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How to Buy Shrimp, Plus 6 Terrific Recipes


Photo by Richard Dallett.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
      —A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)

Though his novel took place during the French Revolution, Charles Dickens could have been referring to the worldwide state of the shrimp industry.

The good news? These succulent crustaceans are the most popular seafood in the U.S. Per person, we eat about 4.1 pounds per year. It’s incredibly versatile: you can grill it, smoke it, and “caveman” it directly in the embers. (Of course, you can also sauté it, fry it, and eat it raw, like ceviche.) Shrimp is so accommodating, it even tells you when it’s done by turning pinkish white and opaque.

As you travel around Planet Barbecue, you’ll find grilled and smoked shrimp in virtually every country and culture: piri piri shrimp in South Africa, smoked shrimp in Denmark, tandoori prawns in India, etc.

The bad news is that shrimp farms around the world have been making headlines lately, and not in a good way. Polluted and eco-unfriendly shrimp farms, abusive labor practices, industrial packing plants using questionable chemical preservatives. It’s enough to make you want to swear off shrimp forever.

When shrimp is good (sweet, fresh, and firm), few crustaceans can rival it. It’s a snappy crescent of pure protein—18 grams per 3 ounce serving. 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.

  1. 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—China and Thailand being the largest exporters. Most shrimp are farm-raised, which leads to the second question…
  2. Wild or farmed: Less than 2 percent of the world’s farmed shrimp is inspected by the USDA, meaning I’ll take my chances with local wild-caught shrimp versus farmed shrimp that may have been treated with 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.
  3. 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 fin fish. Most shrimp sold as “fresh” at supermarket seafood counters has been previously frozen anyway, then defrosted prior to sale.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 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 we’ve had good luck with are www.farm-2-market.com and www.georgiaseafood.com. 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.

Once you source some pristine shrimp, I urge you to try one or more of my most popular shrimp recipes:

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