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What is the secret to the firm dense shrimp for shrimp cocktail served in the best steakhouses and restaurants?

The best steakhouses and restaurants serve dense firm shrimp for shrimp cocktail. They are not light and airy like what is commonly served. Is this a different species or is the cooking technique different?

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  1. good shrimp. i don't like farmed or shrimp from thailand. i go with frozen, unpeeled, wild gulf shrimp. and bigguns, too.

    1 Reply
    1. re: eLizard

      i like to boil mine is salted water with some lemon, a few peppercorns, a bay leaf, and sometimes some old bay. just until the tail starts to curl. really about 60 seconds. then plunge in iced water.

      i'm in boston, and if i want the big shrimp, it's always been frozen at some point. i prefer to buy the frozen so i can defrost it myself. usually they're iqf on the boat iirc.

    2. Go to a shop that sells wild shrimp in the U15 size (or 16-20, at a minimum). A place like Point Lobster in Point Pleasant sells them thawed and in great shape. Steam them for just a couple minutes, in the shell. Overcooking will add to the mushiness you seek to avoid and the shells will help give you a cushion.

      Don't be afraid to ask the guys at the counter just how long they suggest the cook should take given the size they're selling you. But, as noted, avoid long frozen Asian farmed shrimp, especially those that are already shelled.

      2 Replies
      1. re: MGZ

        wild, yes. shelled and deveined, emphatically no.

        1. You can also perk up shrimp that aren't the highest quality by brining them briefly - just put them in some cold water in which you've dissolved a good bit of salt and a little sugar. Let them soak for maybe 15 minutes - you'll be surprised at how much the texture improves.

          6 Replies
          1. re: biondanonima

            Wow. I’ve been cooking shrimp for thirty-some years and have never heard of brining them. I’m fascinated and somewhat confused. I find that brining generally is detrimental to the texture of chicken and pork, making them spongier. Is it the opposite with a smaller creature that has, effectively, been being brined it’s entire life?

            1. re: MGZ

              Well, I think the principle is the same - the meat absorbs some water, just as it does with pork or chicken. However, with shrimp (and maybe this is because they are an aquatic creature, I don't really know), I find that the effect is more that they seem plumper, firmer and have a good snap when you bite into them, rather than getting a waterlogged, spongy texture the way chicken does.

              1. re: MGZ

                That sponginess only happens if you brine too long, it gets a horrible texture, like cheap deli chicken roll.

                1. re: mcf

                  I used to notice it regardless of brining time, just to different degrees. Plus, too short a brine doesn't really accomplish anything. Nonetheless, I stopped brining years ago, so I suppose it's not something I'm too concerned with anymore. I can usually identify brined meats when others prepare them.

                  1. re: MGZ

                    our experiences with brining differ by a lot... have never had that result with anything in years of brining, but did, once, with a pre brined (to the point of pinkness and rubber) Murray's chicken... so I know exactly what you speak of.

                2. re: MGZ

                  Brined chicken and pork that are spongy have been mishandled. That's not how properly brined protein turns out

              2. large size and not over cooked.

                1. Not all the shrimp you buy from your best fish monger will be equal. As you shell and devein them, don't be afraid to set some aside if they are less than wonderful because some of them just aren't up to snuff.

                  1. Wild shrimp will be firmer and have more flavor. The other secret is to just cook them until they have turned pink. I, usually, broil mine with the shells on for 3 minuted per side.. that's it. I have never tried it but I suspect poaching them in shrimp stock would produce a very nice piece of shrimp.

                    1. Lots of good advice here:
                      Large, fresh or very good quality frozen shrimp
                      Maybe brine
                      Don't overcook

                      But there is a step missing: as soon as the shrimp are cooked (boiled in most restaurants) use a spider or slotted spoon and remove them to a bowl of iced water. Use a large bowl so that sticking in however many hot shrimp does not heat the water too fast. I use the largest glass mixing bowl I have and I put in a lot of ice. Keep them in the ice bath for a couple of minutes and drain on paper towels. If you do not do this, the shrimp will continue to cook and become "mushy".

                      I like mine boiled with a little Joe's Stuff, but some people prefer just sliced lemon. Take them out when they turn pink. Emeril calls that their "built-in thermometers".

