6 Things You Need to Know About Buying Shrimp
Expert Advice

Image: Deposit Photos, kaninstudio

Shrimp on the barbie? You bet. This small crustacean is 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 three 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 that our friend Steven Raichlen at Barbecue Bible says you need to know about buying shrimp.

1. Local or imported

Unless you live on the East, West, or Gulf Coast, it is likely 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 …

2. 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.

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 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 scores 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.