The Real Reason Why Shrimp Recipes Can Fail to Impress

By the editors of Cook's Illustrated

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The success of the dish starts way before cooking begins.

You might think that making a great shrimp dish depends on how you cook the shrimp, but it starts way before you even bring the seafood home. Ensuring that your shrimp is tender and briny-tasting begins at the seafood counter, and since many of the rules that apply to buying fish don’t hold true for shrimp, we’ll tell you everything you need to know.

 Shrimp Tempura


Seafood markets and gourmet shops sell an ever-increasing range of different shrimp species. We compared the three most commonly available types (pink, white, and black tiger) and found that white shrimp had the firmest flesh and the sweetest taste.


Just because shrimp is raw doesn’t mean it’s fresh. Since only 10% of the shrimp sold in this country comes from U.S. sources (in recent years, the majority has come from Thailand, followed by Indonesia and Ecuador), chances are the shrimp has been previously frozen. Unless you live near a coastal area, “fresh” shrimp likely means defrosted shrimp.


Once shrimp are defrosted for the seafood case, the quality declines with each passing day. Unless you ask, there’s no telling how long they have been on display—and in our tests, defrosted shrimp tasted noticeably less fresh even after a day of storage. But if defrosted is your only option, be sure to look for unblemished and firm shrimp that fill the shell and smell of the sea.


In general, IQF stands for “individually quick-frozen”: Shrimp are spread on a conveyor belt and frozen at sea, locking in quality and freshness. All bagged, frozen shrimp fall into this category; however, it’s not always on the label. Shrimp are also sometimes frozen at sea with water in 5-pound blocks packed in boxes. We prefer bagged individually quick-frozen shrimp, as you can thaw exactly what you need.


“Shrimp” should be the only ingredient listed on the bag or box. In effort to prevent darkening or water loss during thawing, some manufacturers add salt or STPP (sodium tripolyphosphate). Our tasters found an unpleasant texture in salt-treated and STPP-enhanced shrimp; the latter also had a chemical taste.


We’ve found that wild shrimp have a sweeter flavor and firmer texture than farm-raised, making their higher price worth it (in this country, 75 percent of the wild shrimp sold comes from the U.S. Gulf of mexico). Unless you can purchase them right off the boat, only buy wild shrimp frozen. Because fresh wild shrimp are minimally processed, they are usually shipped with the heads on. The head contains digestive enzymes that break down muscle proteins rapidly after death, resulting in mushy meat, but freezing halts this activity and renders them firm and sweet.


There’s no industry standard for labeling shrimp sizes, so one vendor’s large may be another’s extra-large. Instead of size, focus on count per pound, which always appears on the bag. The letter U stands for “under” (e.g., U/10 means under 10 shrimp per pound). Two numbers separated by a slash indicates a range. Most importantly, the smaller the number per pound, the larger the shrimp. Here are the most widely available sizes and how we refer to them:

Test Kitchen Name Count Per Pound
Jumbo 16/20
Extra-Large 21/25
Large 26/30
Medium 41/50
Small 51/60

 Shrimp Tempura


Apply your strengthened shrimp-shopping knowledge to our recipe for Shrimp Tempura. Our recipe produces sweet, fresh-tasting shrimp covered in a light, crisp coating. For our tempura batter recipe, we substituted cornstarch for flour, which contributed to lightness, and we substituted a surprise ingredient—vodka—for water.

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