Shrimp scampi is rarely awful—it is unusual for things to go terribly wrong when garlic, wine and butter are involved—but restaurant versions always make me wish I had ordered differently. I have never been presented with the ultimate scampi, the one that I can almost taste when I peruse the menu: perfectly cooked, briny beauties in a garlicky, buttery (but not greasy) white wine sauce.
When I last made my way through a mediocre rendition, I decided it was time to realize this ideal scampi vision at home. Since shrimp are susceptible to overcooking, which can make them dry and tough, I gave my shrimp (1 1/2 pounds, enough to serve four) a short dunk in a saltwater solution to season them and help preserve moisture. I then heated extra-virgin olive oil in a skillet, sauteed a few cloves of minced garlic and a dash of red pepper flakes, and added the shrimp. Once the shrimp turned opaque, I splashed in some dry white wine and followed it with a chunk of butter, a big squeeze of lemon juice, and a sprinkle of parsley.
My guests and I didn’t go hungry that night, but the scampi was far from perfect. One problem was that the sauce separated into a butter-and-oil slick floating on top of the wine—not ideal in the looks department or for dunking bread into. (While some serve shrimp scampi over a pile of spaghetti, I think it is best with a crusty loaf.) Then there were the shrimp: Some were a little overdone, while others were still translucent. Finally, the overall dish was shy on both seafood and garlic flavors. For results that I’d be truly satisfied with, some adjustments were in order.
Start to finish: 45 minutes
3 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 ½ pounds jumbo shrimp (16 to 20 per pound), peeled, deveined, and tails removed, shells reserved
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
4 sprigs fresh thyme
3 tablespoons lemon juice, plus lemon wedges for serving
1 teaspoon cornstarch
8 garlic cloves, sliced thin
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
¼ teaspoon pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch pieces
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
Dissolve salt and sugar in 1 quart cold water in large container. Submerge shrimp in brine, cover, and refrigerate for 15 minutes. Remove shrimp from brine and pat dry with paper towels.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in 12 inch skillet over high heat until shimmering. Add shrimp shells and cook, stirring frequently, until they begin to turn spotty brown and skillet starts to brown, 2 to 4 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and carefully add wine and thyme sprigs. When bubbling subsides, return skillet to medium heat and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Strain mixture through colander set over large bowl. Discard shells and reserve liquid (you should have about 2/3 cup). Wipe out skillet with paper towels.
Combine lemon juice and cornstarch in small bowl. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil, garlic, pepper flakes, and pepper in now-empty skillet over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until garlic is fragrant and just beginning to brown at edges, 3 to 5 minutes. Add reserved wine mixture, increase heat to high, and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to medium, add shrimp, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp are just opaque, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and, using slotted spoon, transfer shrimp to bowl.
Return skillet to medium heat, add lemon juice-cornstarch mixture, and cook until slightly thickened, 1 minute. Remove from heat and whisk in butter and parsley until combined. Return shrimp and any accumulated juices to skillet and toss to combine. Serve with crusty bread, passing lemon wedges separately.
Chef’s note: Extra-large shrimp (21 to 25 per pound) can be substituted for jumbo shrimp. If you use them, reduce the cooking time in step 3 by 1 to 2 minutes. We prefer untreated shrimp, but if your shrimp are treated with sodium or preservatives like sodium tripolyphosphate, skip the brining in step 1 and add 1/4 teaspoon of salt to the sauce.