How to clean, prepare and cook shrimp for a quick and easy cool dinner


Aboard Que Tal, we loved it whenever we shared an anchorage with a shrimp boat — that meant there was a pretty good chance of having shrimp for dinner!  And in mid-July in the Sea of Cortez, when temperatures soared, we doubly loved shrimp as they took almost no time to cook and were a wonderful cold meal.

I really didn’t know what to do with fresh shrimp the first time we encountered a shrimp boat.  One pulled into our anchorage at Isla San Marcos (photo) and our friends Dick and Judi aboard Corazon called on the radio to say that they were going to dinghy over and see if they could buy some shrimp — did we want some?  Sure!

Dave went with them, armed with the suggested plastic bag.  Ten minutes later, he arrived back at Que Tal with about 10 pounds of whole shrimp.  Well, this was wonderful, but coming from the Midwest I didn’t have any experience with cooking or cleaning my own shrimp.  The last time I’d had shrimp had been at our wedding reception . . . and that had been catered.

I dragged out my trusty cookbook — my mom had always taught me that if you could read, you could learn to do anything — and followed the instructions for cleaning shrimp, then cooked about a pound and put the rest in the freezer (thankfully, it was pretty empty right then!).

The cleaning went pretty well, but, as with cooking scallops, I learned that the cooking instructions in my cookbook left them rubbery.  And again, I turned to other cruisers to teach me how to properly cook shrimp.  Over time, I combined advice and methods from numerous friends to come up with the following information on both preparing shrimp and boiling/steaming it.

Preparing Shrimp

De-Head the Shrimp. If you get shrimp from a shrimp boat, they’ll undoubtedly still have the heads attached.  Just take one shrimp at a time, grab the head firmly between your thumb and index finger and grasp the body in your other hand.  Give a quick twist of the head and it should pop right off.

Rinse the shrimp in cold water.

Two tips here:

  1. If you have some disposable latex gloves aboard, this is a good time to use them to keep your hands from smelling like shrimp.  Otherwise, rub a little lemon or lime juice over your hands when you’re done to cut the smell.
  2. Throw all your “shrimp garbage” in a small bowl and discard it overboard when you’re done.  The fish and other sea creatures will eat it and it won’t stink up your boat (and your trash can will smell horrendous if you put it in there!).

To De-Vein or Not? You don’t have to de-vein shrimp, but I prefer to.  The dark vein running along the shrimp’s back is its gastric vein.  Usually they’re small and most people don’t think they make a taste difference.

I simply peel the shrimp, then run my thumbnail under the vein to remove it.  Most people use a paring knife but I found that my thumbnail was much faster and I almost never broke or cut the vein.

My friend Jan, who I wrote The Boat Galley Cookbook with (she also has a website for part-time cruisers called has a little de-veining tool that she bought at Wal-mart.  She swears that it’s the easiest way to de-vein shrimp.

Boiling/Steaming Shrimp

The first few times I cooked shrimp, I wanted to be sure that they were cooked through.  So I cooked them until they were pink, then a few minutes longer.  And then I wondered why they were really tough!

The number-one rule with shrimp is not to overcook them.  In fact, they’ll cook a little bit more even after you take them out of the water, so you want to cook them only until they are just turning pink.

If you get shrimp fresh from a boat, it’s unlikely that they’ll all be the same size.  So when I clean them, I try to separate them into rough piles by size.  This isn’t an exact science, just putting the really big ones together and the really small ones together, with everything else in their own pile.  Then I can cook ones that are about the same size together.

My cooking method is pretty simple — and one of the reasons that I really like shrimp in hot weather:

  1. Put just ½ inch of water in a saucepan.  Add 2 tablespoons Old Bay Seasoning or other shrimp boil seasoning and a splash (about 2 tablespoons) of white or cider  vinegar.
  2. Bring the water and spices to a full rolling boil over high heat.
  3. Add up to one pound of medium shrimp, cover and bring back to a full rolling boil.
  4. The instant the water starts boiling, turn fire down to low and begin timing 2 minutes very exactly.
  5. After two minutes, turn the stove off or remove the pan from the stove if you’re using an electric stove.
  6. Time another two minutes — exactly.
  7. Drain water from shrimp.  There should be a lot of the spices still sticking to the shrimp.
  8. You can either serve the shrimp immediately, or put it in the refrigerator to chill for a cold meal later.

NOTE:  Large shrimp will take 2-1/2 minutes in each stage and jumbo shrimp 3 to 3-1/2 minutes in each.


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  • Danny
    Posted at 29 July 2011 Reply

    Are you sure that you used only 1/2 inch of water to boil shrimp? I’ve probably cooked thousands of pounds of shrimp in the last 45 years and I would never use that little amount of water to boil shrimp, maybe steam but not boil. It would be almost gone by the time it got hot enough to boil and would not cover the shrimp, not to mention that two tablespoons of Old Bay in that amount of water in a sauce pan would make a very soupy mixture in a short order.

