Someone once told me, “Using Cajun seasoning does not a Cajun dish make.” Apparently, a lot of people didn’t get the memo. A quick internet search for “Cajun shrimp” will lead you to an assortment of recipes that have suspiciously little in common beyond their use of shellfish and Cajun seasoning: Cajun shrimp boil, Cajun shrimp and pasta, Cajun shrimp casserole… the list goes on. One of the most popular methods of preparing “Cajun shrimp” on its own, though, is melting butter in a pan, tossing shrimp in Cajun seasoning, and sautéing it with some garlic until just cooked.
Just as everyone seems to have their own preferred version of this widely popular dish, this recipe is my own personal interpretation. It is not by any means a part of the Cajun cooking tradition in the way dishes like gumbo or étouffée are, it simply riffs on flavors and ingredients common to the cuisine. Brined in a mixture of salt and baking soda, then tossed in a balanced spice blend that packs subtle heat, the shrimp is cooked in a pan using a method inspired by bronzing, a technique popularized by the late chef Paul Prudhomme. The result is tender, juicy shrimp that are packed full of flavor.
How to Make Your Own Cajun Seasoning
The spice aisle of your supermarket can be a pretty overwhelming place. You’re confronted by a seemingly infinite number of dried herbs and spices, not to mention countless blends. Case in point: At my local grocery store, there were six different brands of Cajun seasoning. With so many options available, you might be wondering why I’m choosing to make my own. But it can be difficult to know what the ratio of spices is in store-bought seasonings, and mixing my own allows me to control every aspect, ensuring that the blend is balanced and has just the right amount of heat to my taste. Use my recipe as written, or as a jumping off point for your own blend tailored to your own tastes (or buy store-bought if you have a favorite brand or simply need dinner fast).
The recipe for this blend yields a little over 1/4 cup, so you’ll have some left over. You can use it to make another batch of Cajun shrimp, but it’s also a versatile seasoning that’s delicious when rubbed on red meat, poultry, seafood, stirred into soups and stews, or tossed into a batch of popcorn.
How to Choose Your Shrimp
There are many shrimp options available at the grocery store and fishmonger: shell-on or shell-off? Small, medium, or large? As Serious Eats contributor Dan Nosowitz wrote for us previously, what determines a shrimp’s size is the number of shrimp it takes to make up a pound. If you see numbers like 16/20, that means there are 16 to 20 shrimp per pound. If you see a letter U, like U12, that means there are fewer than 12 of those shrimp in a pound.
I did some side-by-side testing with shrimp of various sizes ranging from U12 up to 26/30. Overall, I found that larger shrimp were less likely to overcook and easier to turn individually in the pan. While I enjoyed the naturally sweet flavor of the massive U12 shrimp, they are more expensive and can be much harder to find than 13/15 size shrimp, which are just big enough and also widely available.
Because I wanted the seasoning to coat the meat—and not discarded with the shell—I knew I wanted to use peeled shrimp. Still, I opted to buy shell-on shrimp, as they tend to be higher in quality. Like a suit of armor, the shells protect the delicate flesh during transportation and storage. Buying pre-peeled and deveined shrimp may seem like a good shortcut, but you’ll likely end up with some mangled, damaged shrimp in the mix. For that reason, you’re better off buying shell-on shrimp and peeling and deveining them yourself.
For Juicier Shrimp, Brine With Salt and Baking Soda
In previous testing, both Kenji and Daniel have found that dry-brining shrimp in a mixture of salt and baking soda produced extra-plump shrimp with a nice snap. Baking soda raises the pH of the shrimp, and because the Maillard reaction—a series of chemical reactions that happens when heat transforms proteins and sugars—occurs faster at higher pH levels, shrimp brined in baking soda browns faster, too.
Is brining your shrimp necessary? No, but doing so results in tender, moister shrimp. For the juiciest shrimp, I dry-brined in a mixture of salt and baking soda for 30 minutes before tossing the shrimp with the Cajun seasoning.
Cooking the Shrimp
In my research on Cajun cuisine for this recipe, I came across a technique called bronzing in Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Pure Magic. Prudhomme, one of the figures responsible for launching Cajun and Creole cuisine into the national spotlight, is widely credited with inventing the culinary techniques of blackening and bronzing. While blackening involves brushing food in butter, followed by a dip in a spice blend and a deep sear in a cast iron skillet until blackened, bronzing is a gentler alternative that takes place in a nonstick pan over moderate heat. With a little less heat and smoke, the end result is golden brown instead of blackened.
Using Prudhomme’s bronzing technique as a jumping-off point, I heated oil and butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, then cooked the seasoned shrimp in a single layer until golden (a process that takes just about a minute and a half per side) before flipping to cook the other side, allowing the the shrimp to cook undisturbed until just slightly translucent in the center. You’ll want to count on some carry-over cooking once you remove the shrimp from the pan; though many recipes will tell you to continue cooking until the shrimp are completely white in the center, doing so will leave you with overcooked, rubbery shrimp once they carry over.
The result? Plump and tender, golden-spiced Cajun shrimp…Cajun-esque shrimp? Cajun-ish shrimp? Doesn’t matter, they’re good.
For the Cajun Seasoning: In a small bowl, whisk together sweet paprika, granulated garlic, cayenne pepper, onion powder, dried thyme, dried oregano, granulated sugar, white pepper, black pepper, and cumin until thoroughly combined. Transfer to an airtight jar and set aside.
For the Shrimp: Pat shrimp dry with paper towels. In a large bowl, toss shrimp with kosher salt and baking soda until evenly coated. Cover and set aside to brine in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Uncover and toss shrimp with 1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning until evenly coated.
In a 12-inch skillet set over medium-high heat, melt butter and oil until the butter foams and begins to subside. Add shrimp in a single layer and cook until the bottom is golden brown, about 90 seconds (see note). Flip shrimp and continue cooking until just translucent in the center, about 90 seconds more. Serve immediately.
12-inch nonstick skillet
If you can’t find jumbo shrimp, you can substitute with large shrimp. Keep in mind that large shrimp will cook faster than jumbo shrimp, about 60 seconds per side. We do not recommend using small or medium shrimp.
If you can’t fit the shrimp in a single layer without crowding, cook it in two batches. Wipe out the skillet between batches and use additional oil and butter as needed.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The seasoning blend can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 months.