Classic. Originally Published: Report, March 2006.
Here’s a real paradox for you, one fully worthy of Zeno’s attention. I love shrimp–those sweet, sea-drenched, poppy, crunchy, squirty little blocks of crustacean delight. And…as you well know…I love learning all about the things I love.
So why is it, I wonder…that when it comes to shrimp I’m an ignoramus?
Whatever is afflicting me seems to be afflicting everyone else as well. Americans adore shrimp. Shrimp is the most consumed seafood in America, with close to 1 1/2 billion pounds going down the National Hatch every year. And yet, when you walk into most any American supermarket, or even seafood store, all that the powers-that-be think we want to know about the subject is this: small, medium, or large?
The shrimp selection at Citarella, a great New York spot for buying seafood
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. I’d pun that we’ve chosen to hide under a rock shrimp, but most of us have never heard of a rock shrimp. Oh sure, we may have heard that there are 2000 species of shrimp in the world, and that over 300 of them are of commercial interest world-wide–but that doesn’t seem to mean that any one of us is about to insist on full crustacean disclosure from our taxonomically stingy shrimpmongers!
Why is this so? Why does no one give a shrimp vein’s contents about the grand variety that exists in the world of shrimp, or care about the advantages that greater shrimp knowledge could have for consumers?
I think the chief deterrent to stepped-up shrimp education falls under the rubric of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Many in the business–importers, purveyors, store managers, chefs–will tell you that most of the time a shrimp’s a shrimp. You can, of course, learn all you want about the provenance of shrimps, they say, but you’re still gonna be left with the same measly choices at your supermarket or fish store. And the choices ain’t bad.
Well, if you’re content with that, fine. Continue buying pretty good shrimp at the market, if you wish–and, if your luck is anything like mine, continue buying shrimp that, when you get them home, sometimes turn out to be mushy, or flat-tasting, or fishy. I’d say that a good third of the time I buy shrimp, I end up saying to myself something like “golly gee whiz, I wish that shrimp dish I made for my guests tonight had had better shrimp in it!”
And that’s exactly why I recently decided to plunge into this vast subject: to see if I could apprehend the core, vital info that will result in more consistently spectacular shrimp on my table.
I did find–after reading all I could on the subject, talking to scores of professionals, and tasting hundreds of shrimps, from all categories–that there is no single secret code, no magic formula that will enable you to guarantee great shrimp on your table. There are just too many damned variables to be able to say “this species is always the best” or “that geographic source is always the best.” However, I also became more firmly convinced than ever that bulking up your knowledge about this subject gives you a definite edge in acquiring the best shrimp. Frankly, it’s not easy at all to shop this field–so the more you know, the better!
Let’s discuss what you need to know at the supermarket and seafood store…I call buying shrimp in supermarkets and seafood stores “shopping in the dark”–because, as my tour of dozens of retail venues recently confirmed, store seafood managers rarely identify the geographic sources, the species, or any shrimpy details other than the size and the price of the shrimp.
So…given your information handicap, here are the things you should be thinking about as you select anonymous shrimp at the market:
SIZE. This, of course, is the most prominent category of all in shrimp sales. Not only can you see differences in size immediately, but almost every shrimp sold in America comes with some designation of size.
There are three problems:
1) The designations are far from standardized;
2) There is very little correlation between size and quality;
3) The size you should buy has everything to do with how you plan to cook the shrimp.
First things first: “jumbo,” “extra-large,” “medium,” etc., the lingo of the trade, and the labels you’re likely to see next to the shrimp on ice. There are some guidelines out there governing the qualifications shrimp must have to fall into these categories–but purveyors often get creative with the guidelines! So what’s called a “jumbo” shrimp in one supermarket, may be smaller than what’s called a “jumbo” shrimp in another supermarket. Don’t fret. What the shrimp is called doesn’t really matter. If you are trying to get some objective sense of size, or to buy exactly the size of shrimp a recipe is calling for, it is always best to discuss shrimp size in terms of “how many shrimp to the pound.” This number can range all the way from what the trade calls “U-10s” (that’s under 10 shrimp to the pound, which means HUGE shrimp, classified officially as “Extra Colossal”), to the fairly large 25 to a pound (between 21 and 25 is classified officially as “Jumbo”), to the roughly medium-sized 40 to a pound (36 to 40 is classified as “Medium Large”), all the way up to over 70, which is classified as “Tiny.”
One note of classification caution: if you’re buying by shrimp count per pound, always make sure whether the purveyor is talking about head-on or head-off shrimp. Head-off U-10s have huge tails; head-on U-10s have much smaller tails. Usually, the count applies to head-off shrimp.
Does size matter? Believe it or not…not in terms of quality! What I’ve noticed for decades was borne out by my recent shrimp tastings: if you buy small, medium, large and jumbo shrimp from the same market (at, say, $7 a pound, $9 a pound, $14 a pound, and $20 a pound, respectively), you may expect the high-priced shrimp to be better. But It doesn’t usually work out that way! A great example, recently, were three kinds of shrimp I bought on the same day from Citarella in New York, a very reputable seafood market. The smallest of the three (labeled “medium”), and by far the cheapest, were by far the highest in quality!
