Start With Cool Water for a Shrimp, Corn, and Tomatillo Salad That Won't Leave You Cold

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A cold start leads to the juiciest, most tender shrimp. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

There's a razor-thin line between cooked shrimp and overcooked shrimp. Finding that sweet spot is the first priority in any shrimp-based recipe, but when you're serving the shrimp cold—like in this simple salad of shrimp, corn, and tomatillos—it's even more important. Hot, juicy shrimp in a buttery sauce taste great even if they're a little bit rubbery, but rubbery cold shrimp are inedibly unpleasant.

So what's the secret to perfectly poached shrimp? The classic method of poaching shrimp involves plunging raw shrimp into a pot of boiling water or court bouillon, a quick stock made with water, aromatics, and citrus juice or wine. My first step was to determine whether that court bouillon is really all it's cracked up to be.

By tasting shrimp side by side after they'd been cooked in various flavored liquids, I found that if you eat the shrimp plain, some of the flavors of the court bouillon come through—but as soon as you dress those shrimp with other flavorful ingredients in a salad, the only ingredient in the court bouillon that makes a real difference is the citrus juice. So I decided to poach my shrimp in a plain mixture of water and lime juice instead of bothering with all the other aromatics.

Next question: heat. The high heat of a boiling pot of bouillon makes it very easy to accidentally overcook the shrimp. To avoid that, I find that it's best to go against tradition and start the shrimp off in cold water, then gradually bring the water up to temperature on the stovetop. Not only does this slow cooking give you a larger window of time between perfectly cooked and overcooked, it also produces a more tender texture throughout.

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The toughness of shrimp proteins is directly related to the temperature to which they're heated. At a boiling-hot 212°F, the outsides of your shrimp are going to get tough no matter what. But by using the cold water–start method, you can restrict that upper bound. I found that by heating the water to 170°F and no higher, I ended up with shrimp that were cooked perfectly through from edge to edge. Prior to cooking, letting them rest in a quick brine or a combination of salt and baking soda (a trick I use whenever I grill or sauté shrimp) improved their texture, giving me shrimp with a nice pop and snap.

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Finally, rinsing the shrimp under cold running water and spinning them dry in a salad spinner halted the cooking and quickly chilled them to get them ready for my salad.

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Once I had my shrimp where I wanted them, the rest was easy. I added fresh corn kernels (which I had also boiled, chilled, and spun dry), along with some thinly sliced tomatillos (I love their fresh, acidic crunch), red bell peppers, scallions, serrano chilies, and chopped cilantro.

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I tossed everything together with a very simple dressing of lime juice and extra-virgin olive oil. I didn't want anything to distract from the sweet, clean flavors of the shrimp and corn.

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It's the perfect summer salad, which shows that if you want to beat the heat, you gotta start cold.