There’s nothing like a good seafood boil. It is one-pot spicy goodness in which simple ingredients, steeped in a bath of spices, are transformed into something more than the sum of their parts.
And while the tastes are reminiscent of long summer days at the beach, there’s no reason to limit this meal to the warmer months because some seafood is always available year-round.
A seafood boil is a communal experience, something you eat with your hands, get all over your face and don’t regret a messy morsel of.
While a seafood boil is simple, it’s also quite festive, making it perfect for celebrations of all kinds.
This is a long post, so if you want to, you can navigate:
- learn about equipment
- peruse the process
- read about our first fiery boil
- go straight to the recipe
- check out our consolidated tips
- see some opinions about condiments from a fun group in Facebook
It All Starts with the Seafood
Lots of different shellfish can be used in a seafood boil, but on the Gulf Coast, it is mainly shrimp, crabs and crawfish, because they are readily available.
On Thanksgiving Day this year, we were going to be at Gumbo Cove, our little place in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, so we decided to do a non-traditional meal – the seafood boil. We planned to get fresh-caught shrimp and crabs at Kimball’s Seafood Market in the harbor at Pass Christian. The boats come right up to the dock to unload their fresh catch for the fine folks at Kimball’s to sell to the public. Lucky us! A trip to Kimball’s is part of almost every stay at Gumbo Cove now.
Our Turkey Day Alternative boil would have included crab, but Kimball’s had already sold out by the time we arrived in mid-afternoon. We were on a mission to get to Kimball’s before they closed, rushing straight there as the destination point on our six-hour drive from the Houston area. The crab shortage was fine with us because we’re all about using whatever is fresh and available. Next time, we’ll get there earlier and add crabs to the mix…and when crawfish is in season, they’ll join the party, too.
The seafood procurement trek to Kimball’s is part of our seafood boil fun, but don’t worry, if you’re land-locked and don’t have access to a fresh seafood market, it’s ok to use frozen shrimp.
The Equipment is Key
We Use an Outdoor Propane Cooker
One of the best gifts I’ve ever given The Grill-Meister (from my perspective, at least) is a propane-fired outdoor cooking pot.
Before we were married, before we were even engaged, I used Father’s Day of 2007 as the gift-giving occasion to enable The Grill-Meister to fry turkeys and boil seafood with me (well, he was a father, even if he wasn’t MY father or the father of my son). I was delighted that he was delighted to receive it, and perhaps it was a tiny nudge toward the proposal which came a few months later.
If you don’t have a propane cooker, you can also do a seafood boil in a great big stock pot on the stove. If you’re considering buying one, here’s a review of seafood boiling pots from Village Bakery, a site with cooking tips and resources (affiliated in some way with Amazon). The pot I gave the Grill-Meister all those years ago was inexpensive and basic, and now that we’ve taken it to Gumbo Cove, it’s time to pony up for a new one here at Glover Gardens. The next one will be bigger and a little sturdier…the three legs on our current one always make me nervous.
An Ice Chest is a Convenient Insulated Storage and Serving Container
Keeping the seafood boil warm so that the seconds and thirds everyone will be having are just as perfect as the first serving is important, and an ice chest is a the right equipment for this.
Using an ice chest as the “serving platter” isn’t going to win any awards for fancy food service, but a seafood boil is about the furthest thing from fancy you can find. In fact, if someone suggests fanciness with respect to a seafood boil, they may not be trustworthy.
Our First Seafood Boil was Very Memorable
Back in the summer of 2007, before the Grill-Meister and I were engaged, we took a multi-generation, multi-family vacation to a beach cabin west of Galveston. My family included my grandmother, Dad and Aunt-Mom, son and nieces, and the Grill-Meister brought his son and his new propane cooker. It was a test drive, in many ways.
We planned to do a seafood boil, the Grill-Meister and me, and divvied up the work. I took on the prep and he signed on for the boiling. We’ve kept to this division of labor to this day, although we’ve both learned a lot since that first attempt.
Since we both like things spicy, the Grill-Meister “kicked it up a notch,” in Emeril’s words, as he set up the boiling water. We had a big container of Zatarain’s, and he chose to season the water at 5X the recommended ratio. Yes, my friends, you heard me right: FIVE TIMES THE RECOMMENDED RATIO!!!
