Gambas Al Ajillo (Spanish Garlic Shrimp)
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So I’ve decided to spend November in Spain with my family this year. I remember one of my favorite tapas (small plates) I’ve ever had in the entire country is their Gambas Al Ajillo. This may actually be one of the most popular tapa in all of Spain, and it is probably for good reason. It is absolutely delicious. As my longtime readers know by now, I take a cooking class in every city I visit to learn how to authentically make some dishes. (I’m currently in Bosnia, so will have some authentic Bosnian recipes up on the site soon)!
Gambas Al Ajillo, also called Gambas Al Pil Pil depending on which part of the country you are from, is actually an extremely simple dish. The main ingredients are olive oil, dried red pepper flakes, garlic, and of course the shrimp. As wish most dishes with such few ingredients, I really recommend trying to find the best quality ingredients that you can.
You’ll soon be seeing a lot of shrimp dishes in a row on this site, and that’s because I was able to procure 2kg of Argentinean Red Shrimp at my local market (for about $20…woohoo). While this shrimp is not the most authentic, as they aren’t from Spain, I really couldn’t see a difference, and these large bright red shrimp are just so easy to cook with.
As I live in Europe and these are from Argentina I’m sure you can tell that I bought them frozen. And that’s okay! It’s very unlikely that you are able to get true fresh shrimp unless you live right by the sea, but frozen shrimp are perfectly acceptable provided they were flash frozen right when they were caught.
To thaw the shrimp, just put them in a bowl of room temperature water with a few ice cubes. They should be fully thawed in about 10 minutes.
As this dish doesn’t include the shells, you’ll have to peel the shells off the shrimp which, while time consuming, isn’t all that difficult. Whatever you do, do not throw out the shells. I use them to make a delicious shrimp broth for my shrimp soup which you’ll definitely want to try. Also, you’ll want to use 2-3 of the heads for bonus shrimp flavor while you are heating up the olive oil.
Many people have differing opinions on how to prepare the garlic in this dish. Whatever the arguments are, I would say never, NEVER use a garlic press for this recipe. As the olive oil is extremely hot, and you want the garlic to infuse but not burn, a garlic press will basically cause the tiny garlic bits to burn and then your whole dish will be a bitter mess. I like to smash the garlic with the flat of my knife in one quick hit, then give an extremely rough chop. This leaves the garlic in big enough pieces that it won’t burn during the quick cooking time.
My last bit of advice for this recipe: Have everything prepared in the beginning. In the professional world this is known as mise-en-place which just means everything in its place. You are sure to ruin this dish if you have to do a step once you’ve already started.
Gambas Al Ajillo Ingredients
10 Shrimp; large, peeled and deveined. You want large shrimp because if they are small they will overcook and become rubber nuggets. The cooking time is less than a minute once you add the shrimp, so the big shrimps will be perfectly cooked.
3 cloves Garlic; peeled and chopped. You can slice them, rough chop them, or chunk them, but whatever you do, don’t feed them through a garlic press.
2 tsp Red Pepper Flakes. This is an important ingredient, as it is what gives the olive oil it’s yellow-red hue, and a kick of spice.
75 ml Extra Virgin Olive Oil. I like to use a bit more than is probably necessary, because I serve this with a heaping amount of crusty french bread, and the final sauce is great for dipping bread in.
1 tbsp Dry Sherry. This can be left out if you don’t like sherry and don’t want to buy an entire bottle, but it does impart a great flavor to the dish.
1 tsp Salt; or to taste
Gambas Al Ajillo Instructions
1. Make sure everything is set up and organized before you start, as this dish cooks extremely quick. In a saucepan or skillet begin heating the oil on a medium high flame with 2-3 of the shrimp heads tossed in. After a minute or so, add the red pepper flakes and the garlic and shake the pan around for about 20-30 seconds.
2. Once you notice the garlic pieces just starting to darken on the edges add the shrimp and sherry at the same time. Be careful as this will cause the oil to sizzle and sputter. I cook for about 20 seconds on one side, then flip the shrimp and start shaking the pan for 15 more seconds. Add a pinch of salt and give the pan one more good shake, then pour all the contents into your serving dish and remove the extra heads.
Traditionally, this is cooked and served in a terracotta dish called a cazuela de barro. It will go right from the kitchen to the table where people can grab the hot shrimp immediately. As I don’t have a cazuela, I just used a saucepan and then put everything in my mini cast iron tapas serving dish.
If you can get them, I really do recommend using Argentinean Red Shrimp for this dish. They are known as the sweetest shrimp, and that sweetness pairs extremely well with the garlic, chili, and sherry flavors in a gambas al ajillo.
Definitely serve this dish with some crusty bread to soak up the delicious sauce after you are done eating the shrimp. Trust me.
Gambas Al Ajillo Recipe
Gambas Al Ajillo (Spanish Garlic Shrimp)
- 10 Shrimp large
- 3 cloves Garlic rough chop
- 2 tsp Red Pepper Flakes
- 75 ml Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 tbsp Dry Sherry
- 1 tsp Salt or to taste
- Make sure everything is set up and organized before you start, as this dish cooks extremely quick. In a saucepan or skillet begin heating the oil on a medium high flame with 2-3 of the shrimp heads tossed in. After a minute or so, add the red pepper flakes and the garlic and shake the pan around for about 20-30 seconds.
- Once you notice the garlic pieces just starting to darken on the edges add the shrimp and sherry at the same time. Be careful as this will cause the oil to sizzle and sputter. I cook for about 20 seconds on one side, then flip the shrimp and start shaking the pan for 15 more seconds. Add a pinch of salt and give the pan one more good shake, then pour all the contents into your serving dish and remove the extra heads.