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When Your Shrimp Won't Peel


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#1 fifi

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Posted 04 May 2003 - 11:28 AM

I need some help here. I have been doing shrimp boils for more years than I can remember. I STILL don't know how the heck you boil a shrimp and PREDICTABLY end up with shrimp that are easy to peel. Easy-to-peel means, to me, that you can pinch the tail and pretty much slide the whole thing out of the shell. The other end of the spectrum is that you have to painfully remove each segment, pick off the legs one by one, you get the picture. I have researched all of my cook books for recommended techniques, McGee, all of the usual suspects. Nothing definitive. In my vast experience I have come out with everything from the ultimate easy-to-peel to "it's almost not worth the trouble". I want to get to the science of the issue.

Background... Yesterday, we had a yearly get together that takes place on the first Saturday in May at one of the members bay house. There are usually about 80 people. I am in charge of the shrimp boil to provide munchies. We boil about 15 pounds of tails (heads off to save room in the pot, provide heads to dump in the water and attract crabs for the kids to catch, and to accommodate the Yankees in the crowd) along with the usual accessories. AGAIN the shrimp were devilishly hard to peel.

Here is the technique... Huge pot with basket on a big propane burner. Put in the Zatarains, lemons, garlic, onion, cayenne, salt (a little more salty than sea water) and boil hard for a few minutes until the lemon becomes looking cooked. Put in the potatoes, sausage, corn in order that it all comes out cooked just right. Add shrimp last. Cook until the shrimp just turns pink and is firm (about 5 to 10 minutes). Drain and dump on the traditional table covered with newspaper. Maybe repeat, adding more cayenne for those who like it hotter. Nothing surprising there.

Now for the theories and folklore:

Buy really fresh shrimp. DUH!!! Since we live in the sight of the shrimp boats, this is not an issue for our crowd. BTW... Most shrimp from the Gulf are flash frozen on the boats and thawed before selling so the definition of "fresh" gets a little complicated when you include the "previously frozen" issue. We will assume that they actually smell good. I have done shrimp from sport shrimping friends, off the boat and into the pot, never seen anything colder than ice and still have seen a big variation in the peeling thing.

Cooking technique doesn't control it. It depends upon when the shrimp molted last. I can actually understand the science in this one. And it may make some sense for the "May Event" problem. We usually buy about the same size shrimp, obviously at the same time of year. So... How would you tell in advance without bringing a little boiling pot to the shrimp shack? We always look for the firmest critters with good strong shells. No luck. (I had a biology professor many years ago in Louisiana, a shrimp expert, that said this was the answer. He was NO HELP in buying shrimp. He was of the bring-boiling-pot-to-the-shrimp-shack school.)

Cook quickly and get out of the water fast. OK... Always do that. It is just a basic rule for shrimp and the most practical approach for doing big, multiple boils for a crowd.

Put in the boiling water, turn off heat, cool in the water. I have actually seen this in some cook books. It MIGHT work if you have a half pound in a little bitty pot. Well, not really. I have done small batches of maybe two pounds for pickled shrimp. I tried that once. The shrimp were hard to peel, over done and rubbery. Most shrimp boils I do are in a really big pot. Obviously not a practical approach.

Less salt... More salt... If you don't start a little saltier than sea water, it isn't enough for shrimp. They just don't take up seasoning like crawfish or crabs. Too much saltier than that and the potatoes etc. suffer. I am not sure how you could play the salt game. I'm not even sure if it makes a difference. I base this on my impressions from those occasional small batches for other purposes, not controlled trials.

Brining. I have never tried this and have never heard of anyone doing it. I just thought about it last evening while puzzling over this issue. I have seen Alton Brown do this for shrimp cocktail. I wonder if you put the shrimp in a brine for an hour or so, rinse, then boil, if it would make a difference. I wonder if the osmotics might help separate the shrimp from the shell. I don't remember enough about the tissue structure of shrimp (yes... I used to know) to judge if this idea has any merit or if it is just crackpot.

I am sure that this distinguished forum may be able to shed some light on this subject. Given the price of shrimp these days, a big boil is an investment. Hard to peel shrimp may taste good but they are a pain. Besides, the ratio of beer consumption and food consumption gets out of whack and mayhem ensues.

HELP!

Edited by fifi, 04 May 2003 - 03:11 PM.

Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

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#2 Chef/Writer Spencer

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Posted 04 May 2003 - 11:47 AM

Anyone this passionate about boiled shrimp deserves an answer. Unfortunately, peeling shrimp--the good bad and the ugly--hasn't ever been an issue for me. I've never sat there perplexed about that question. I just peel em and go, to me they're easy to peel regardless. I do know that the proper way to boil shrimp without overcooking is to put them in water that's rolling hard and when they first float you remove.

#3 fifi

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Posted 04 May 2003 - 03:16 PM

Hmmm... Spencer, I don't know where you are but possibly, just possibly, the only boiled shrimp you have encountered may have been long frozen before you got them boiled. If you ever ran across hard to peel shrimp, I am sure you would complain. This is a clue. I am beginning to wonder if the "fresh off the boat" shrimp (which we usually buy) might not BE the problem.
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

#4 Chef/Writer Spencer

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Posted 04 May 2003 - 03:20 PM

Hmmm... Spencer, I don't know where you are but possibly, just possibly, the only boiled shrimp you have encountered may have been long frozen before you got them boiled. If you ever ran across hard to peel shrimp, I am sure you would complain. This is a clue. I am beginning to wonder if the "fresh off the boat" shrimp (which we usually buy) might not BE the problem.

Put me in my place why don't ya. You're right though....the only shrimp we get here in the center of the country are IQF. I have had blue prawns on occassion but I wouldn't fertilize my enemies graves with their meat. Another reason I'm bitter.

#5 pjs

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Posted 04 May 2003 - 08:07 PM

Cooking technique doesn't control it. It depends upon when the shrimp molted last.

I hear you fifi. I think the cooking technique/method has nothing to do with it. It is the shrimp themselves.

A month or so ago the local supermarkets were selling "fresh" ruby reds relatively cheap. Examining the raw product you could tell they would be a bitch to peel once cooked. Thin papery shells. They were quite tasty though and worth the trouble.

Never tried Zatarain's--should I? I usually use a shovel-full of Old Bay.

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#6 Jason Perlow

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Posted 04 May 2003 - 08:21 PM

Fifi, I posted a link to this question in the Brooke Dojny Q and A. Shrimp Boils are quite New England.
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#7 Nick

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Posted 04 May 2003 - 09:38 PM

The only thing I can think of is that you're boiling them too long or the shrimp are too fresh. At least when peeling raw shrimp that are a few days old (kept cold), they peel easier than shrimp right off the boat. When boiling, I bring the salted water to a boil, add the shrimp, when it comes back to a boil turn down the heat and cook for two minutes. I don't add anything to the water other than salt. I like the taste of the shrimp.

#8 Jaymes

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Posted 04 May 2003 - 09:43 PM

I think it's the type of shrimp.

No matter how fresh they are, some varieties have thinner shells - ergo, harder to peel.

I've heard some speculation that there are more thin-shelled shrimp around these days due to pollution of their waters.

#9 Nick

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Posted 04 May 2003 - 09:46 PM

I've heard some speculation that there are more thin-shelled shrimp around these days due to pollution of their waters.

That is not good news. :angry:

#10 Batgrrrl

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Posted 04 May 2003 - 10:43 PM

I have never done a shrimp boil, though I've heard enough stories to make this a must in my lifetime, hopefully soon, but I have cooked a fair amount of shrimp, and it kinda seems to me like 5-10 minutes is an awfully long time--my rule is 3 minutes tops, assuming they go into water that is seriously boiling. With that timing, I haven't experienced any real problems peeling. I've used this rule with nice, really fresh stuff from the fisherman's market, and even frozen. They're never rubbery, either.

Good luck, and let us know what you figure out.
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#11 fifi

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Posted 05 May 2003 - 03:01 AM

From the posts so far, I am beginning the think it is the shrimp and that particular time of year, early May. Sometimes they are fine. I think the REALLY fresh thing is also a contributor. For this event, we try to get them as fresh as possible, like where we know they are right off the boat.

In a REALLY big pot, rolling boil, you dump the shrimp in, about 5 minutes (may be less, haven't timed it, go by look) and they are just pink and come to the top. That is when you yank them out. Therefore, overcooking doesn't seem to be it.

pjs... Zatarains is the traditional Louisiana product that everyone uses here. If I tried to use Old Bay, the crowd would be after me with torches and dogs. I have used Old Bay on steamed crabs. Very good but, to me, it lacks kick. I think of it as a whole 'nother thing.