There’s a photo of us with the seafood below. It was tented under foil, because it was before we knew to keep it in an ice chest. Before we took pictures of our food masterpieces. Before many things.
Look at us up there, all innocent and unsuspecting.
Before we knew that the Grill-Meister was trying to kill us with the spices.
Before we knew our lips would be red, swollen and burning. 🥵
Before we knew we were creating a lasting family memory.
Friends, here’s what happens with a seafood boil: the food that’s in the water the longest absorbs the most flavor. So that day, the potatoes and corn were the most fiery components – I mean, smokin’ hot! – and the mushrooms and shrimp were almost bearable. Actually, the younguns, the Grill-Meister and I did our level best to put away as much as we could – and to this day, we all remember that event as “that time our lips were burning but we ate it anyway”. Good times. REALLY good times.
Many more friends and family members joined us at the beach cabin the days after that iconic boil, so we kept dragging out the leftovers. And folks kept eating them, and complaining, and eating some more. Our first seafood boil together was successful. And memorable!
That was the week that the Grill-Meister asked my father for my hand. My Dad knew that we would fit together well, especially in the spicy department, and the consent was freely given.
Dad and the Grill-Meister went on to develop a marvelous relationship, calling each other Old Goat and Young Goat, or sometimes, just OG and YG. Dad left us in the summer of 2017, but we are rich with memories.
The Process: A Seafood Boil Comes Together in Two Major Stages
Back to the seafood boil! Creating it is very simple. Think of it in two stages, the work that the Grill-Meister and I have divided up between us: the food prep and the boiling. The pictures here are from our Thanksgiving 2019 Shrimp Boil.
The Food Prep
If you are using whole fresh shrimp, you’ll need to head them, leaving the shells on but cutting along the back of the shrimp with kitchen shears to devein them and make peeling easier for the eaters.
Getting all of the ingredients ready (slicing, washing, peeling, shucking, etc.) and in separate containers makes it easy to add them in the right order.
Another part of the food prep for a seafood boil is getting the table ready – whether it’s a picnic table or a dinner table – and gathering the condiments that will be needed when you dive into the feast. You won’t want to wait when it’s done!
And although the seafood boil is a one-pot meal, you may want to supplement with garlic bread. It’s a magical combination. There’s a link to a great recipe here.
The boiling task has its own prep, of course, which starts with getting out the boiling pot and rinsing out any dust that has settled since the last seafood boil or turkey fry.
The Grill-Meister sets up the propane cooker in a convenient but low-traffic spot and situates a table next to it to stage the boil.
Bringing the water to a boil and seasoning it is the next step. The Grill-Meister now uses the recommended amounts on the crab/shrimp boil spices.
While respecting the amounts (I can’t emphasize this enough), we like to use a mixture of the powdered spices and the kind that come in a bag. They bring different flavors to the party. The bagged kind (shown below) has mustard seed, coriander seed, red pepper, dill seed, bay leaf and allspice. The powder has salt, paprika, red pepper and other various powdered spices.
You can also throw in wine, beer, any flavorful liquid you’d like to add. Once it is boiling, seasoning the water includes adding the aromatics: garlic, onion, lemon, etc.
Bringing the water back to a boil after the aromatics are added makes it time to start with the main ingredients, added in order of how long it takes them to cook. First are the potatoes, which cook for about 10 minutes before the next addition.
Then add the corn, for about 5 minutes.
The sausage comes next, cooking for about another 3 minutes.
Mushrooms and shrimp follow the sausage.
The shrimp and mushrooms are the last additions, and cook only until the shrimp have just turned pink. As soon as that happens, it’s time to get the goods into the ice chest and get ready to feast!
One More Step – the Eating!
We kept the ice chest right next to the table on Thanksgiving to make it easy to get those second and third servings.
And we’ve learned that the best way to get it spicier is let folks add more at the table!
Shrimp Boil Recipe
- Prep time, 1 – 1 1/2 hours
- Serves 8-10
- Total time: about 2 hours
For the Boil
- 2 large yellow or white onions
- 2 large lemons cut in quarters
- 1 whole head of garlic with the top sliced off
- 4 lbs. small potatoes (red, fingerling or a variety)
- 8 ears of corn, cut in half
- 3 lbs. sausage, sliced (we use jalapeño sausage)
- 2 lbs. button mushrooms
- 5 lbs. large head-on shrimp (16-20s), or 4 lbs. without heads
- Seafood/crab boil spices (we use Zatarain’s), using the amounts recommended
Condiments for Serving
- 2 large lemons cut in quarters
- Cocktail sauce
- Remoulade sauce
- Tabasco, Crystal or other pepper sauce
- Additional seafood seasoning (like Tony Chacheres or Old Bay)
Using a pot with a colander basket, bring the water to a boil and add the seasonings and aromatics (onion, lemons and garlic). Bring back to a boil and let simmer for at least 20 minutes.
