Beyond the BBQ: Summer Seafood Boils
Any god-fearing American can grill up a hot dog or sear a few hamburgers over open flame. Any butthead can host a BBQ. If you’re looking to make real memories… it’s time to boil.
Beyond the BBQ: Summer Seafood Boils
Great choices for summer boils include blue crabs, crawfish and shrimp. The last boil I did was crawfish and they were shipped live from Louisiana from this site - spectacular.
Popular in the Gulf and the East Coast, blue crab boils can be a thing of beauty – if you’re willing to put in the work. For blue crab virgins, the first encounter can be pretty intimidating. Lets put it this way: if you think eating king crab or lobster is a lot of work, blue crab pickin’ is like a 10 hour shift in the coal mines. It can be lots of work for very little reward. For that reason, I’d say they are probably not my first choice.
Clams and mussels are more popular in East Coast boils. Clams are a good choice, but they’re sometimes expensive and can get rubbery if you cook them too long.
Mussels are more affordable, and offer a more delicate, approachable flavor – better for seafood novices.
Be forewarned: you really have to be careful when selecting both clams and mussels. Make sure you smell them before you buy them. They should not smell fishy. Finding ones with no smell at all is pretty difficult in the Midwest, but the official rule of thumb with seafood isthat you want them to smell neutral (like the sea!). Another thing to look out for is breakage. Thinner-shelled mussels are especially vulnerable to getting crushed or dying for any number of reasons. (Yes, clams and mussels should be alive until you cook them. An easy visual test? Make sure they’re all tightly closed.) Dead clams and mussels start to deteriorate (read: rot), and the flavor…not so much.
When preparing clams and mussels, follow these steps:
- Wash them in cold water. Do several rinses and throw away any that have broken shells.
- Find the other ones that are less obviously dead. An easy trick to spot the deceased: if the shells are open and you push on them and they don’t close up, they’re goners.
If you don’t follow these steps and boil a bad clam or mussel it will spoil the party. Which would be very sad.
I’ve felt this sadness with mussels at restaurants more than a few times. In fact, I don’t even bother ordering them anymore. I also purge clams and mussels by soaking them for half an hour prior in salt water. This is a hotly contested issue as some chefs insist this does not work. Simply put, those chefs are wrong. Salt water it up!
So what are you left with? Shrimp.
There are a couple competing schools of thought here, and all the fuss is about head. Down south, they usually boil the shrimp head-on. Most of a shrimp’s fat (and flavor) is in the head – and much of this essence seeps into the broth, infusing all elements of the boil with its delicate flavor. Unfortunately, leaving the head on a shrimp dramatically increases the rate of spoilage. As such, most purveyors take it off. Sometimes you see it at more daring (read: Asian) grocers but I’d generally suggest avoiding it.
Boiling shrimp presents other challenges. For starters, shrimp are really easy to overcook. Plus truly fresh shrimp are really, really hard to find. Unless you know a guy.
Behold, tips for avoiding overcooked, rotten-tasting shrimp boils:
- Avoid the really shrimpy ones. Shrimp are graded by the average number in a pound. The smaller the shrimp, the easier it is to overcook. That being said, the price can get obscene for the bigger ones, which are viewed as a luxury. Generally, I’d recommend going with about a 26/30.
- Buy raw shell on. You can buy shrimp semi-cleaned, with just the tip on, fully cleaned or fully cleaned and cooked. It’s easy to get confused. Buy raw, fresh shrimp with the shell on. The shell adds flavor to the broth, slows the cooking process, and prevents breakage.
- Buy frozen shrimp. It’s tempting to go to the seafood counter and buy the nice mound of “fresh” shrimp. Unfortunately, unless you live on the coast, those shrimp are not that fresh. All shrimp (in the Midwest at least) arrive frozen and then the seafood counter thaws them and keeps them on ice. Then they move the shrimp back and forth between the ice and the cooler, sometimes spraying it with preservative. The grocer also touches the shrimp with gloves/scoops that have made contact with other seafood / unsanitary things (read: bathroom break). Buy shrimp frozen a day or two before you need it and let it thaw in the fridge.
