Welcome to our new column, “An Engineer Cooks,” written by Kyle Beatty. Kyle focuses on finding creative solutions to kitchen problems, whether it’s simplifying tough recipes, adding that last little improvement to make food restaurant-quality, or cooking great food while cutting calories.
*This is one of the recipes we have copied over from our old website, click here to see the original post, with the original photos, etc. You can also see the even lower-calorie version on our old site by clicking here. We’re still working on transitioning content, updating our new website, and learning to take better photos. Thank you for bearing with us during this transition period. -Thanks! Katy, April 6, 2018
Shrimp scampi is a dish that seems simple at a glance. Shrimp and pasta in a sauce of garlic, butter, lemon, and parsley. Should be hard to screw up, right? But the best shrimp scampi elevates that simple mix of ingredients into a creamy, cohesive dish, and the worst yields an unharmonious mix of greasy pasta, rubbery shrimp, and harsh garlic and wine flavor. We’ve figured out a recipe that employs a few tricks to give the home cook the most foolproof method to get restaurant-quality results at home. To see just the recipe, click here.
Trick 1- Baking soda for perfect shrimp
The first trick we use is one that we call upon every time we cook with shrimp- marinating with a dash of baking soda and a bit of salt in the fridge for around 30 minutes before cooking. I learned this from Kenji Lopez-Alt’s (author of my favorite cookbook, “The Food Lab”) recipe for grilled shrimp at Serious Eats, and have sworn by it ever since. The baking soda helps keep the shrimp juicy and plump, even if they get slightly overcooked. It’s a simple step that makes an enormous difference in the final dish, and if you start marinating before you prep your other ingredients, shouldn’t add any extra time to this recipe.
*A note on shrimp: If you can find fresh shrimp, that’s great, but unless they’re clearly labeled as “fresh, never frozen”, the shrimp at your grocery store’s fish counter are almost definitely defrosted frozen shrimp, so buying a bag of frozen, shell-on shrimp is just as good. Frozen/previously frozen shrimp will still give you great results. If you buy frozen, defrost them in a bowl of cold water for about 15-30 minutes, then drain and proceed like you would with regular shrimp.
Trick 2- Reduce your wine ahead of time for a sauce that comes together worry-free
Standard recipes for shrimp scampi generally call for deglazing the pan with white wine after cooking the garlic. The wine is a major flavor component of the sauce, but it can take a while to reduce, and if you don’t reduce it well enough, or even quickly enough, you can end up with an overpowering wine flavor in the sauce, which we definitely don’t want. To try to get around that, I decided to try reducing the wine first, before adding it to the sauce to deglaze after cooking the garlic. The benefits here are three-fold. First, it gives us better control over the wine flavor of the final dish- there’s no guesswork about whether your wine has boiled long enough to get right where we want it. Second, it makes it easier to get a well-emulsified, creamy sauce, as we end up adding less volume of water-based liquid to the pan. And third, boiling the wine for 5-10 minutes drives off a huge percentage of the alcohol content of the wine, which saves us a few calories (the calorie content of wine is almost 100% from its alcohol). It’s not a huge caloric difference, but in a dish made with this much pasta and butter, we’ll take that wherever help we can get it.
Trick 3- Get extra flavor from your shrimp shells
One of the most important rules we try to follow when working on a recipe is to not let any flavor go to waste. Whether it’s a chicken carcass, extra liquid from a sous vide bag, or, in this case, shrimp shells, it’s a shame whenever an opportunity for flavor goes down the drain or into the trash. So right off the bat I was looking for a way to get that strong shrimp essence from the shells into the final dish. In the past I’ve done this by cooking the shells in olive oil ahead of time, and using that oil to cook shrimp and make the sauce. This time, so I figured, why not add them to the wine while it reduces? That way we still get the flavor from the shells without the added step of cooking them in the oil. I might also argue that exposing the entire surface area of the shells to the liquid, plus the agitation from the boiling, extracts more flavor in less time than infusing oil with them. My first try with this yielded exactly what I was looking for- concentrated wine that hit all the notes I wanted an none of the ones I didn’t, plus a strong shrimp flavor that would permeate the sauce.
Bringing these two ideas together, the process works as follows: Bring a cup of wine, plus your shrimp shells (and a couple smashed cloves of garlic couldn’t hurt), to a boil over high heat, and continue boiling until it has reduced by 50%. Give the shrimp shells a prod every couple minutes to make sure they’re as immersed as possible. I use a scale to measure the amount of reduction (weigh the pot with the wine and shrimp before boiling, then check every few minutes until the weigh decreases by 4oz), but eyeballing it is fine. This step should take only 5-10 minutes, depending on the size of the pan you use and your heat source. Strain out the solids, and your wine is ready to go.
