Get the best tips in this complete guide to cooking shrimp safely and perfectly! Use them in salads, as appetizers, with pasta, in tacos and more, or serve with a dipping sauce. This post is a complete guide for how to cook shrimp, how to buy them, how to peel them, and how to defrost and store shrimp and prawns safely.
Fresh shrimp, fresh prawns: whatever you choose to call them, they're delicious shellfish! Shrimp are incredibly versatile. Food blogs are teeming with recipes for shrimp appetizers, shrimp main dishes and shrimp salads.
You'll find my favourite recipes for pan-frying, boiling, stir-frying, grilling, or air-frying shrimp in this collection of Best Healthy Shrimp Recipes. Have them turn out perfectly every time!
Here on Vancouver Island on the West Coast of Canada we used to have a boat and harvest our own spot prawns or side-stripe shrimp. We set prawn traps, had a picnic or a hike while we waited for them to fill, then brought them home to freeze (and feast!)
Sometimes we were lucky and caught our limit, other times we came home with only a dozen or so. No guarantees! As Denis used to say, "That's why they call it fishing, not shopping."
What's the difference between prawns and shrimp?
For those of us who are only concerned with cooking and eating them, the difference between prawns and shrimp really doesn't matter. You can substitute one for the other in most recipes.
There is an anatomical difference, however, and if you're interested you can read about the differences in this article, What's the Difference between Shrimp and Prawns.
As far as I can determine, Americans call them shrimp, while Australians and Brits call them prawns. Here in the cool ocean waters on the west coast of Canada, we harvest Spot Prawns or Side Stripe Shrimp.
Sometimes you'll hear that prawns are big and shrimp are small but it seems to depend on where they're harvested.
I use these two terms prawns and shrimp interchangeably in this post and in my recipes.
How to buy shrimp
Whenever you can, choose wild-caught over farmed shrimp or prawns. The difference in flavour is amazing.
If you are buying frozen shrimp in a grocery store, look for the label from Monterey Bay's Seafood Watch. This agency is considered the most reliable tool available for ranking farms and fisheries on their environmental sustainability. Buying directly from local fishermen if you can is the best idea.
Should I buy fresh or frozen shrimp?
Most raw shrimp you'll find in the fresh seafood section has been previously frozen and thawed, so they must be used quickly as they are highly perishable. While it's convenient to buy them this way, it's much more expensive. You won't know how long they've been thawed, so it's safer to buy frozen.
Look for frozen shrimp in the shell as they will have a much better flavour and texture.
What size shrimp should I buy?
Shrimp are labelled according to size. These labels can be confusing, so it's better to look for the count number on the bag. You may find a label that says 21/25 meaning you'll get between 21 and 25 shrimp in a one-pound bag. Medium shrimp are often sold in a bag between 17 and 21 per pound.
If you're planning to grill shrimp, skewer them, or wrap them in bacon, you'll want to buy the biggest ones. Look for a label that says U/15, indicating that there are less than 15 shrimp in a one-pound bag (and therefore they're larger.)
A serving of shrimp is usually roughly ½ pound per person.
Avoid buying pre-cooked shrimp. They have been cooked and then frozen. Once you bring them home, you'll have to cook them or warm them up, running the risk of overcooking.
Raw shrimp and spot prawns cook so quickly that there's no advantage to buying them pre-cooked.
What is the safest way to defrost shrimp?
The safest way to thaw shrimp is to defrost them just before you plan to cook them. Remove them from the package and put them in a colander under cool running water for about 5 minutes.
It's not safe to thaw shrimp with warm water or to leave them to thaw at room temperature.
How to peel prawns or shrimp
If you have bought spot prawns with their shells on or with their heads on, the easiest way to remove them is when they are partially frozen. Even when we have freshly caught prawns, I still freeze them first.
Trying to remove the shell (or exoskeleton) from a fresh prawn can be awkward and messy. When they're partially thawed, peeling them is a breeze.
Simple pinch the area at the base of the head and twist to remove it. Holding the prawn in one hand, rip the legs off. Run the side of your thumb under the top three shell segments, then pinch and tear to remove them.
Next, pinch at the base of the remaining three tail segments and gently squeeze. The body will pop out.
For many recipes, like Paella, for example, you'll want to leave the shells on. The shells add extra flavour and they'll look spectacular in your dish.
For other recipes, you may want to only leave the tails on. They make a perfect handle if you're serving the shrimp with a dipping sauce.
Remove the intestinal tract
Both shrimp and spot prawns have an intestinal tract that you'll want to remove before serving. Spot prawns have a very small digestive tract that can easily be removed by either gently lifting it out with your fingers or with a toothpick.
If you're using large imported shrimp, this intestine may have already been removed. If not, you may see a dark digestive tract along their back. You can pull this out in the same way if you've shelled the shrimp.
If you want to keep the shells intact, you might need to use a small sharp knife or a pair of kitchen scissors to cut through the shell from head to tail, then remove the tract with the knife or scissor. Give the shrimp a quick rinse to remove any sand that remains.
What do I do with the shells?
The shells have lots of flavour, so you can save them to make your own fish stock to use in seafood chowder.
If you want to discard them, I suggest freezing them first.
