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Sear & Sauce for Fast Shrimp Sautés

Fine Cooking Issue 85
Photos: Scott Phillips
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One of the things I love most about shrimp—and the reason I make it often on weeknights—is that it cooks so quickly. But if that is shrimp’s best attribute, it can also be its fatal flaw. It cooks so fast that it’s easy to overcook, and the sad result can be tough, dry shrimp whose sweet goodness has all but vanished. You won’t have that problem in these saucy shrimp sautés, however, because my technique preserves shrimp’s tender interior and boosts its delicate flavor. I start with a good sear and finish with a sauce, which guarantees moist, succulent results every time.

The first trick to a great shrimp sauté is to dry the shrimp well before cooking. Surface moisture is the enemy of browning, causing the seafood to steam instead of sear.

Next tip: Get the pan good and hot. I heat the dry pan on medium high for a minute or two before I even add the oil. Once it’s hot—if you hold your hand above the surface, you’ll feel the heat radiating off it—I add the oil. It will start to shimmer almost immediately, which tells you that the pan is hot enough to start sautéing. Only then do I add the shrimp.

Here are a couple more pointers: Arrange the shrimp in a single layer and don’t fiddle with them once they’re in the pan. It’s tempting to keep tossing them around, but if you leave them alone for a couple of minutes, they’ll brown better.

To turn these shrimp sautés into a more complete meal, I use the same pan to prepare an intensely flavored sauce with a vegetable or two, some broth, an acidic liquid for a little tang, and perhaps a touch of spice for excitement. Bring this to a boil and return the shrimp to the pan. It’ll take just a minute or two for them to pick up the flavors of the sauce and cook to a perfect doneness.

A few key techniques guarantee great results time and again

Drying the shrimp well helps ensure a good sear.

A single layer of shrimp in a very hot pan promotes the best browning.

Tossing the shrimp in a sauce finishes the cooking and layers on the flavor.

Tips for buying the best shrimp

  • Frozen. There’s very little truly “fresh” shrimp to be had in the United States. Most supermarkets simply defrost frozen shrimp and put them on ice at the fish counter. There’s no telling how long they’ve sat around, so buying shrimp that’s still frozen is a better way to ensure freshness. Until a few years ago, this meant buying a solid block of frozen shrimp in ice. Now you can buy individually quick frozen, or IQF, shrimp in 1- or 2-pound plastic bags and defrost as many as you need quickly (it takes only 15 or 20 minutes) when you’re ready to use them.
  • Big. I prefer larger shrimp because they offer more of a buffer against overcooking. Bigger shrimp are more expensive, but they’re also easier to peel and clean. Look for 21 to 25 count, which refers to the number of shrimp per pound, rather than size designations like “jumbo” or “large,” which are not standardized.
  • Not treated with STP. Many shrimp these days are soaked in a saltwater solution called STP (sodium tripolyphosphate), which helps shrimp maintain its moisture during processing and cooking. This may not sound like such a bad thing, but this solution can give shrimp a saltier flavor and a bit of a spongy texture. To avoid shrimp that contains STP, check the ingredient list on bags of frozen shrimp. If you’re buying from a fish counter, ask if it’s been treated. If you can find only STP-treated shrimp, be sure to reduce the salt in the recipe.
  • Wild. I think wild shrimp tend to have a sweeter, more pronounced flavor and a firmer texture than the farmed variety. If you’re lucky enough to find some wildcaught shrimp (frozen shrimp will be labeled wild or farmed), grab them, as only about 20% of shrimp sold in the United States is wild-caught.


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