Shrimp are versatile enough for almost any cooking method, but steaming often provides the most alluring option. It adds no fat to the healthful crustaceans and leaves their sweet, clean flavor at the forefront. Cooks can add flavor as needed or simply leave them unseasoned for later use in cold dishes. It's simplest to steam them in a steamer, of course, but if you don't have one you have several ways to improvise.
Shrimp cook quickly by any method, and that works in your favor. As long as you can generate enough steam to last for a few minutes, you're ready to cook shrimp. On the stovetop, all you need is a saucepan or skillet with a tight-fitting lid.
Heat the pan over medium-high heat. Pour in the shrimp and just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan, usually 1/4 cup or less.
Cover the pan immediately, to trap the steam as the water vaporizes on the hot metal.
Shake the pan vigorously for 2 to 3 minutes, so the shrimp are equally exposed to the steam and don't cook on the hot bottom of the pan. Small to medium shrimp -- up to 26/30 in size -- should be done at this point. Let larger 21/25s rest in the steam for an additional 1 to 2 minutes, and "jumbo" 16/20s rest for 2 to 3 minutes to finish cooking.
These cooking times assume you're using peeled shrimp. For shell-on shrimp, add another 2 to 3 minutes.
Instead of water, use your favorite wine to steam the shrimp. For even more flavor, sprinkle them with a seasoning mixture or chopped herbs when they first go into the pot.
If you have parchment paper in your cupboard, you have another unconventional steaming method at your disposal. It's called cooking en papillote, and you simply use a parchment pouch to trap steam instead of a sealed pot.
Heat the oven to 425 F. Divide the shrimp into half-pound portions and place each in the middle of a large round of parchment.
Add a few drops of water, wine, fruit juice or any other liquid you choose, to provide steam and flavor.
Fold up the outer edges of the circle and continue to fold them to make a tight seal. Twist the corners of each half-moon pouch to tighten it slightly and to help keep juices from escaping.
Jumbo 16/20 shrimp need up to 15 minutes in the oven, while small to medium shrimp need 8 to 10. To check, twist open one corner of a package and look to see if the shrimp are uniformly pink. If they are, they're done.
Many stores sell prepared pouches of parchment paper, with a flap that simply folds down to enclose the food.
In a pinch, even your microwave can serve as a steamer for shrimp.
Fill a large microwaveable measuring cup or a mid-sized mixing bowl with shrimp, and add a few tablespoons of water or wine.
Add any seasonings, and cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Puncture the wrap, so a small portion of the steam can vent -- otherwise the expanding steam will usually pull it from the cup -- and place it in the microwave.
Heat the shrimp at full power for 90 seconds, then shake the bowl or cup to stir them around.
Microwave the shrimp again for 30 seconds at a time, shaking them after each interval, until they're uniformly pink.
This technique works best for batches of 1/2 pound to 1 pound. In smaller portions the microwave will cook your shrimp directly, increasing the risk of them being overcooked and tough. Larger quantities take longer to cook, increasing the risk of hot spots where the shrimp are overdone.
Shrimp are labeled for sale according to size. Those arcane numbers on the bag -- 16/20, 26/30, 31/40, and so on -- refer to how many shrimp per pound they'll average. Jumbo 16/20s, then, are roughly an ounce each while medium-sized 31/40s average roughly 1/2 ounce. All you really need to remember is "the smaller the number, the bigger the shrimp."