My Goals

  • Tender, moist, flavorful shrimp

  • A simple, potent sauce

I love the delicate, briny flavor that shrimp bring to a stir-fry, as well as the contrast between crisp vegetables and the shrimp’s juicy, tender flesh. And if you use shelled, deveined shrimp, few dishes can be faster. That said, because shrimp cook in a flash, avoiding rubbery results takes some care. I wanted to figure out the best way to preserve a plump, tender texture in a few simple stir-fries. I’d add one or two vegetables to each, along with a potent sauce.

I started by letting the shrimp sit for 30 minutes in a combination of salt and sugar. Both would be drawn into the flesh, thanks to shrimp’s loose protein structure. Salt would add seasoning while sugar would add complexity without noticeable sweetness; both would also help the shrimp retain moisture. Because the ionic structure of salt allows it to move into protein faster than sugar does, I used just ½ teaspoon of it and a full teaspoon of sugar.

Members of the Cook’s Illustrated team sample shrimp prepared with different brining formulas as senior editor Andrew Janjigian (second from right) homes in on the perfect precooking treatment for the important stir-fry component.

Meanwhile, for a springtime dish, I settled on delicate, grassy asparagus, cut into 2-inch lengths, to pair with the shrimp. Following our usual technique for stir-frying vegetables, I cranked up the heat under a nonstick skillet, added oil, tossed in the asparagus, covered the skillet, and let the asparagus cook for a few minutes until crisp-tender. I then transferred it to a bowl and turned back to the shrimp.

Though many stir-fry recipes call for browning the shrimp, I opted not to. I prefer clean shrimp flavor in a stir-fry; plus, browning would make things more challenging, since shrimp’s moisture is an impediment to achieving decent color. This decision freed me up to make another, more unconventional one: Why not skip the blazing-hot skillet and gently shallow-poach the shrimp in the sauce? Because the temperature of the sauce can’t get above 212 degrees, there’s much less risk of overcooking.

Technique: A Different Way to Make Stir-Fried Shrimp

Instead of using a searing-hot skillet to cook all the components, we cook the vegetables on high but turn down the heat before adding the shrimp. We then shallow-poach them in the sauce so they cook up moist and tender.

1. Start High

Cook the vegetables over high heat; remove them from the skillet.

2. Lower Heat

Add the sauce ingredients and then the shrimp; cover and cook gently over medium-low heat.

3. Return to High

Add a cornstarch slurry to thicken the sauce. Return the vegetables to the skillet; toss and serve.

I added both the shrimp and the sauce (a placeholder for now) to the empty skillet. I lowered the heat, covered the skillet, and let the crustaceans cook for 5 minutes or so, stirring once or twice to make sure they cooked evenly. It worked perfectly; the shrimp were tender, plump, and moist. All I needed to do was settle on the sauce.

We opted to forgo the high-heat approach of a traditional stir-fry and use a gentler cooking technique that is still quick but reduces the possibility of overcooking.

I opted for a classic, boldly flavored garlic sauce. I started by cooking six thinly sliced cloves of garlic in oil over medium heat for several minutes, until they were just beginning to brown, to bring out the garlic’s nuttiness and infuse the oil with flavor. Next I increased the heat to high and added grated fresh ginger and scallion whites to the pan, followed by the asparagus as before, as well as the tender scallion greens, which I’d cut into 1-inch pieces. Once the vegetables were cooked, I set them aside and added the sauce’s liquid ingredients to the pan. Many recipes call for Shaoxing wine, a Chinese rice wine. I settled on sherry, a common substitute. I also added a splash of sherry vinegar for a little bright acidity and savoriness, plus soy sauce and broad bean chili paste for more savory depth and a touch of heat. I then added the shrimp and let them cook through. Once they were done, all I needed to do was add a little cornstarch (which I made into a slurry with a touch of sherry) to thicken the sauce to just the right consistency, return the vegetables to the pan, toss, and serve over rice.

From there, it was easy enough to come up with a few variations, swapping out the vegetable and making adjustments to the sauce base: shrimp with broccoli in oyster sauce and shrimp with onions, bell peppers, and cumin. Each version was simple and satisfying and boasted perfectly tender shrimp.

Keys to Success

  • Tender, moist, flavorful shrimp

    For extra protection against overcooking, we toss the shrimp with both salt and sugar and let them sit for 30 minutes before cooking. Both ingredients help the shrimp retain moisture and enhance the shrimp’s flavor. We also forgo the standard method of stir-frying in a hot skillet and instead cook the shrimp gently in the sauce ingredients in a covered pan.
  • A simple, potent sauce

    We build our sauces on a flavorful base of soy sauce, sherry, and sherry vinegar. A little cornstarch ensures that the sauce thickens to just the right shrimp- and vegetable-coating consistency.