6 Things You Need to Know About Buying Shrimp
Shrimp on the barbie? You bet. This small crustacean looms large on Planet Barbecue. It’s universally available, relatively affordable, quick cooking, and sizzled on the grill in virtually every corner of the world. We Americans consume more shrimp per person per year than salmon, cod, or tilapia combined.
When shrimp is good (sweet, fresh, and firm), few crustaceans can rival it. It’s a succulent, snappy crescent of pure protein—18 grams per 3 ounce serving. Shrimp is so accommodating, it even tells you when it’s done by turning pinkish white and opaque.
When not so good, it tastes of chlorine or ammonia (or worse)—agents sometimes used to clean and preserve it.
So how do you source the best shrimp when the primary clues at your supermarket are “small, medium, and large?” Here are six things you need to know about buying shrimp.
- Local or imported: Unless you live on the East, West, or Gulf Coast, in all likelihood, the shrimp you buy from your local supermarket or fish market is imported. Ninety percent of the shrimp we eat in the U.S. is. Some stores poke little signs in the shaved ice that identify the countries of origin—Ecuador, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Mexico, and China being the six largest exporters. Most shrimp are farm raised, which leads to the second question …
- Wild or farmed: Less than 2 percent of the world’s farmed shrimp is inspected by U.S. federal regulatory agencies, meaning I’ll take my chances with local, wild-caught shrimp versus farmed shrimp that may have been treated with USDA-banned chemicals, antibiotics, pesticides, or other contaminants. Here in Florida, we can buy brown shrimp from the Gulf, rock shrimp, and Key West pinks. On the West Coast, look for wild spot prawns. In the Northeast, seek out small, sweet, cold-water shrimp from Maine. If you must buy farm-raised shrimp, look for the “Best Aquaculture Practices Label” issued by the nonprofit Aquaculture Certification Council.
- Frozen or fresh: If you’re lucky enough to have a local fish market that is serviced by day boats, buy fresh. Otherwise, purchase shrimp that was frozen right after harvest. Shrimp freezes well—a lot better than fish. Most shrimp sold as “fresh” at supermarket seafood counters has been previously frozen anyway, then defrosted prior to sale.
- Head-on, head-off: Although you’d never guess it to look at a typical American seafood counter, most of the world’s shrimp comes with heads on. This has many advantages: whole shrimp look cool on a platter or plate; the juices in the heads are incredibly tasty; and shrimp heads add depth of flavor to soups, stews, shrimp boils, and mixed grills.
- Shell on, shell off: Even if you can’t buy shrimp with the heads on, most supermarkets sell shrimp with shells on. The shells not only protect the delicate meat from the ice they’re displayed on, but from drying out when exposed to the high dry heat of the grill. They’re also fun to eat, the way ribs are fun to eat—with your bare hands. Of course, peeled shrimp score higher on the convenience scale. But they really don’t take long to peel and devein, unless you’re working with rock shrimp, which have notoriously tough shells.
- Size: Names like “extra colossal,” “jumbo,” “large,” “medium,” or “small” are subjective and may change from store to store. Buy shrimp by the per pound count, not the size—the smaller the number, the bigger the shrimp. For example, U-10s—meaning there are about 10 per pound—are dramatically larger than U-36/40 shrimp. (Be sure to ask if the count is head-on or head-off.) When it comes to grilling, in my book bigger is better.
As with buying all seafood, follow your nose. Does the store—and the shrimp—smell fresh, or do you get a whiff of ammonia, chlorine, or boat bilge? Observe the general condition of the shrimp (and the other seafood in the case). Does it rest on clean ice or languish in a pool of milky liquid? Don’t be embarrassed to ask for a smell—that’s the best way to gauge freshness.
If you don’t live near a good fish market, consider purchasing shrimp online. Two purveyors I have had good luck with are Farm-2-Market and Walter’s Caviar and Seafood. I know, it violates my “buy local” credo, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Keep in mind that shrimp is a seasonal product, so be prepared to substitute one variety of shrimp for another when necessary.
Finally, here are a few tips to help you maintain the value of your investment:
- Keep an insulated cold storage bag in your car for transporting highly perishable shrimp and other seafood. (Ask the fishmonger for a bag of ice to take it home on.)
- Store fresh or defrosted shrimp in the coldest part of the refrigerator—ideally in an ice-filled colander over a bowl. Replace the ice as necessary.
- Defrost frozen shrimp in the refrigerator or under cold running water. Never defrost shrimp—or any protein—at room temperature.
After you buy your shrimp, try out these recipes and tools: