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