A Smarter Way to Pan-Sear Shrimp

Shrimp cook so quickly that it’s almost impossible to brown them before they become dry and rubbery. So why not take it slow?

Published Sept. 29, 2020.

What could be easier than pan-searing shrimp so that they brown deeply and cook up juicy and tender? In some ways, pan-searing just about anything else.

Don’t get me wrong: Pan searing is an inherently quick way to cook shrimp and should be really simple. But when it comes to achieving that ideal combination of deep, flavorful browning on the outside and snappy, succulent meat on the inside, shrimp might be the hardest protein to get right. For one thing, they’re tiny and best cooked to a relatively low 120 degrees, so it’s almost impossible to get any color on them before they dry out and turn rubbery.

Toss the shrimp with one of these toppings: peanuts, black pepper, and lime (left); pistachio, cumin, and parsley (center); or fermented black beans with ginger and garlic (right).

But if you’ve ever had truly well-browned, juicy shrimp, you know that they’re just the thing for bulking up rice or noodle bowls or salads, and they pair well with a host of bold seasonings. My goal was to figure out how to pan-sear them well—and as it turned out, the solution was right in my wheelhouse. The problems with pan-searing shrimp, I realized after flashing them in a hot, oiled skillet as per usual and producing tough results, are just exacerbated versions of the ones I’ve encountered when coming up with the best way to pan-sear other relatively quick-cooking proteins such as steak and salmon. All I had to do here was modify those methods so that the cooking happened more gently. Here’s my method—which is, indeed, really simple.

5 Steps to Perfect Pan-Seared Shrimp

1. Salt Briefly 

Salting the shrimp for 15 minutes (up to 30 minutes is fine) helps them retain moisture even as they’re seared, but it doesn’t introduce extra moisture like brining does, so the shrimp’s exteriors still brown beautifully. Salt also seasons the shrimp.


2. Add Sugar Just Before Cooking 

Sprinkling sugar on the shrimp (patted dry after salting) boosts browning and underscores their sweetness. The trick is waiting to sprinkle it until just before searing so that it doesn’t get wiped off when you dry the shrimp.


3. use a slick Pan; oil shrimp, not skillet

Searing in a nonstick or carbon‑steel skillet ensures that flavorful browning sticks to the food and not to the pan. Lightly oiling the shrimp themselves (instead of the pan) ensures that they are evenly coated.


4. start cold; sear gently

A cold start offers more control: You can arrange the shrimp in a single layer before cooking, so they make even contact with the pan. Since they heat up gradually with the skillet, they don’t buckle (good for browning) and are less likely to overcook.


5. Flip and Finish Off Heat 

Once the shrimp are spotty brown and pink at the edges on the first side, cut the heat and qu­ickly turn each piece, letting residual heat gently cook the shrimp the rest of the way.

Why You Should Buy Frozen Shrimp—and How to Measure Them Accurately

Unless you have access to shrimp directly from a boat, we recommend buying them frozen. The quality is generally much better than that of defrosted shrimp, the flavor and texture of which decline rapidly once thawed.


Most shrimp, including all bagged options, are individually quick-frozen. The process locks in freshness and allows you to thaw exactly what you need, but it also encases each shrimp in an icy shell that adds weight, making it tricky to measure how much you’ll have for cooking once the ice melts. We’ve found that the shrimp lose anywhere from 12 to 25 percent of their weight.


To account for that, it’s best to defrost more shrimp than a recipe calls for. But because the range of loss is so wide (it depends on factors such as shrimp size and whether or not they are peeled), weight isn’t the most precise way to measure. Instead, count out what you need based on the shrimp’s per-pound number range. Example: For extra-large shrimp, the range is 21 to 25 (see chart below), which represents the shrimp’s raw, unfrozen weight. So if a recipe calls for 11/2 pounds of shrimp, count out 25 pieces plus 13 more.

Pan-Seared Shrimp with Peanuts, Black Pepper, and Lime

Shrimp cook so quickly that it’s almost impossible to brown them before they become dry and rubbery. So why not take it slow?
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