    I’m not trying to be a smart alec, just wondering if that was what you meant to say. I love your articles and make sure that my wife reads them also. I am retiring in October and our plans are to move to Florida and get a boat as soon afterwards as we can sell the house. It’s a tough real estate market but we are in a highly desired area and I can afford to take a hickey on it.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 31 July 2011 Reply

      Yep, that’s really what I do. And it is sort of a cross between true steaming and boiling. The water almost fully covers a pound in my saucepan (which is about 8″ in diameter) and it’s never come close to boiling away with the cover on. And I DO use a lot of Old Bay, so that a bunch of it stays on the shrimp even after I drain the water off the shrimp (sort of like crab with crab boil).

      Lots of different ways to do things . . . feel free to post your favorite way of cooking shrimp! I love to have more ideas!


      • Danny
        Posted at 01 August 2011 Reply

        Carolyn, I was just curious. I realize that freshwater is at a premium while under way but I understand what you are doing now with the boiling/steaming method. Have you tried adding a little butter and or white vinegar or rice vinegar to the boil. It makes them much easier to peel and it doesn’t hurt the flavor either:) When I use a small amount of liquid like that I use either all beer or a beer and water mix as the beer intensifies the flavors.

        I usually boil a minimum of a pound for just the two of us and serve it on a bed of lettuce with sliced avacadoes with lemons and limes. It is not unusual for me to cook ten pounds for a group and then I sometimes grill some of them for a variety for the group. When boiling shrimp, I use Old Bay and/or Zatarain’s seasoning bags or liquid boil with onions and lemon quarters along with an appropriate amount of beer.

        I have several other methods that I use including steaming over beer with seasonings and butter, in the oven with sliced lemon, onion, liquid hot sauce, garlic and butter; bbq in a sauce pan and my favorite, grilled with jerk seasoning (I use Grace Hot Jerk Seasoning from Jamaica as it is the best I have found). I sometimes add the jerk seasoning to boiled shrimp for the brave at heart. Ceviche is good on a hot day with margaritas or beer to wash it down with. Some of these methods may require a few extra situps or swim laps the next day.

        I have used the jerk in a sauce pan with beer and butter but only do that one outside and be sure you know which way the wind is blowing so you know where to stand!

        Other than skewers, one pot or one casserole dish or one sause pan and some gallon zip lock bags make for quick and easy cleanup. Well, the butter can make cleanup a little harder but the flavor it adds is worth it. I use aluminum casserole pans so I don’t have to worry about it.

        Thanks for your response and looking forward to more articles and your cookbook.

        • Carolyn Shearlock
          Posted at 01 August 2011 Reply

          Those sound good! Guess I’m going to be looking for shrimp.

          Thanks for all the alternatives — I love shrimp and am always looking for new ways to fix them.


  • Candy Ann Williams on Facebook
    Posted at 01 January 2012 Reply

    Happy New Year!

  • The Boat Galley on Facebook
    Posted at 01 January 2012 Reply

    Hmm, got up and was planning to watch the bowl parades with breakfast . . . just realized they’re all happening TOMORROW — and ditto for most of the games! Happy New Year anyway!!

  • Candy Ann Williams on Facebook
    Posted at 01 January 2012 Reply

    Same here! Have a great one !!

  • Tommy
    Posted at 25 April 2012 Reply

    Great article! I’m from Galveston but I now live in north Texas. I hope some of the “chefs” in this area read your simple instructions. Shrimp really shouldn’t have the texture of a gummy bear. Thanks.

  • tami
    Posted at 17 December 2012 Reply

    I’m from Louisiana, and for boil-and-peel, we leave the heads on. Gives more flavor.

    This page is pretty comprehensive. For Louisiana cooking, the Gumbo Pages are a great resource.

  • Greg Gegner
    Posted at 09 March 2014 Reply

    Before you clean shrimp if you can lay them on ice (shrimp boat may have lots of ice to buy) then cut from the bottom towards the top, but not through, pulling the head the rest of the way off will often de-vein the shrimp as the head comes off. Not sure why, but getting them cold helps.

  • Annika
    Posted at 09 March 2014 Reply

    Thanks for the cooking tips!

    I’m usually hesitant to cook shrimp because of how they stink up the garbage afterwards.

    Any tips on how to handle the heads and shell if you are far from onshore garbage facilities?

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 09 March 2014 Reply

      They came from the water, the parts you don’t eat can go right back in the water!

  • Sue Norris
    Posted at 10 March 2014 Reply

    They stirfry well too. A bit of oil, garlic, ginger throw the shrimps(we call them prawns) in and stirfry till just pink.

  • Dallas
    Posted at 14 July 2015 Reply

    Hi Carolyn,

    Regarding the fishy smell on your hands. A trick I learned years ago is to clean your hands with soap and then rub your hands on STAINLESS STEEL while flushing with clean water. I really have no clue how or why it works, I just know that it does.

  • Becky
    Posted at 08 July 2017 Reply

    I grew up in the Pacific NW, and everywhere we ate out, large shrimp were called “prawns” and huge shrimp may be called “scampi.” So when I went to a large restaurant in N. Carolina, the menu didn’t have “prawns.” So I asked the waitress (a real southern-accented gal) if they had prawns–just not on the menu, she had me wait, then came back with a non-southern waitress, who listened then laughed and told her friend: “that’s just another word for shrimp!” We all had a good laugh about that! — and I had my first “pealer shrimp.”

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