My cousins and I used to dare one another to touch the shrimp, their 10 legs dancing, their antennae waving. At the Chinese seafood restaurants near us in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California, the servers would bring our orders, still alive, to the table for approval before taking them into the kitchen. In Cantonese cuisine, feisty fish and crustaceans are prized for their delicate freshness.

The best shrimp would be gently boiled whole and served with a soy dipping sauce laced with hot chiles. Their heads had a sweet sea-saltiness, and their bodies were somehow snappy and silky at the same time. Anyone who’s lived in a coastal area with access to shrimp so fresh it’s still flipping knows this pleasure.



Without access to live shrimp, the next best option is actually frozen. When thawed properly, then tossed with crisp-tender asparagus and sweet onion in this stir-fry, they taste pretty great. Here are four simple steps to making frozen shrimp end up as bouncy and flavorful as their counterparts fresh out of the water.

Out of the water, shrimp, especially ones with their heads on, deteriorate quickly, so headless ones flash frozen at or close to the source best retain their integrity. (The “fresh” shrimp at most seafood counters most likely arrived frozen, and you don’t know when or how it was thawed or, worse, refrozen and thawed again.)

Consider sustainability and labor practices, and consult Seafood Watch before heading to the store. Some shrimp are treated with preservatives, so the ideal packages of frozen list “shrimp” as the only ingredient. Shell-on shrimp are more flavorful and less expensive, but also require more work on your part. Peeled and deveined shrimp cost a bit more and may not be quite as intact, but save you time. You know your priorities. Pick accordingly.

Because shrimp are so small, they don’t need much time to defrost. If you let frozen shrimp lose their chill in the refrigerator, you’ll need to plan ahead, and you also won’t know exactly when they’ll be ready. The fastest way to thaw shrimp also gives you the most control over the process. Put them in a colander in the sink and run cold water (definitely not warm or hot) over them. Move them around a bit to ensure an even shower, and they’ll lose their rock-hard iciness in a few minutes.

Just before the shrimp are thawed all the way through, very generously sprinkle them with a lot of salt — about a teaspoon per pound — and gently massage it into the shrimp. (A brine is a saltwater solution, while a dry brine is just salt.) Because the shrimp are so small, it takes only a minute to see the salt drawing moisture out of the shrimp, then dissolving on the surface into a concentrated brine, which then is reabsorbed. The brine now inside the shrimp seasons them and helps them stay juicy while cooking, while the initial release of water from the salt rub will result in a texture reminiscent of freshly cooked live shrimp. Anything left on the surface is rinsed off to prevent the shrimp from being too salty. If the shrimp are going to be stir-fried, grilled or broiled, they should be patted very dry before cooking to help them brown rather than steam. If steaming or poaching, you can skip that step.

Some Cantonese cooks also toss the shrimp with baking soda to give them crunch. Salt does a good enough job, and baking soda can leave a hint of a soapy aftertaste.

For the best-tasting shrimp, cook them until they’re just opaque though the middle. Leave them on the heat any longer, and they’ll end up dry and tough. Some shrimp varieties don’t turn pink or orange when cooked, and some curl into tight spirals while others barely form a crescent when heated, so the best indicator is the shift from translucence to opacity. If you’re in doubt, take the shrimp off the heat early and cut a slice off the thick end to see the middle. You can always cook the crustaceans longer, but you can’t turn back time.

I still seek out wriggling, leaping live shrimp when I can, but when I can’t, I’m happy to have a stash in my freezer. They may be stiff and still, but prepping them with these simple steps will make them taste nearly as fresh.



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