Trick 4- Starchy pasta water for a creamy, emulsified sauce
The last trick that we use is starchy pasta water. In a restaurant, almost any pasta dish you have is finished in a pan with sauce and a splash of starchy pasta water, which is used for its excellent emulsifying ability. Cooking these all together for a minute yields a well-emulsified sauce that sticks well to the pasta, which yields a plate that tastes and feels more cohesive. It’s a huge difference maker, and if you’re not using this technique at home, you definitely should. The problem that we get at home is that the starch content of our water is way less than that of the pasta water at your local Italian restaurant. The reason for this is the system they use to cook pasta- instead of boiling a new pot for every serving, they keep a big pot of water boiling, and use an insert to submerge the pasta, which then drains back into the same pot. So once a dinner service gets rolling, that pasta water has the starch from many servings of pasta concentrated in one pot of liquid. But, like with most things, there’s a workaround for the home cook: cook your pasta in as little water as possible. It sounds like blasphemy, but as I learned cooking pasta in the microwave at my fraternity house, pasta, and especially dried pasta, is very forgiving. As long as it’s submerged and at least lightly boiling, your pasta will come out indistinguishable from pasta that was swimming in a 12 quart pot of vigorously boiling water, but the leftover pasta water in the smaller pot will have a way higher starch content, which is exactly what we want. And please, don’t ever forget to generously salt your pasta water (with 2 teaspoons or so of salt for every quart of water, not a light sprinkle of salt from your salt shaker).
If you want to skip any of these four extra tricks, go ahead, it’ll save you a step or two and your dish probably won’t be bad. But putting in a bit of extra effort with these will take your dish from just ok to “holy crap this is better than I’ve ever had at a restaurant”. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Bringing it all together
Now that we have these tricks laid out, the execution of the dish is pretty easy. Cook your pasta about a minute shy of al dente. Sear your shrimp in some olive oil over high heat in a stainless or other metal pan (we actually want some browned bits to stick to the pan, so a nonstick pan is less than ideal for this), flipping after a couple minutes. If you’re a perfectionist, you can use an instant-read thermometer to check that your shrimp get to around 135F before pulling them off into bowl. Reduce the heat to medium and add some chopped garlic (not grated or crushed, this would give you a too-harsh garlic flavor) garlic, and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes if you want a bit of heat in the final dish. Use a spatula to scrape up any browned bits from your pan. The garlic should cook for a minute or two, just long enough to mellow out and spread its flavor into the oil, but not enough to start browning. If there are any bits on the pan that look like they’re burning, or your garlic starts to brown, skip ahead to the next step. Turn the heat to high, and add your reduced wine/shrimp shell liquid. Let it start boiling, then add your butter. Stir the pan vigorously with a whisk (we’re partial to this one) to emulsify the sauce. Add a splash of lemon juice and lemon zest, then add your shrimp back in, and give everything a toss. Add your pasta and about 1/3 cup of your starchy pasta water, and mix everything vigorously with a pair of tongs while it boils for about a minute. If the pan starts to get too dry, add another splash of pasta water and mix it in. Add a handful of chopped parsley, and taste for saltiness and lemon flavor (it may need a bit more zest or juice). Pull everything off the heat and serve immediately.
12 ounces 21-25 count shrimp, deveined, shells removed and reserved
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped, but not crushed or grated (about 20g)
1 small pinch red pepper flakes, optional
1 tablespoon (15g) lemon juice (about ½ a lemon)
6 ounces thin spaghetti
1 teaspoon lightly packed lemon zest (a little less than 1 lemon)
Parsley, chopped, to taste
In a bowl, combine the deveined and shelled shrimp baking soda with 2 teaspoons salt. Refrigerate 15-30 minutes while performing next steps.
Boil a small amount of well-salted water in a saucepan or skillet (it should be just enough water to cover the pasta while cooking). Add pasta and cook until just short of al dente. Remove pasta or drain, reserving 1 cup of cooking water.
In a small saucepan, add shrimp shells and wine. Bring to a moderate boil, stirring to keep most shells submerged, for about 5-10 minutes, until half a cup of liquid remains. Strain out shells and reserve liquid.
In a stainless steel skillet, heat olive oil on high until shimmering. Add shrimp in one layer, and sear for 1-2 minutes until one side has browned, then flip and continue cooking for another 1-2 minutes until cooked through (you can use an instant read thermometer to double check that the shrimp have hit at least 135F)
Remove the pan from the heat and transfer the shrimp to a bowl with tongs, leaving the oil in the pan, and let the pan cool down for a about a minute.
Reduce heat to medium. Add garlic and red pepper flakes to taste, and stir, aggressively scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a flat-end wood or metal spatula. Adjust the heat so that the garlic sizzles slightly, but doesn’t brown. Cook garlic for about a minute.
Increase heat to high, add reserved shrimp/wine liquid. Allow to boil for about a minute
Add butter. Stir vigorously with a whisk to emulsify for about 30 seconds.
Add the lemon juice, and shrimp, and stir to combine. Add pasta and about ½ cup of pasta water, stirring continually with tongs to coat the pasta and keep the sauce emulsified. Cook for 1 minute, adding more pasta water as necessary to keep the desired consistency. Run a spatula along the edges of the pan to scrape any accumulated garlic and parsley back into the pasta.
Add parsley and lemon zest, stir to combine, and serve immediately.