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Although I’m known for spending my free time peeling grapes, in reality, most weeknights end with me standing pantsless in front of an open refrigerator, eating cold food with my bare hands. This meal is for those nights, requiring only slightly more effort than slurping up yogurt with its own lid.
I toss shell-on shrimp in a harissa-spiked beer and butter sauce before blasting it in a hot cast iron under the broiler. It happens so quickly you’ll be left feeling guilty—like you sneakily hacked the tasty food system. Once the sizzling and smoke subside, you’re left with a pan of plump shrimp, touched with char and bathed in sauce. It’s best eaten right out of the pan, so you can mop up every last drop.
I like large, shell-on shrimp for this recipe—not only are they more fun to peel and eat, but they’re also less likely to overcook under the broiler’s intense heat. The shrimps’ tough chitin armor protects the meat and gives you some more wiggle room to hit the perfect doneness. As a bonus, even in this rapid cook time, the shells infuse flavor into the butter sauce, which becomes the star of the show. Peeled shrimp can also often get mangled and man-handled during their processing, while shell-on shrimp is more likely to reach you intact.
Shrimp are sized according to how many yield one pound. I use 16/20 shrimp for this dish, which means that 16 to 20 shrimp weigh a pound. At about an ounce each, these are some big guys—a contrast to wee 36/40 shrimp, which would be dead on arrival if tossed into a ripping hot cast iron.
I prefer to devein my shrimp, but if you don’t mind the vein, you can skip this step. The trick to deveining shrimp while keeping their shells on is to use a pair of kitchen shears. There are slender specialty blades that slip under the shell and remove the vein, but I always have a pair of shears handy and therefore prefer this method.
I snip down the back of the shrimp, simultaneously opening up the shell and exposing the vein, allowing me to clean it away. If you want to blast through this task like a pro, never put your shears down; keep them in your dominant hand and let your other hand do all the dirty work. If you’re lucky enough to find fresh head-on shrimp, you can devein them and keep the head on by sliding the shears just under the head and down the back.
For the sauce, I start by reducing half a can of beer until it’s sticky, syrupy, and only a few tablespoons remain. Boiling beer tends to foam and swell in the pan, but—pro tip!—setting it just off-center of the burner will stop it from bubbling over. I prefer a bitter and hoppy beer like an IPA, which has a citrusy flavor that cuts through the richness of the butter and complements the shrimp’s natural sweetness. But really, cook with whatever you’re drinking because the most important step of this recipe is finishing the other half.
Just like in a fancy-pants beurre blanc, once the beer is reduced, the concentrated sugars allow you to easily introduce the butter to form a thick sauce. The goal of any beurre blanc, or in this case “beer blanc,” is to form an emulsified creamy sauce that’s not greasy or broken. The key is to avoid over-saturating the beer or wine base with fat too quickly—similar to a vinaigrette, where you slowly drizzle oil into a vinegar base.
To do it, start with small cubes of butter and keep that pan swirling, adding it bit by bit and moving the pan the whole time to keep the emulsion stable. Even after you’ve added all the butter, there’s still a risk the sauce will break if you boil it down too much (cook off too much water, and there’s not enough of it left to participate in the emulsion, leaving you with a slick of grease). If this ever happens, you can usually bring the sauce back together simply by adding back a tablespoon or two of water to the pan and whisking well.
Once all the butter is incorporated, I add a few heaping spoonfuls of fresh and dry homemade harissa, but store-bought works too, as does chipotle paste, green curry paste, or even ketchup—if that’s what you’re into.
Pour the sauce over the shrimp, toss it all onto a raging hot preheated sheet tray or cast iron skillet, and pop it under the broiler. Heating the shrimp from both the top and the bottom will leave them evenly cooked in a matter of minutes. I like to pull the pan while a hint of translucence remains at the center of the shrimp. I firmly believe it tastes best eaten out of the skillet and that hot pan will continue cooking the shrimp even after you pull it from the broiler. The sauce should be bubbling, with the harissa caramelizing around the edges of the pan. Due to the high heat, the sauce will inevitably break, but if you start with a solid emulsion, it’ll still be pretty creamy and rich.
Now all you have to do is grab a stack of napkins and a loaf of bread—you’re gonna want to sit down for this.