Build the boil by adding the ingredients in the order and timing below:
- Potatoes, 10 minutes
- Corn, 5 minutes
- Sausage, 3 minutes
- Mushrooms and shrimp, 3 minutes or until shrimp are pink
Note: test a potato before you add the shrimp and mushrooms; if it isn’t close to being done, wait a few minutes.
After the shrimp are pink, pull out the basket, holding it over the pot to let the water drain out, and then transfer to a clean ice chest. Use a slotted spoon and tongs for serving, and eat it while it’s hot!
A Collection of Tips from Our Experiences
- If you can, use both types of seafood boil spices (the kind in a bag with seeds, and the powdered kind).
- Use the recommended amounts on the crab/shrimp boil spices (!!) and let diners who want more heat supplement with additional seasoning and/or hot sauce at the table. (Remember, the shrimp isn’t in the seasoned water very long, so you might want more spicy goodness.)
- A great way to get rid of bland lagers or other unwanted beer or wine is to add it to your boiling water.
- Stand away from the pot when you add ingredients to avoid getting splashed with boiling water.
- Be aware that folks will be very interested in your process and make sure there’s room for them to safely watch.
- You may need to adjust the boiling times based on the sizes of your potatoes and corn, the power of your propane burner, etc.
- Be sure to pull out the boil as soon as the shrimp are pink. Shrimp can turn rubbery very quickly if they were cooked too long, especially as they stay hot in the ice chest.
- Test a potato before you add the shrimp and mushrooms; if it isn’t close to being done, wait a few more minutes.🥔
- You can add other vegetables in your boil, like broccoli, carrots or cauliflower, but you might be the only one that eats them. (I know this from experience because I added a few brussels sprouts to our Thanksgiving Boil – no takers but me.)🥦
- Use the smallest potatoes you can find so you don’t have to chop them up. It’s easier and they stay intact.
- Big shrimp are better.🦐
- Fresh shrimp is better, but frozen will work just fine.
- If you partake in adult beverages, be sure to have enough on hand for your tasks. 🍻🍷
- Some folks spread out the boil on a picnic table covered with newspaper. If you do this, be very careful that the hot water has completely drained out of your colander basket, and keep some in reserve in your ice chest so that the second and third helpings will stay hot.
- There are lots of great references out there about seafood boils, like this one from Epicurious: How to Make a Seafood Boil without a Recipe.
- You don’t need any side dishes except for garlic bread.
- Shrimp boil leftovers are great! Just pull them out of the refrigerator and let everyone dig in. They’re surprisingly good served cold.
- Shrimp boil leftovers also make a great omelet. That’s another post, available right here.
- Have a lotta napkins handy! Or big fat rolls of paper towels.
- If you’re single and you partner with someone to do a seafood boil, you might just get engaged soon after. 💕
Opinions (about those condiments)
I’m a member of a fun group in Facebook about all things cajun, and get some good advice and input there about cajun cooking. I usually serve Tabasco, but wondered what the cajun-preferred hot sauce is, so I created a quick poll to gather all of those valuable opinions, and then shared it in the Glover Gardens Facebook page so y’all could see it.
At last count, the clear winner was Louisiana Hot Sauce, with over 300 votes. Tabasco was running in second place, with about 100 less votes.
I was just asking about the hot sauce, but lots of people mentioned cocktail sauce as a must. Some folks serve multiple hot sauces, and many felt that no additional condiments were necessary if you seasoned the water right. I also learned about some others: DAT Sauce, Dave’s Insanity (which I knew about, but hadn’t considered for a shrimp boil), Texas Pete, Justin Wilson’s Pepper Sauce and Nando’s Peri Peri. So many choices, so little time!
Well, that’s our shrimp boil roundup: stories, recipes, tips and opinions. We’d love to hear about yours.
Happy New Year’s Eve!