I know that may sound odd, but unless you have daily trash pick-up, you'll want these out of your house. They will start to smell within a few hours. Even one tiny leg accidentally left in your sink trap will stink up your kitchen.
As we only have garbage pick-up once every two weeks, I store discarded shells in a bag in the freezer until the day our trash is picked up.
How to marinate shrimp
Spot prawns have so much natural sweetness that they rarely need to be marinated. Imported shrimp can sometimes have a mild taste, so adding a marinade enhances their natural flavour.
If you're using an acid-based marinade, like lemon or lime juice, for example, keep your marinating time to under thirty minutes. Any longer and you run the risk of having the acid break down the meat and become mushy.
Leave them in the fridge to marinate safely.
If you're using an oil-based marinade like herb and garlic, you can leave them for up to an hour. Again, keep them refrigerated.
Best way to cook spot prawns or shrimp
Prawns and shrimp cook very quickly, no matter which method you use: boiling, pan-frying, grilling or air frying. You'll know they're done when they lose their translucence and curl into a C-shape.
They're safe to eat when they’ve turned completely opaque with a pink colour and bright-red tails.
If you've skewered them, you won't be able to rely on the curl, so watch for their colour to turn.
It's easy to overcook shrimp and the result is horribly disappointing. Shrimp become tough and rubbery when cooked too long, so watch carefully.
Bring a saucepan of water to a boil, and add the prawns. Once the water returns to the boil, cook for 2 - 3 minutes, then remove promptly, rinse to cool them and use them in your favourite recipes. This is the best way to cook spot prawns when you're in a hurry and can't wait!
Boiled spot prawns have a naturally sweet, delicate flavour. They make a perfect addition to this Prawn Mango Avocado Salad with Lemon-Lime Dressing.
Toss or rub the prawns with a seasoning mix. I usually use a combination of sea salt, paprika, red pepper flakes, and dried oregano.
Heat butter or oil in a skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the prawns. They should sizzle right away. Cook for 2 - 3 minutes per side, flipping only once.
Remove from the pan and transfer to your serving dish or add to a bowl of pasta or rice.
Stir-fries make a quick, healthy meal and shrimp or prawns are an ideal protein to add to a stir-fry.
Heat your skillet or wok, cook the shrimp first, then remove and keep warm while you stir-fry the rest of the vegetables. Try this Lemon Garlic Shrimp and Snow Pea Stir Fry for a quick, nutritious meal ready in under 30 minutes.
The best way to grill prawns or shrimp is to skewer them! This prevents them from falling through the grate.
If you're using wooden or bamboo skewers, remember to soak them in water for at least thirty minutes before skewering to prevent flare-ups.
You can marinate them beforehand in a simple marinade of olive oil, lemon, garlic and herbs, or brush them with a sauce, or simply brush them with a little oil or butter and serve with a flavourful dipping sauce.
Once again, they only need 2 to 3 minutes per side, depending on their size. You'll know they're done when they turn pink and lose their translucence.
If you don't want to use your outdoor grill, an indoor grill pan works beautifully too. You can also put them under the broiler to cook.
Shrimp and prawns cook very quickly in an air fryer. After cleaning, you can cook them from frozen, bread them to serve with a dip, or toss them with oil and a seasoning mix.
These Air Fryer Lemon Garlic Shrimp are ready to use in your favourite recipes in five minutes!
Enjoy! If you have questions or if you've found this post helpful, please leave me a comment and a rating in the section below. Subscribe to my newsletter and have new recipes delivered straight to your inbox once a week.
More healthy prawn and shrimp recipes
How to Cook Shrimp or Prawns
- 2 lbs fresh or frozen shrimp or prawns
- ingredients as per the recipe you've chosen
- To boil: Bring a saucepan of water to the boil and add the prawns. Once the water returns to the boil, cook for 2 - 3 minutes, then remove promptly, rinse to cool them and use them in your favourite recipes.
- To pan fry: Toss or rub the prawns with a seasoning mix. I usually use a combination of sea salt, paprika, red pepper flakes, and dried oregano. Heat butter or oil in a skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the prawns. They should sizzle right away. Cook for 2 - 3 minutes per side, flipping only once. Remove from the pan and transfer to your serving dish or add to a bowl of pasta or rice.
- To stir-fry: Heat your skillet or wok, cook the shrimp first, then remove and keep warm while you stir-fry the rest of the vegetables in your recipe. Add the shrimp back in to the skillet or wok, then thicken the sauce, if necessary.
- To grill: Skewering shrimp or prawns is the best way to grill them, to prevent them from falling through the grate. If you're using wooden or bamboo skewers, remember to soak them in water for at least thirty minutes before skewering to prevent flare-ups.You can marinate them beforehand in a simple marinade of olive oil, lemon, garlic and herbs, or brush them with a sauce, or simply brush them with a little oil or butter and serve with a flavourful dipping sauce. They only need 2 - 3 minutes per side, depending on their size. You'll know they're done when they turn pink and lose their translucence.If you don't want to use your outdoor grill, an indoor grill pan works beautifully too. You can also put them under the broiler to cook.
- To air fry: Shrimp and prawns cook very quickly in an air fryer. After cleaning, you can cook them from frozen, bread them to serve with a dip, or toss them with oil and a seasoning mix.