How to Throw a Shrimp Boil

by Meredith Fay Lovelace

A shrimp boil is the party equivalent of a Creedence song: only a true jerk could find fault with it, and even then, they are lying. About three times a year, I gather a dozen or so dear ones over at my place and let loose a whole tabletop of Gulf* shrimp, corn on the cob, and red skinned potatoes all bathed in this sinuses-on-ecstasy broth of lemons, garlic, and spices. Everyone fills up their bowls and doesn’t say a word for 20 glorious minutes of cracking, sucking, biting, tossing, cheap beer-cracking and -gulping. It’s so good, you guys. And I am tired of being the only one that throws these things, so I’m here to tell you: throwing a shrimp boil is stupidly easy and impresses everybody, and you should do it before shrimp goes out of season. Here’s how:

1. Buy stuff.

The whole event is centered around seafood, so you’re going to have to do the bulk of it day-of (this is why Saturdays are the obvious boil day.) Boils don’t have to just be shrimp, you can also toss in clams, mussels, crawfish, I’m not here to judge. To serve your basic small party of 8–16, here’s your basic shopping list. (All ingredient amounts should be treated with an “-ish.”)

10 lbs large or jumbo shrimp, heads off (Some so-and-sos say buy heads-on for the best taste, but oh lord, you will never get that hour of your life decapitating shrimp back.)
6 lemons
5 heads garlic
6 ounces of crab & shrimp boil (most likely Zatarans or Old Bay are going to be in your store, which are wonderful workhorses, as far as spice mixes go. But if you see something that clearly is more awesome, such as the ziploc bag stickered with “HOT DAAAAAMN!” that I get at my local Fiesta, y’know, how can you refuse?)
1 cup ground cayenne pepper (seriously)
2 large onions
12 new potatoes
6 ears of corn
2 lbs spicy sausage (boudin or andouille if you’re feeling authentic)
Tabasco (More than you think)
Paper towels (More than you think)
A couple of fat free alt weeklies or Penny Savers on your way out
Sure, why nots: A few bay leaves, two bunches of fresh thyme
A case of cheap beer (Let’s not kid ourselves. But also remind your guests, if they’re of the ruder variety, that they need to bring their own, too.)

2. Party Preppin’

Go home, go through all of your shrimp one by one to check for any unsuitable critters, then throw the rest into a big bowl of ice water and store it in your fridge. Shuck and detassel the corn before you forget all about it. (You didn’t get the pre-shucked corn, did you? Narrowed eyes of judgement.) Set everything aside and get ready for your party! Wait, what, you don’t need shoes, makeup, or clothes because the entire point of this party is to stuff your face and throw down a few cold ones? Maybe put some newspaper on the table. Okay, straighten the edge. There, you’re done. Oh, and put on some Bobbie Gentry. Perfect! Now go make a drink and relax until your guests arrive.

3. Party Cookin’

Guests arrive, chat, mingle, have fun, play with dogs, inform your friend’s unexpected vegan date that there’s some hummus in the fridge if he/she is hungry (whoops!). At the first murmur of “There was going to be shrimp?” go into the kitchen and fill your stock pot** about 2/3s with water. Halve the lemons, crush the heads of garlic a little (don’t totally mash them) with the flat of a butcher knife and toss them in, and then dump in all of your crab boil spices.

Now go back outside and consider your guests: can they handle a cup of cayenne pepper? Can you? Because I have made a shrimp boil with only half a cup, and it was fine, but bland. When I bit into it, my grandfather woke up from a deep sleep in Baton Rouge with this huge urge to yell at me for being a wuss. So yeah, put all that cayenne in, there you go. Toss in a beer for luck (I’ve never noticed it affecting the taste, but I keep doing it anyway). Heat on high, covered until boiling. Go back outside and have a lively argument about Sam Cooke vs. Otis Redding.

When it’s boiling and you immediately salivate from the thick spicy air when you walk in the kitchen, halve your potatoes, quarter your onions, and throw them in. Walk away and have some more fun for 8–12 minutes, come back in, cut up your ears of corn into thirds and throw them in, along with the spicy sausage. Almost shrimp time!

After 10 minutes of the corn and sausage cooking, get your shrimp out and stir them in with a long handled spoon. This part you’re going to have to wait by the stove for oooooohhhhh, all of four minutes, until the shrimp turn bright pink. They are done! Get them out of that bath before they overcook! GO!

Drain the cooking fluid the best you can considering it’s at least 12 quart pot filled with boiling hot things. Throw all of the food down on your newspaper-covered table and try to pick out some of the garlic heads before someone inevitably bites into one. Place bowls, forks, rolls and rolls of paper towels, and Tobasco out for all. Yell at everybody it’s Feastin’ Time. Watch as people are too busy gorging themselves to even leave the kitchen and go back outside — they just stand there, eyes glassy, fingers covered in cayenne, peeling shrimp and thanking you profusely at the same time. Nod serenely, and then start tearing the legs off of those little suckers. It’s your right, you just threw the chillest party of the Late Spring.

*Note on Gulf Shrimp: Oh man, I know that Al Jazeera article is targeting BP, but all I could think was “Gulf Shrimper cannot get a break.” So what do you, eater of shrimp, do? Well, here is what *I* (not you. You are a person with your own thoughts) do: I go ahead and support the Gulf seafood industry anyway. It’s a vital but troubled industry in the area, often run by small, family-based companies and are integral to the region’s economy and culture. Most likely they don’t want you to find an eyeless shrimp any more than you do, and the odds of shrimp like that even making it to your local fish counter are slim to none. Also, as mentioned before, I’m obsessive about checking over all my seafood before cooking it (you really can’t be too obsessive in this area) and am a general terror at the fish counter.

THAT SAID, I understand why you would prefer to buy your shrimp from Maine, Alaska, etc., or maybe even just skip the debate altogether and cook up a big boiling pot of sausages, potatoes, corn, and spices instead. (Actually, that sounds pretty delicious…)

**Note on stock pots: I have a 16 quart one that works just fine for this amount, but really, use the largest pot you have. If you feel like it’s going to be too full for all of your ingredients, I highly encourage you breaking the boil down into two rounds. This way you have more to feed the latecomers and can avoid that dreaded early-dinner-induced 8 p.m. drowsiness.

Meredith Fay Lovelace makes too much food in Austin, Texas. Maybe she’ll finally update her Tumblr now.

Photo by Lori Monahan Borden, via Shutterstock