcestershire sauce. Bay leaves add a subtle herbal note and a bit of color. Lemon juice cuts the buttery richness of the sauce, and big slices of lemon add a bit more flavor and color.

Head-on shrimp are traditional

Of course, that sumptuous sauce is a waste without giant, juicy shrimp—preferably domestic wild-caught. They must have their shells on, to keep them juicy and to add flavor to the sauce. (This means they won’t be deveined, but don’t worry—there’s nothing harmful in those little veins.) In New Orleans, it’s easy for us to get shrimp with the heads on, and those are the standard. The heads add extra flavor and have fatty meat that we like to suck out after eating the bodies. Of course, you can also make this dish with headless shrimp. When they’re done cooking, it’s time to roll up your sleeves, put on a bib, and dig in.

To create a balanced, flavorful sauce, add the spices and aromatics to the melted butter and simmer briefly.
After adding the shrimp, use tongs to turn them and move them around, pulling the skillet from the heat as soon as they begin to turn pink to prevent overcooking.

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