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: travelerjjm

                        You are absolutely right about the value of an ice bath.

                      2. Buy fresh - not pre-frozen and buy in shell. You live in New Jersey - can't you get fresh shrimp there? I realize it's not the prime season but I live in NC and I can still get fresh shrimp - it's not as plentiful and more expensive but it's available.

                        That makes a huge difference - shell and softly boil in water until pink - take out immediately and immerse in ice water.

                        Buy a large amount during peak season when it's less expensive - in shell. Rinse them and freeze them immediately is bags or freezer containers full of water - try to remove all the oxygen. Put in deep freezer - no fridge top freezer. To use - thaw in sink and treat as fresh. Shell, steam in shell, etc.

                        My parents did this for years - my Dad had friends he could go shrimping with - they would get hundreds of pounds and my Mom and Dad would stay up all night to put the shrimp up. Enough to last our family of 5 shrimp lovers for a year.

                        Try it on a smaller scale if you have fresh shrimp available to you - it really does work.

                        7 Replies
                        1. re: Jeanne

                          It is actually quite rare to find fresh shrimp in New Jersey retail outlets. Most often the wild shrimp we get have been previously frozen. They will often be sold as "fresh", since they were only a couple days out of water, but they have, more often than not, been thawed by the monger. Better places will readily explain this to you and excellent quality shrimp can be found.

                          1. re: Jeanne

                            Yeah, that' the way I've always done them. I get a big steamer pot already cranking out the steam then in goes the prawns/shrimp which were thawed in the big Zip lock (no water in bag.) I leave the prawns/shrimp in the Zip lock. It only takes a few minutes. When they have turned a nice pink remove from Zip lock and serve. Nice firm texture and as close to fresh caught as you can get. BYW I don't over crowd the Zip locks. Just a couple of inches thick. I freeze the bags laying flat on top of each other. Then I get even cooking.

                            1. re: Puffin3

                              If you place the shrimp, or any other fresh fish for that matter, in the ziplock and then gently submerge the filled bag into a bucket of water, it permits the maximum amount of oxygen to escape. I've been doing this with the fish I've caught for many years. Kinda a poor man's vaccuseal.

                              1. re: MGZ

                                You're from Jersey so maybe you know the exact texture I'm looking for. Like the shrimp served at Avenue or an Old Homestead. I shall try these different techniques and hope to achieve my desired result

                                1. re: chowhounder411

                                  My guess is that Avenue, which I have been to and eaten the shrimp, is getting U15 shrimp from South America or the Gulf. They most likely steam very large batches for 3 minutes or so (but, as others have said, it's kinda a "watch and tell" process), then drop them in a large pot of very icy water. The shrimp get dried (I sometimes then give 'em a wrap of paper towels and put 'em in the freezer for ten minutes after. Also, I am of the mindset that one should never peel a shrimp until just before plating.

                                  Can you get to Point Lobster?

                                  1. re: MGZ

                                    Yes. Thanks for the details, I think you know exactly what I'm looking for.

                                    I won't dare ask anybody to source the U4 beasts at Prime 112 in Miami Beach

                            2. re: Jeanne

                              i'm guessing you get gulf shrimp?

                              i live in boston. we have a maine shrimp season which is very short and the harvest isn't enough to require a freezing industry. (critters are really small, but supremely delicious) so other than that 4-6 week window, i have access to previously frozen shrimp.

                              a handful of times i was able to buy live shrimp in chinatown, but that's over 2 decades, lol.

                            3. I have had good luck with a Cook's Illustrated method (for their shrimp salad). Basically just make a court bouillon with whole spices (I use white pepper), 1 lemon (juiced and spent shells) salt, and a little sugar. Put the raw (with shells) just defrosted shrimp in, bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring, until just pink. Turn off the heat and let sit, covered, for about 2 minutes. Strain and put in an ice bath until cold. Shell. The recipe should be on-line if you are a subscriber.

                              Here on the left coast it is just about impossible for the home cook to get fresh (never frozen) raw shrimp. As it deteriorates really quickly once thawed, I always buy it frozen, thaw it in cool water, and cook. Not as good as fresh shrimp in the gulf regions, but passable.

                              1. You have received the accurate answer and more already I will just specify as others have ice them immediately after they are cooked.