So…avoid that knee-jerk temptation to go for for the biggies. Of course, it may be the case that you need 3 pounds of shrimp for a party, and would much rather peel 30 shrimp (U-10s) than 120 shrimp (medium-large shrimp). I understand that. And…you may have a cooking need in mind that seems to demand huge shrimp. If, for example, you want to split shrimp open and grill them over charcoal, the larger the shrimp the better (the size helps prevent dry-out). However, do keep in mind that I often find the biggest texture problems in the biggest shrimp (they can be mealy, or doughy). No, when it comes to shrimp–”shrimps” (within reason) are often the most desirable! If you really do dread the extra peeling…create a dish in which each diner peels the shrimps himself or herself!
FROZEN OR FRESH. Supermarkets don’t usually indicate “frozen” or “fresh,” but you may get a big clue by looking at the shrimp (i.e. they may still be defrosting). Here’s the big news: don’t worry about it! Approximately 1% of shrimp sold in the U.S. has not been frozen–that means that just about every shrimp you’ve ever bought or tasted has been frozen! And…shrimp freeze extremely well. So, at the supermarket, this is not something you need to even think about.
COLOR. Shrimp appear in nature in many different colors, and you’re likely to see most of those colors at the supermarket. Shrimp, when raw, may have a greyish cast, or a grey-ish pink cast, or have whitish tones, or brownish tones, or pinkish tones, with many other shades also on the list of possibilities. Which is best? You cannot say. I have tasted terrific shrimp of many colors!–so don’t worry about this factor at the supermarket. However, what you do need to worry about is actual discoloration. If shrimp are starting to blacken–either around the edges, or in random spots (a condition shrimpers call melanosis)–it may be a sign of deterioration.
Another bad color is yellow, which can mean that sodium bisulfite was used to make a deteriorating shrimp not look like it’s deteriorating.
SHELL-ON, SHELL-OFF. Once again, convenience rears its ugly shrimp head here. For there is no doubt whatsoever that the less convenient choice–shrimp with shells intact–is the far superior choice. For one thing, additional exposure of the meat to the shell, when the shell is kept on, keeps increasing the flavor of the meat. Even more important, the shell protects the meat; once the shell is removed, and the merchant places the shell-off shrimp on ice, the flavor of the meat starts to get watery and diluted. As a rule, I never buy shrimp that are already peeled. It is tempting to buy shrimp already deveined (which, of course, means they’re probably already peeled)–but I have become totally comfortable with cooking, serving and shrimp that have not been deveined!
HEAD-ON, HEAD-OFF. This one is more than a convenience issue–though, clearly, for most people, for most purposes, head-off is a lot more convenient. But the additional issues concern flavor–because shrimp heads, with their concentrated fats and juices, bring a different kind of flavor to shrimp, something like the flavor that the “mustard” in crabs brings to crab meat. The big question is: do you want that flavor? I don’t need it if I’m making shrimp cocktail–but in, for example, a Cajun shrimp boil, I LOVE sucking those juices out of the heads! Also: do you want to use the heads to make stock? Do you want to deep-fry the heads and ‘em, as the Japanese do? Remember–if you want those extra flavors and options, go for the head.
If you just want shrimp cocktail, you might as well think Ichabod Crane. NOTE: The vast majority of shrimp sold in the U.S. are head-off, shell-on, raw, with all six segments intact, vein still in, tail fin still attached. These are known in the biz as “green headless” (the green refers to the rawness, not to the color).
SMELL. Just good common sense here. Conspire to get a whiff of what you’re thinking of buying–either pick up a shrimp in your hand, or, if possible, bend over to sniff. As with all fish, the smell should not be “fishy.” However, in the case of shrimp, a mild aroma that’s reminiscent of cooked shrimp is just fine. Look out, obviously, for olfactory signs of spoilage and deterioration. A couple of specific olfactory no-no’s are a chlorine smell (it is legal to wash shrimp with bacteria-killing chlorine, but this leaves a bad taste), and gasoline (which can come from poor storage conditions on a harvesting trawler).
TOUCH. Also try to touch a shrimp, or a few shrimp. Clean and wet is how they should feel. Warning signs are a slimy feel (which could indicate a bacteria invasion), and a slippery feel (which could mean chemical preservatives were used, such as sodium tripolyphosphate, known to cause allergic reactions in some). Sometimes shrimp feel gritty, which, like yellowing shells, could indicate that sodium bisulfite (also an allergy trigger) was used to hide the black spots of melanosis.
GENERAL CONDITION. Just take a good look at what you’re buying. Does it seem like a healthy product? If the shell is on tight, and there’s a glisten to the exterior, and nothing is shredded or falling off–you’re on the right track! When shells look loose, and about to separate from the flesh–I start to worry.