There are a couple approaches when it comes to actually boiling the shrimp. The trickiest part is getting “the soak” right. If you just throw the shrimp into the boil and then take them right out when they curl up, odds are they won’t have picked up much of the flavor of the broth. This is a problem because, as humans, we all want to spend our time in flavor country. Thankfully, there are a couple ways to combat tastelessness:
- Sprinkle some seasoning on the shrimp once you take them out of the boil. When people peel the shrimp, the seasoning gets on their fingers as well as on the shrimp. It’s like magical, seafood-flavored Cheeto dust.
- If you really want to make an impression, make a seasoned brown butter. Take a pound of butter and let it brown in a skillet. Put some creole or Old Bay seasoning in there and then toss the shrimp in it. People go bonkers for this. Yeah, its lots of fat, and yeah, its pretty effing good. You can adjust the seasoning to your taste but I’d start with about 1 1/2 tablespoons seasonings to 1lb of butter. As far as how many shrimp 1 lb of melted butter coats, that’s up to you as well. How decadent do you want to be? This is also obviously magnificent on the corn and potatoes. (I’m very decadent.)
- The last option and the most difficult is to let the shrimp soak in the broth. The big issue here is this is really hard to get right. Basically you need to turn the heat off the minute you put the shrimp in. Some people might boil the shrimp for a few minutes, but that seems to lead to rubber shrimp any time I’ve done it. The next step is to put the lid on the pot and let the shrimp soak for a while. Do this for approximately 10 min. It is possible to go as long as 30. I think this method must work better for head-on shrimp. Others soak for a while and then move the seafood to Styrofoam coolers and let them steam for a while. This takes a lot of work and is an art form to master. I would suggest for your first time opting for option 1 or 2.
The main goal for any boil is making it flavorful, and you have a lot of possibilities here as your options for seafood seasoning are plentiful.
The boil in the bag kind is mainly whole spices. Things like allspice berries, mustard seeds, cloves, coriander, bay leaves, peppercorns, caraway seed, etc… very similar to pickling spices, which can also be used instead or in addition. If you buy in bulk the prices aren’t too bad, especially considering the quality. You can always add some salt to the boil or some ground seafood seasoning which are always loaded with salt.
The most common option is Old Bay. It comes ground, whole in a bag or liquid. Using only ground seafood seasoning in the pot can be risky. It saves some time, but you can easily overdo it. My suggestion is to forget about the liquid stuff, it’s nasty.
Your other option is to use a ground Cajun seasoning. I’d pick this up for the table and optionally for the boil. Usually these are loaded with MSG. MSG is a whole different article, but there are lots of good Cajun seasonings out there both with and without this infamous ingredient.
Another question you might consider is whether you are serving pescetarians. Hopefully the answer is NO, and if it is one of the best things for flavoring the boil is to chop up hunks of Andouille sausage in about 2 inch chunks and chuck those into the water early on. The more sausage that gets boiled in the water, the more animal fat you introduce to the mix. Delicious.
And here are a few final suggestions to make your boil unforgettable!
- Find Gumbo crabs. These might be difficult to locate but are worth it. They are basically really small blue crabs that have been cleaned and frozen. You can dump them into the boil before the items you plan to eat and boil for about 20 min. This helps make the broth into more of a stock. You don’t need to thaw them, you can just cook from frozen.
- Buy Onions, garlic, celery and lemons. Peel the first two and leave the celery whole. Dump in the pot and boil (with gumbo crabs if you have them) for about 20/30 min before you put corn potatoes or seafood in.
- Beer! Don’t start your boil with water only. If you have a keg, put a pitcher of beer in. Or a handful of cans. (As long as its not too hoppy)
Now get to boilin’ and let me know how it goes!