                                Another neat trick I have used in the past (as MGZ stated 16/20 are the smallest you should use for a good shrimp cocktail) is put them on a skewer prior to boiling them. This will prevent them from curling as we are all familiar with shrimp doing when cooked. Place them on a wooden skewer from the end where the head is cut off to the tail.....straight...boil....immediately submerse in ice water then remove from the skewer and you will have straight as an arrow shrimp. (It' makes them look larger than their actual size this way and makes for a different or unique presentation).

                                1. Wild caught, fresh never frozen. If you don't have a local source Randy's Paradise Shrimp will ship them to you.

                                  1. Yes, quality really make a difference. And maybe 60 sec of cooking

                                    1. Shrimp should be wild caught and if frozen be frozen IN SHELL. I have cooked,,, oh hundreds of pounds of shrimp and never had airy shrimp.

                                      You cook (pref steamed for the cocktail eating) and then plunge into ice water. Ideally, you cook straight from the water, heads on and then peel and eat or flash cool and then eat - veins and all. Veins are not harmful.

                                      Seems to me that a softy shrimp would be an old or watery shrimp. Ick. Maybe it is a no-go for prepealed and cooked that you can buy and then thaw and serve. I have not had them, but it seems ick to me.

                                      1. As an aside - when buying shrimp: designations that are helpful: 16/20 means 16 to 20 shrimp per pound. U-15 means 15 or under per shrimp (about an ounce over per shrimp - usually tail only WITH the shell). And then there is some water weight. Even the best of shrimp have these factors unless you are buying them live off the boat - which means you are buying heads.

                                        There are national variations of course. If you are buying in the Keys (FL) - I can let ya know.

                                        1. I generally buy my shrimp from Costco, they are pretty big, guessing roughly u16-18, usually about 4 lbs for $40.

                                          I always brine them for about 1/2 hour in a simple brine solution.

                                          My spin on shrimp cocktail is, I then marinate them in Olive Oil, some citrus zest, garlic, rosemary or basil, for about a 1/2 hour. I then grill them, on the gas grill if I am short on time or on my weber kettle charcoal grill. I then chill them overnight and serve with home made cocktail sauce using fresh horse radish, or in a pinch a quick mayo and sriracha dip. Pretty awesome.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: angelo04

                                            Costco's Shrimp is from Vietnam not saying they aren't tasty, but Vietnam? Yikes.

                                            1. re: Royboy1256

                                              These say wild on the bag though I did not note country of origin

                                          2. I bring the water to a boil, add the shrimp, cover, remove from heat, four minutes, drain and rinse in cold water.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: c oliver

                                              Generally speaking farm raised shrimp have very little flavor. They are also "WET" meaning they have been pumped with a chemical solution. Tremendous shrinkage when cooked and a bloated texture which often squirts moisture when you bite into it. They are generally sold IQF in 2 lb bags or 5 lb blocks.

                                              One farm raised brand that stands out is Ocean Garden. They are farm raised in Mexico and they are NOT pumped. Many restaurants use them.

                                              WILD caught is the best if you can get it. As MGZ said, 90% of the good restaurants buy their wild caught frozen in 5 LB blocks or IQF in 5 LB bags. Many supermarkets have them.

                                              Wild brown shrimp have the strongest shrimp / iodine flavor IMHO. Either wild Gulf Browns or wild Pacific Browns are very good.

                                              U-15 wild browns were about $8.00 lb in Dec 2012 at most purveyors. Retail they should be about $12.00 Lb but well worth it.

                                              As others have said, cook with shell on & ICE water bath immediately after cooking. If I boil, I slit the back so the vein often starts to fall out during the cook.

                                            2. Hi 411,
                                              I have worked in many of the steakhouses and restaurants that serve the wonderful shrimp. The best use professional steamers and the 2 pan method; one pan is slotted & shallower than the other and fits over the top of the bottom pan. The shrimp is seasoned and force steamed (think of convection with steam) and then ice is added immediately on top after removing from steamer.
                                              My preference is for fresh Florida wild shrimp - I live here. I have also coated them with EVOO & spices and baked in a very hot oven with the shells on. The shells seem to protect them and add a flavor element to the cocktail.