Thanks to all. I think I am getting closer.
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

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#12 davidscooking

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Posted 05 May 2003 - 06:17 AM

I agree with bat girl: 5-10 minutes is too long. I've never done a boil either, but I've cooked plenty of shrimp in the shell, and after 5 minutes, they're overdone, and in my experience, overcooking leads to sticky shells...

#13 Jaymes

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Posted 05 May 2003 - 07:55 AM

pjs... Zatarains is the traditional Louisiana product that everyone uses here. If I tried to use Old Bay, the crowd would be after me with torches and dogs. I have used Old Bay on steamed crabs. Very good but, to me, it lacks kick. I think of it as a whole 'nother thing.

Zatarain's is much zippier than Old Bay. Think cajun... lots more red pepper. Zatarain's puts out lots of great NOLA-style products.

If you cook your shrimp too much, they turn to mush and it makes the peeling much more difficult.

It's exceedingly difficult to undercook shrimp.

I myself have never been able to accomplish it.

#14 fifi

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Posted 05 May 2003 - 03:02 PM

As I think about it and consult my cooking buddies this morning, the shrimp didn't cook more than three minutes. I was looking for the pink turn, not looking at my watch. I have a real problem judging time.

I agree with Jaymes. I have NEVER been able to undercook a shrimp.

Also, after consulting a particularly opinionated Cajun engineer (Is that redundant?), he insists that the molt time plus too fresh off the boat, maybe never frozen, are the problems. He arrives at this opinion because he collects smaller quantities of shrimp in his freezer from sport shrimping forays until he has 40 or 50 pounds before he has a boil. He has noticed that if they put some in a pot to eat on the boat, they are hell to peel unless they have nice thick shells. I asked for controlled data. He got offended. Oh well...
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

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#15 Brooke Dojny

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Posted 11 May 2003 - 12:48 PM

Fifi--

You started a great debate! I wish I could help you! Jason says New England does shrimp boils, but he obviously is not a true Yankee. Jason - in New England, LOBSTER is king! The only shrimp caught fresh in New England waters are the tiny Maine shrimp that have a brief season in the winter. And, as a matter of fact, their thin, papery shells do make them hard to peel. All other shrimp we buy here is frozen - and most have thick shells that just kind of slip off. Some fish markets around here are have started doing this wonderful thing of slicing part way through the shell and rinsing out the vein, which also has the added benefit of making them even easier to peel, either raw or cooked.

Your shrimp boil tradition sounds fabulous! I've always wanted to go to one. Enjoy it, and just be thankful that your get get 'em that fresh!

Brooke Dojny

#16 fifi

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Posted 11 May 2003 - 03:32 PM

I just got back from a Mother's Day dinner at my favorite place on the bay where the owner also owns the shrimp boats. I proposed the problem to the cook and the captain. This place turns out more than 100 pounds of boiled shrimp a day on a good weekend. I figured that if these guys don't know, nobody does. I go there often and know these guys so I figure they will give me the straight story. Here is the verdict...

First part of May when we have our annual shindig, they have just molted. Also, they never try to boil a really fresh shrimp. They use the shrimp off of the bigger boats that flash freeze or they head the shrimp off of the bay boats and dump them in the blast freezer back at the processing plant. They don't try to use those that have just molted. Good thick shells and not just-caught is what you want. The cook said that you really don't want to give your customers shrimp that are hard to peel. Therefore, they have put a lot of study into producing easy to peel shrimp. This is NOT for tender concern... They want you to quickly peel and eat then order more! The easier they are to peel, the more they sell.

They also showed me a trick where when you are heading the raw shrimp you can pull out the vein at the same time. When you pinch the head, you bring you fingertips together where the vein goes up into the head, grasping the vein as you separate the head from the tail. Most of the time, out comes the vein. It works!
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

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#17 Shalmanese

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Posted 01 August 2004 - 03:37 AM

There a specialised shrimp de-shelling tools that can strip the shell, legs & vein of a shrimp in one action. Takes maybe 5 seconds per shrimp. I've never used one since I can't justify the cost but I know they exist.
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#18 gperls

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Posted 01 August 2004 - 03:53 AM

Living about as far away from fresh shrimp as one can (Kansas City, MO), being relegated to the Taiwanese, frozen EZ-peel shrimp from Costco, I find that these shrimp, which are already split down the back and deveined, but the shell is left on them, peel very easily after being cooked. It may be heretical to suggest pre-splitting your fresh shrimp before cooking them, but it seems to make the job much easier.

