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Barbecue University™

Shell Games, Part 1: How to Grill Shrimp and Lobster


If you’ve read Steven’s blog, bought one or more of his books, watched his TV shows, or attended Barbecue University, you are likely acquainted with Raichlen’s Rule: If it tastes good boiled, broiled, baked, braised, sautéed, or deep-fried, there’s probably a way to make it taste even better on the grill.

Shellfish is a prime example. Consider lobster. Boil or poach it, and it loses its subtle brininess and delicate flavor to the water. But grill it, and the lobster’s natural sweetness is accentuated. Ditto for shrimp.

Other good candidates for the grill include scallops, oysters, clams, crawfish, mussels, crab, squid, and even octopus. We’ll cover them in Part 2 of Shell Games.

While we prefer our shrimp and lobster grilled over a wood or wood-enhanced fire, you can also use a gas grill. When direct grilling a few shrimp or shrimp kebabs or a couple of lobsters, a hibachi is my grill of choice.

How to Grill Shrimp

This is it—the most popular seafood in America. High in protein, low in fat, widely available, and extremely versatile, it’s no wonder Americans eat over 1.27 billion pounds per year. (For the differences between shrimp and prawns, click here.)


Buying Shrimp

Look for jumbo or even colossal shrimp or prawns if they’re destined for the grill; the larger size will make it more difficult to overcook them. Shrimp are sized according to how many make up a pound. For example, U-10 means you can expect “under 10 shrimp per pound.” Most shrimp in the U.S. are sold frozen and headless, though head-on shrimp can sometimes be found online or in specialty markets. If it’s an option, seek out local varieties like Maine shrimp (small but incredibly sweet), Key West pinks (briny and tender), or spot prawns (buttery and succulent) from the West Coast.


Prepping Shrimp

Peel the shrimp, if desired, or use a sharp paring knife or kitchen shears to split the shell from head to tail, then devein using the tine of a fork or the tip of a bamboo skewer. (The dark “vein” you see running down the shrimp’s back is actually the alimentary canal. Most people remove it for aesthetic reasons.)

  • If possible, leave the shell on while grilling. (This is not practical for kebabs, of course.)
  • For the best flavor and texture, brine the shrimp briefly in salted water (15 minutes will do it), then dry on paper towels and continue with your recipe.
  • Add flavor with rubs, marinades, glazes, or sauces. The latter can be applied to the shrimp just before it comes off the grill grate or served on the side as a dip. If using a marinade, be sure to dry the shrimp well on paper towels before grilling.
  • Thread the shrimp on bamboo skewers (two skewers per kebab to keep the shrimp from spinning) or use a grill basket.


Grilling and Smoking Shrimp

The meat of even the largest shrimp or prawns is very delicate, so be careful not to overcook.

  • Shrimp can be direct grilled over relatively high heat until the meat is opaque, 1 to 3 minutes per side, depending on the size of the shrimp. Alternatively, it can be smoked or indirect grilled for 30 to 40 minutes at 250 degrees. Recipes representing both techniques can be found below.
Smoked Shrimp Cocktail with Chipotle Orange Sauce

Photo by Richard Dallett


Shrimp Recipes


How to Grill Lobster

Lobster is considered a luxury food these days—a quick glance at an online source sells live 1.5-pound lobsters for about $30 each and spiny lobsters for $45 each (neither price includes overnight shipping charges). But that wasn’t always the case. Early American colonists dubbed them the “cockroaches of the sea,” and considered the crustaceans fit food only for prisoners, indentured servants, and the indigent. At any rate, lobster is now up there with prime rib when it comes to striking fear in a griller’s heart as mistakes can be costly. But take a deep breath: You can do this.


Buying Lobster

Generally speaking, two species of lobsters are sold in the U.S.— Maine lobsters, which hail from the cold waters of the coastal states in the northeast, and spiny lobsters, clawless crustaceans that come from the warmer waters of Florida, the Caribbean, or Southern California. (The latter are in season only from October through mid-March.)

If you’re a coastal New Englander, lobster pounds—facilities that circulate sea water through pens of lobster—are a familiar sight. Perhaps you can be choosy, selecting lively specimens with feathery swimmerettes, a sign that they’re female and have sweeter meat. You might even discover black roe when you prep the lobster; it’s a delicacy, and safe to eat. It turns pinkish-orange when cooked.

The rest of us can order online from a reputable source, or select our lobsters from a tank at our local supermarket or fish market. Plan on cooking the lobsters the same day as they are highly perishable and cannot live long out of salt water. (If you must, hold them for a few hours in the coldest part of your refrigerator, wrapped in seaweed or damp newspaper.)

Of course, frozen lobster tails are available in even the most landlocked states, and are an attractive option to people who squirm at the thought of killing a lobster. Thaw the tails in the refrigerator, or if you’re in a hurry, under cold running water. (Put them in a plastic bag first.)


Prepping Lobster

If you’ve purchased live lobsters, the first order of business will be to dispatch them humanely.

  • Here’s Steven’s method: Insert a sharp knife in the back of the head between the eyes; this will kill them instantly. Cut the lobsters in half lengthwise and remove the vein-like intestinal tract running the length of the lobster and the papery gray sac from the head. The greenish tomalley, which some people eat, can be left in or discarded. Break off the claws, if any, and crack them with a chef’s knife or lobster crackers.
  • If using tails, halve them lengthwise for easier grilling. Or grill the tails whole in the shell.
  • In classic steakhouse fashion, you can cut the shell lengthwise with a sharp chef’s knife or kitchen shears. (I keep a clean pair of tin snips in my kitchen just for this purpose.) Carefully release the tail meat from and prop it on top of the shell. If desired, slip a lemon wedge under the meat to keep it in position. If indirect grilling the meat in the shell, (see below) run a bamboo skewer from the tail fin towards the front of the shell to prevent the meat from curling.


Grilling Lobster

In most cases, you’ll grill the lobster over medium-high to high heat for 4 to 8 minutes per side, or until the meat is white and opaque. Do not overcook.

  • In his book The Barbecue! Bible, Steven describes a method he discovered in South Africa: Snip open the thin belly shell, then set up your grill for indirect grilling and heat to medium. Grill the lobsters belly side up in the center of the grill grate, away from direct heat. Cover the grill and cook whole lobsters 30 to 40 minutes and tails 20 to 30 minutes. This method, he says, keeps the lobster moist and tender.
  • If indirect grilling the meat in the shell, (see above) run a bamboo skewer from the tail fin towards the front of the shell to prevent the meat from curling.
  • Grill any lobster claws, which are even more succulent than the tail meat, separately.
  • If you’re an intrepid griller, you can even “caveman” lobster tails by cooking them directly in the embers as Steven did during the third season of Project Smoke. Find a link to the recipe below.
  • Grill lemon halves until nicely charred and serve with the lobster.

Grilled Florida Lobster, Rum Butter Basted


Lobster Recipes


Do you have any questions about grilling and smoking shrimp or lobster? Share them with us on FacebookTwitterReddit, or Instagram!