You’ve prepped hard for your Labor Day cookout. Sides have been properly assigned to the people who will cook them right. Drinks are iced and plentiful. Meats—whether ribs, steaks, or burgers—are well in hand. Everything is good. But do you know what would make everything great? A mountain of grilled shrimp to go along with everything else!
Grilled shrimp are the perfect way to crown an already excellent meal—or stand on their own as a fantastic entree. But they present some difficulties, both logistical and thermal. Here we’ll go over everything you need to know—including the critical temps—for succulent, tender grilled shrimp.
What do shrimp sizes mean?
Shrimp is sold based on size. In particular, they are measured by how many shrimp, on average, make up one pound. So large shrimp, labeled 31–40, have between 31 and 40 shrimp per pound. Jumbos have 21–25 per pound, and U10 have under 10 shrimp per pound. For the example in this cook, we used large shrimp.
The larger the shimp you buy, the easier it is to get their internal temp just right—more thermal mass makes it easier to hit your target temp. That doesn’t mean you have to buy the biggest ones, but know that smaller shrimp can be a little harder to cook just right.
Grilled shrimp: How-to
Whatever size of shrimp you use, the procedure for grilling them is pretty much the same.
First, you need to thaw your shrimp. Yes, you can buy fresh shrimp, but the majority of shrimp sold in this country are fresh-frozen. Put them in a bowl and run cold water over them in your sink. They will thaw very quickly in cold water. You don’t need to use warm water which could possibly start cooking the tender shrimp.
Next, season your shrimp. Are you using teriyaki sauce? Salt pepper and garlic? Are you using a Caribbean jerk marinade like we did? Whatever you choose to use, get that flavor on there. You can shake dry seasonings onto the shrimp as they cook, but if you’re using a wet marinade, it’s best to let the shrimp sit in it. Be careful with acidic marinades, as they will actually ceviche-cook the shrimp if the shrimp sit in them for too long! A few minutes will do fine.
Skewer your shrimp
Now prep the shrimp for the grill. Unless you’re using huge jumbo shrimp, there is a real danger that your little guys are going to fall between your grill grate slats. It’s best to skewer them (or, if you have one, put them in a grilling basket). Not only will you greatly reduce the danger of losing shrimp to the fire, but it’s much quicker and easier to flip, temp and, adjust whole skewers of shrimp rather than individual shrimps.
When you make your skewers, remember our #1 rule of skewer-cooking: only one food or food-type per skewer! No mixing peppers or eggplant or onions with your shrimp. If you want veggie skewers, make them. But let the shrimp all cook at the same rate together, without having to wait for peppers to cook.
Metal skewers are great, but bamboo are just fine, if you don’t mind them getting a little char on the ends.
Finally, grill your shrimp skewers (or basket).
Grill temperatures for shrimp
Shrimp are, well, shrimpy. They’re small, with a small thermal mass to match. That small thermal mass is easy to overcook, so we need to keep our grill at a moderate temperature of about 325°F (163°C). (You can check that temperature with a small cast-iron pan, set on the grill surface, and an infrared thermometer.)
Oil your grill well, get the skewers on the heat, and pay attention to them! Shrimp don’t allow you time to walk around or go take to a friend while they cook. There will be plenty of time for that later, now it’s time to focus! Turn the shrimp every minute or two, starting to check their temperature after the second turn. With shrimp the size we used, there’s a good chance they’ll nearly be done already.
Grilled shrimp temperatures
In our post about seafood and fish temperatures, we note that shrimp are best done when cooked to 120°F (49°C) when the shrimp are just starting to turn opaque. And boy is that true! cooking shrimp to a mere 120°F (49°C) prevents the shrimp meat from turning rubbery and chewy, as it can become at higher temperatures. But there’s another little thermal tidbit in there that we need to explore.
Harold McGee, the patriarch of American food science, informs us that there are enzymes in shrimp meat that are active between 130 and 140°F (54 and 60°C). Those enzymes degrade the proteins of the shrimp meat in such a way that they don’t so much become tender as much as they become mushy. That may be a minor detail semantically, but it is a major detail when it comes to enjoying your shrimp.
The presence of those enzymes means a couple of things. First, we should try hard to keep our shrimp below the mushifying temperature. Use Your Thermapen® ONE to quickly check the temperature of your shrimp. The one-second readings allow you to work your way across a whole grill of shrimp, testing as you go, without waiting on your thermometer and overcooking your shrimp. Once they reach 120°F (49°C), pull them from heat immediately! Bring your pile of skewers to the table and enjoy the oohs and aahs of your guests.
(But if you’re going to cook your shrimp past that temperature for some reason, it’s important to get past the 140°F (60°C) mark as quickly as you can. It’s better aim low or high, just don’t land inside the enzymatic action zone.)
That’s it! From frozen shrimp to starring role, you can make grilled shrimp in about half an hour—and that includes peeling time. (You can cook them peel-on, that’s up to you…most people like them pre-peeled when they get them on their plates.) And with the help of your Thermapen ONE you can be sure your serving the tenderest, best shrimp you can. Give it a try in addition to your red meats this holiday weekend; we think you’ll be glad you did.
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