#19 Mayhaw Man

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Posted 01 August 2004 - 06:15 AM

Fifi,

I think that it is the shrimp. Browns are harder to peel than big fat whites for some reason and I am kind of assuming that in May (Spring, duhh) you were working with brown shrimp. Brown are Gulf shrimp (generally) as they like much saltier water than Whites. White shrimp are the ones that are generally known as Bay Shrimp, or Lake Shrimp. They are usually very large by the end of the fall and they are also the reason that the speckled trout in Southeast Louisiana are so damn huge in the fall. Tasty shrimp to eat 24x7. The skin on the white is much, much lighter and is easier to deal with than the brown shrimp. I don't know why, it's just the way that it is.

Not so oddly (considering that my kitchen is in a state of total disrepair and that my central AC seems to have gone on the fritz last night) we will be boiling fresh lake shrimp (local term for white shrimp) tonight. They are nicely sized (16-20's or so, not exactly-because we bought em from the guy who caught em and he and his wife just screen them once to size, so they are kinda mixed but at $4 a pound I am not complaining). These shrimp have not been frozen.

Everything is more or less being cooked outside at the moment. Humorously, my camping trip to Ontario was more comfortable than the last day and a half in my house and the AC guy can't come til Monday p.m. But that's ok, it will only be a balmy 97F.

Here is how I do it (without specific spicing-I will post tonight after I do it about that) : Bring HIGHLY spiced water to a hard rolling boil (lots more water than shrimp and the water needs to be HIGHLY spiced as it is just really to soak the shrimp, not to cook them at at a rolling boil). Heave in the shrimp and wait. No more boiling (that is why the large amount of water is key-you do not want the cool shrimp to affect the water temp too much). After about 10 minutes (or so, this is not an exact science and it really depends on the size and amount of shrimp and water) out they come. DOn't worry about underboiling, it is well nigh on impossible. Shrimp cook fast and all the way through with little effort. My wife dusts them with Zatarains afterwards (she would eat fire if they put a Zatarain's label on it), I don't. I think that after-spiced stuff is some Northern affectation and I want nothing to do with it :wink: .

I will photo and let you know how it turns out. We are only cooking 20 lbs., do I don't think it will take too long to deal with, but it might make for a good photo demo.
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#20 fifi

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Posted 01 August 2004 - 06:49 AM

There a specialised shrimp de-shelling tools that can strip the shell, legs & vein of a shrimp in one action. Takes maybe 5 seconds per shrimp. I've never used one since I can't justify the cost but I know they exist.

Welcome Shalmonese...

You may be talking about the pointy curved thingy. Mine is cheap red plastic. They do work, but only on raw shrimp as far as I know.

Brooks...

Our methods seem to be about the same. The shrimp strategy at the May shindig worked just fine. A few smaller events have worked out also. If the shrimp were off-the-boat fresh but had firm shells, they were fairly easy to peel. IQF shrimp were easier, as in a one pinch operation.

However, the May experieince had other issues. :laugh:
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#21 Chris Amirault

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Posted 18 June 2009 - 05:51 PM

Bumping this (five-year-old!) topic up with this question.

Got head-on gulf shrimp -- brown I think; previously frozen for sure -- from Whole Foods today, and made 'em for dinner. (Kind of an Indian "barbecue shrimp": leftover lobster butter used to saute some ginger, Thai roasted red pepper, and cumin; added the shrimp; removed them leaving the heads; quick sauce by mashing the heads, adding lime juice, and straining; cilantro. Yum.) They were terrific, but I kept the shells on for flavor until service and the damned things stuck to the flesh.

That is to say: the problem wasn't that the shells were papery or too rigid; rather, the shells adhered to the flesh in such a way that peeling them off tore flesh off the shrimp itself. I have no idea why. Do you?
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#22 HungryC

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Posted 19 June 2009 - 06:45 AM

If the shell sticks to the flesh, the shrimp is overcooked, pure and simple. It takes an amazingly short time to properly cook a shell-on shrimp, and gentle heat is better for a saute, rather than a scary hot stirfry (though scary-hot stirfry is great if you plan to eat the shrimp shells-n-all, chinese style). My (fairly) foolproof indicator for doneness is the shell separating from the flesh along the back curve of the shrimp--a small space will open up as the flesh cooks/shrinks a little, and it will be slightly translucent. That's it--shrimp's done. Go no further, or you will have stuck shells. So if you plan to hold the shrimp for a time before serving, you definitely need to undercook. Best bet is to cook & then serve immediately.

