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February 21, 2014 at 1:57 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Shrimp 101: The Buyer's Guide to Shrimp

By Erin Froehlich More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Gastronomics Blog Series

With close to one and half billion pounds of shrimp purchased annually, shrimp is the most consumed type of seafood in the US. There’s “shrimp kebobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried...(continue Bubba Gump list of shrimp dishes)” –any way you cut it,  Americans are crazy about the stuff! But then, how much do we actually know about it?

Is frozen okay?

Are big shrimp really better?

What kind of shrimp is best?

You could literally fill a book – and people have – with facts about this much-loved shellfish, but here’s the quick guide with just the things you want and need to know for the next time you’re at the store about to pick some up (and make your family really happy).

Fresh or Frozen?  

Surprisingly,experts say it’s probably best to forget about fresh shrimp. Shrimp actually freezes exceptionally well and besides, the shrimp behind the butcher’s counter isn’t fresh, it’s thawed.  In fact, only 1% of the shrimp in the United States aren’t frozen prior to sale! Unless you’re in a real hurry or you can only get a specific species that way, opt for frozen over the pre-thawed shrimp which might have been that way for several days prior to your purchase. That way you control how long it’s been thawed.


For optimal quality, use frozen shrimp within a month from purchase. After that, quality tends to go downhill. If you purchased fresh/pre-thawed shrimp, fill a bowl half full with ice and nestle shrimp on top, but not so far down they might end up in the melting water. Cover the bowl with seran wrap and refrigerate. You’ll need to drain water and add more ice as it melts.

Signs of Spoilage

“Is my shrimp still good?” Look out for discoloration. Yellow or dry spots indicate freezer burn and black spots (except on tiger shrimp) are signs of spoilage. Feel the shrimp – any sliminess is a bad sign. Smell it. It shouldn’t be fishy or smell of ammonia. Shrimp should smell fresh like the sea.

Heads On or Off?

Just depends on what you plan to do with them (and how brave you are). The head of the shrimp with its concentrated fat and juices intensifies the flavor in dishes like Cajun crab boil and in those deep fried whole Japanese style shrimp your might have seen. Shrimp heads are also sometimes boiled to enrich a seafood stock (then removed prior to serving).  In fact, I have yet to hear from someone who tried it and hated it, but if you plan to serve them headless and will just be tossing the heads, might as well go the more convenient route and buy yours pre-beheaded.

Big or Small?

While it makes sense that the larger more expensive shrimp would be the highest quality choice, that’s actually not the case! In fact, while the big guys can certainly be amazing, larger shrimp are also more prone to texture issues – graininess or doughiness. Therefore, forget about size when it comes to quality and instead buy according to your needs and preferences. You can cut larger shrimp into smaller pieces if desired, but generally trying to match the size of the shrimp to the size of the accompanying ingredients will help ensure there’s a bite in each spoon or forkful and that the shrimp flavor is distributed evenly throughout the dish.

How can you tell what size your shrimp is? Size designations may vary from vendor to vendor, but generally it’s a matter of the number of shrimp it takes to make a pound. You might need up to 70 very small shrimp to equal a pound or less than 10 very large shrimp.

Graphic from Fine Cooking

  • Extra Colossal (under 10), Super Colossal (under 12), Colossal (13-15), Extra Jumbo (12-16) Shrimp are best when the shrimp is being served as a standalone like kebobs or cocktails when you want something substantial to bite into.
  • Extra Large (26-30), Large (31-35) or Medium (41-50) Shrimp are best wedged between a taco shell or po boy bun, when you want a substantial bite, but not something so big it won’t spread evenly or would fit awkwardly in your dish.
  • Medium (41-50) or Small (51-60) Shrimp are best mixed in with larger types of pasta or with stir fry vegetables.
  • Small (51-60) or Extra Small (61-70) Shrimp are best when the shrimp is being mixed into rice, cous cous or very small pasta like orzo.

Which Species? 

There’s a funny thing about shrimp cookbook author David Rosengarten pointed out:

“Honestly…you can go to any number of stores today and look at the frickin’ potato labels…Russian Banana Fingerlings, Yukon Golds, Kennebec New Potatoes…and then take a depressing walk over to the seafood counter, where any descriptor beyond the shrimpy word itself is considered to be obsessive overkill, the height of preening, persiflage-inflated foodie pretension. For some reason, all of us–definitely including me–have chosen to live in shellfish ignorance.”

Not that what’s being offered isn’t good, he says, but considering there are over 300 shrimp varieties, it’s pretty weird! I’m hoping a little public education will begin to change that. Until then though, if you’re lucky enough to live within driving distance of a good shrimp market, here are some of the most commonly sold shrimp varieties and what to expect from them:

White Shrimp 

At peak harvesting season in fall from October to December, wild-caught White shrimp is said to have a sweet taste and particularly firm meat which makes it a favorite of chefs. Varieties of white shrimp include Eucadorian White, Mexican White, Chinese White, and Gulf White. Gulf white is one of the most expensive type of shrimp, and is considered the best type by many. While called white, these shrimp actually have green or blue-gray shells when raw.

Pink Shrimp

At peak harvesting season in the spring from March to May, the coral sands off the west coast of Florida give Pink Shrimp their color.  Raw shells tend to be light pink and turn darker pink when cooked, though some Pink Gulf shrimp may have more  yellow or brownish shells. The meat of the Pink shrimp which is also slightly pink, is said to have a sweet, creamy flavor and plump, meaty texture.

Royal Red Shrimp

At peak harvesting season in late summer and fall, Royal Reds are deep Atlantic water shrimp from the Florida/Mexico coast.  As their name implies, they are known for their deep red color as well as their lobster-like flavor and delicate texture. 

Brown Shrimp

Though Brown shrimp are harvested year-round, highest yield time is from June to August. Brown shrimp have a brownish red shell and because of their naturally high iodine content, they are known as the saltiest shrimp variety. Their meat also has a firmer texture and stronger flavor than most shrimp.

Black Tiger Shrimp

Hailing from Asia, Black Tiger Shrimp are known for their dark striped shell and yellow legs. Their flavor is mild compared with other types of shrimp and their texture tends to be softer.

Rock Shrimp

Fished year-round off Florida’s coast, Rock Shrimp are the deep water cousin of pink, white, and brown shrimp often called “the small lobster.”  Their name refers to their rock-hard shell which resembles a small lobster tail, not to its size which is actually smaller than most shrimp varieties. Rock shrimp is said to have a sweet taste and chewy, tender texture. 

Get Cooking:

Golden Beets, Greens and Red Onions with Blackened Butterflied Shrimp

Smoky, salty savory - southern style butterflied shrimp pair perfectly with the freshness and slight bitterness of rainbow chard and golden beet greens. Could be served as a side, but on it's own, this is a whole and really satisfying nutritious meal! I paired it with Short's Brew Nicie Spicie - a 50/50 wheat/barley ale with orange zest, lemon zest, coriander, and peppercorns. Mmm... tastes like summer. Recipe HERE.


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