How to Buy Shrimp: Understanding Sizes, Types and Durability

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If you’ve ever gone to the seafood counter to buy shrimp, you’ve probably felt inundated with options. Farmed or wild? Brown, white or pink? Fresh or frozen? In shell or peeled and deveined? What do these numbers on the packaging mean? And that’s just to name a few. It’s enough to make your head spin.

Getting familiar with these different categorizations can simplify the process. Here’s everything you need to know when buying shrimp.

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Environmental and social concerns

First, let’s address the labor and environmental issues surrounding shellfish. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch page lists the different types of shrimp, the country or region of origin, the body of water they come from, and the fishing gear used with a recommendation – certified, best choice, good alternative or avoid altogether – based on its environmental impact. However, all shrimp processed in any way, i.e. almost all shrimp except live seafood, is exempt from USDA regulations requiring labeling with information about how it was raised or where it comes from.

“Seafood is different from other proteins. It’s still a fairly fragmented industry. There are so many producing countries, especially shrimp, and there are so many consuming countries. So you have products that come from everywhere and then go everywhere,” says Steven Hedlund of the Global Seafood Alliance. “It can be a bit confusing for the consumer, and that’s why we encourage them to look for eco-labels like ours,” which provides the Best aquaculture practices (BAP). Other organizations that provide similar certifications include Marine Stewardship Council, Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and Natureland. But even if a product is certified, the use of labels is voluntary, so Hedlund recommends asking the retailer if you don’t see one.

In addition to sustainability, some organizations, such as BAP and ASC, also consider social issues as part of their certification process. For example, BAP standards encompass “not only environmental responsibility, but also social responsibility, animal health and welfare, and food safety,” says Hedlund. “So they’re pretty comprehensive.”

There are approximately 2,000 species of shrimp, but only a few are widely consumed. The most common ones you’ll come across in a grocery store or seafood market are named after their appearance: brown, white, pink, and tiger, which have dark animal-like stripes.

Roses are “some of the tastiest shrimp you can find”, Dan Nosowitz writes in Serious Eats. In a comparison of prawns, white and tiger prawns, Illustrated Cook “I found that white shrimp had the firmest flesh and the sweetest taste.” And for Steve Evans, owner of Jessie Taylor Seafood in Washington, DC, his favorite is Gulf brown shrimp. (They’re also his company’s top salesman.)

In general, they are all relatively mild and taste quite similar, especially after dipping them in butter and garlic or seasoning them aggressively, such as in a seafood boil. But you may be able to notice a slight difference in flavor and texture in simpler preparations, such as steaming or poaching for a shrimp cocktail.

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Evans attributes the superior flavor to the environment the shrimp are grown in, saying salt water imparts more flavor than farmed shrimp. Cook’s Illustrated agrees: “We’ve found that wild-caught shrimp have a sweeter flavor and firmer texture than farm-raised ones, which is worth the effort.”

Another type you might encounter is the rock shrimp, so called for its hard shell. They have a firmer texture and some people say they have a sweeter taste that reminds them of lobster.

At the end of the day, the types are all pretty interchangeable. “A shrimp is a shrimp, the only thing that differs is size,” says Evans.

While recipes may call for “medium”, “large”, or “jumbo” shrimp, there is no industry standard for naming, which means a person’s “large” can be someone else’s jumbo. Instead, when considering size, you want to look for a “U” followed by a number, or two numbers separated by a slash or hyphen. These numbers represent the number of shrimp that make a pound. You can treat the U as a less than or equal mathematical symbol. So if it’s labeled U12, that means 12 or less shrimp are in 1 pound. For 26/30 (or 26 – 30), between 26 and 30 shrimp are in 1 pound.

Most prescriptive recipe writers will include the name and number so there is no confusion. But if you have a favorite recipe that only says “1 pound large shrimp” in the ingredient lists, here’s a rough guide you can use to what that means:

  • Colossal: U10, U12 or U15
  • Jumbo: 16/20 or 21/25
  • Large: 26/30 or 31/35
  • Medium: 36/40 or 41/50
  • Small: 51/60

When cooking shrimp, like any other ingredient, large items will take longer than small items. So opt for larger shrimp for grilling or when you want to get a nice sear, and use smaller shrimp for things like fried rice.

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Most people prefer their shrimp decapitated, so whole shrimp aren’t as common. But the buds have a lot of flavor. (Leaving the heads on also increases the spoilage rate of shrimp when not frozen.) Shrimp heads are great for soups, seafood broths, and any other preparation where you want to infuse the cooking liquid with tons of shrimp flavor. You can even fry the heads for what Kevin Pang in The Takeout described as “a sweet and creamy seafood pot fried potato chip.”

As with the heads, shrimp shells can add a splash of flavor. And while the vein isn’t always pretty and can be grainy at times, it’s perfectly safe to eat. But if you want peeled and deveined shrimp for a recipe, I’m all for making it yourself to save money and have some shrimp shells to make broth. Evans tells me that 90% of the shrimp they sell at Jessie Taylor Seafood have the shell on.

“Fresh” shrimp is often a myth, as much of what you come across in seafood window displays was previously frozen and thawed. However, even if it was recently thawed, you can still find excellent quality shrimp sold this way. The first thing to check is the smell – there really shouldn’t be any. They should smell clean and like a fresh body of water. If they smell like ammonia or anyway, best to avoid them.

Texture is the second key indicator: fresh shellfish must have a nice firmness. “You don’t want something that you can just pick it up and squeeze it and it turns to mush – then you know it’s old,” says Evans. I like to use fresh shrimp the day of purchase, but they’re usually good for a few days.

A more reliable source for shrimp (where you don’t have to stick your nose into seafood) is the freezer section of the supermarket. All of the bagged shrimp you see in the freezer cases have been individually frozen, which preserves the texture of seafood during the freezing process. Once frozen, shrimp will keep for a few months. To thaw, simply place the shrimp in a bowl of cold water, and they should be ready in minutes. (You may want to pat them dry afterwards depending on the cooking method.)

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The only thing to watch out for with frozen shrimp are the chemicals. “Whether farmed or wild-caught, the cheaper the shrimp, the more likely it is to have been treated with chemicals, particularly sodium tripolyphosphate and sodium bisulfite,” Melissa Clark writes in the New York Times. The former causes the shrimp to absorb water, which can affect cooking and texture; the latter could be a problem for people sensitive to sulfites. You can avoid both just by checking the ingredient label on the packaged shrimp. For unpackaged shrimp, choose those with a shell to avoid sodium tripolyphosphate.

Finally, never buy cooked shrimp if you can avoid it. It is often overcooked and it is better to cook it yourself.