Re: boiled shrimp, once the shrimp have reached this shell separation point, quickly strain and dump into a sink full of ice to prevent overcooking. Or, if you want to serve 'em hot, spread the shrimp out into a wide, shallow pan so that the temp quickly drops. A stacked-up bowl or deep dish will lead to overcooking/shell sticking from residual heat.

Fresh off the boat RAW shrimp (never frozen, alive less than 24 hours before) are very hard to peel, though not impossible....wait 24 hours and they'll peel just fine, and peeling is always easier if the shrimp are as cold as possible. I've never noticed that uber-fresh cooked shrimp are any harder to peel (if properly cooked). Now I'm gonna have to go buy some shrimp to eat tonight!

#23 Chris Amirault

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Posted 19 June 2009 - 07:03 AM

If the shell sticks to the flesh, the shrimp is overcooked, pure and simple. 

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Makes sense. Some stuck and some didn't, and I admit to using a too-small pan and being less than attentive with the bugs....
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#24 Kayakado

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 11:26 AM

I know this won't help for a boil, but I've been using the ATK method for shrimp this season. You but the shrimp in cold water and then bring it to 160-165° pull it off the heat and cover and let it sit for 2 minutes. It certainly keeps it from getting tough and they are easy to peel. I too, get my shrimp right off the boats.

#25 LRunkle

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Posted 23 June 2009 - 05:22 PM

Thinking outside of the box since everyone else is blaming the shrimp, the cooking method,etc. , could it be possible you aren't very good at peeling shrimp?

#26 Chris Amirault

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Posted 24 June 2009 - 05:03 AM

Don't think so. No one is saying that shrimp are consistently hard to peel, which would indicate technique flaws. We're all saying that sometimes they are and we don't know why.
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#27 PopsicleToze

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Posted 24 June 2009 - 10:05 AM

It might help to understand that hard to peel is an understatement. When boiled shrimp are overcooked, the meat sticks to the peel. You can't just remove the peel as usual because the peel doesn't come off whole -- you yank and it tears leaving bits on the meat. It's definitely not the same as someone just not familiar with peeling shrimp. It's happened to most of us at least once.

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#28 gperls

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Posted 22 July 2009 - 06:03 PM

I just received my order of fresh-frozen IQF shrimp from CajunGrocer.com. I cooked up these head-on shrimp in a New Orleans BBQ style - butter, herbs, seasonings. The shrimp were not peeled, slit, or beheaded before cooking. They cooked about 6 minutes in this butter/stock mixture.

When I went to eat them, I found the shells very thin, thinner than what I'm accustomed to getting from my other shrimp purchases, and they were very difficult to peel, sort of like a fresh egg that takes off meat along with the shell.

Is this a good indicator or bad indicator of the quality of the shrimp? Any ideas of how to make peeling easier the next time? Should I slit their shells before cooking next time?

Any insight into what is going on here would be appreciated. I still have 24 more pounds of them to go through.

Greg

#29 KennethT

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Posted 23 July 2009 - 06:32 AM

I just received my order of fresh-frozen IQF shrimp from CajunGrocer.com. I cooked up these head-on shrimp in a New Orleans BBQ style - butter, herbs, seasonings. The shrimp were not peeled, slit, or beheaded before cooking. They cooked about 6 minutes in this butter/stock mixture.

When I went to eat them, I found the shells very thin, thinner than what I'm accustomed to getting from my other shrimp purchases, and they were very difficult to peel, sort of like a fresh egg that takes off meat along with the shell.

Is this a good indicator or bad indicator of the quality of the shrimp? Any ideas of how to make peeling easier the next time? Should I slit their shells before cooking next time?

Any insight into what is going on here would be appreciated. I still have 24 more pounds of them to go through.

Greg

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I bought 10 pounds of the same thing from CajunGrocer a while ago... I found the same problem - many of the shrimp have thin shells, or rough shells and are pretty hard to peel... Once I finish this amount, I don't knowif I'd get them again... they do have a nice shrimpy taste to them, though...