Shrimp 101

Separate the myths from the truths about the seafood voted "most popular."

Shrimp 101
Photo: Jean Allsopp

"Wherever I put the shrimp, that's where the crowd is," says Stephen Lewandowski, executive chef of New York City's Tribeca Grill. Stephen, who caters more than 500 parties a year in addition to his role as the restaurant's chef, says shrimp is the guaranteed crowd-pleaser, both at parties and in the restaurant.

Shrimp accounts for about 25 percent of all seafood sold in the United States, making it the best-selling creature of the water. Per capita consumption keeps increasing, and it's easy to see why. Shrimp not only tastes great, but it's also waistline friendly―a 6-ounce portion has only 180 calories and 3 grams of fat. Plus, it's versatile and easy to prepare. You don't have to be a trained chef to get a wonderful shrimp dinner on the table in 10 minutes.

Despite its popularity, though, a number of misconceptions still surround these tasty crustaceans.

  MYTH:  Shrimp is available either fresh or frozen, and fresh tastes better. 
 TRUTH: Almost all shrimp you buy is frozen at sea or shortly thereafter. More than likely, "fresh" shrimp is actually thawed. Truly fresh shrimp appears more translucent than thawed shrimp, and its highly perishable nature makes it rarely available. The United States imports 80 to 90 percent of the shrimp its residents consume, so it stands to reason that the product is shipped frozen.

When buying any seafood, use your nose. Shrimp should smell mildly of the sea, but not like iodine, ammonia, or low tide.

  MYTH:  All shrimp species are pretty much the same. 
 TRUTH: Hundreds of shrimp species swim in the seas, and some have minute differences we would never notice on our plates. The greatest variation may exist between the broad categories of warm-water, cold-water, and freshwater shrimp. Warm-water shrimp grow larger, but tend to taste less sweet than their cold-water cousins. Freshwater shrimp are usually farm-raised and prized for their size. Regardless of raw shrimp's color, which can range from white to yellow to brown to striped, all shrimp turn pink when cooked.

  MYTH:  Jumbo shrimp are all the same size. 
 TRUTH: The terms used to describe shrimp size―small, medium, large, jumbo, colossal―mean different things in different locations, and the jargon has no industry regulations. The more universal technique measures shrimp by the count, or number. If the shrimp are "16-20s," that means there are 16 to 20 shrimp per pound, regardless of the label's large, extra-large, or jumbo designation.

  MYTH  : Shrimp must be deveined. 
 TRUTH: That depends on your preference and patience. Large shrimp are fairly easy to devein. Simply slit the back with a paring knife and lift the vein out with the knife point. But don't feel you have to devein. If you can't see the vein when the shrimp is raw, chances are you won't when it's cooked. Similarly, smaller shrimp have smaller veins, often not visible. Deveining comes down to aesthetics, not hygiene. If the veins don't show, don't bother.

  MYTH  : Shrimp should be cooked until they curl into a closed loop. 
 TRUTH: Shrimp cook quickly, which makes them easy to overcook. Prepare them just until they no longer look translucent and they will taste crisp and tender and moist. Keep an eye on them; most shrimp cook fully in less than five minutes.

Experiment with shrimp steamed, boiled, sautéed, or fried. You can serve it shell and tail on, shell off and tail on, or shell and tail removed. When paired with a sauce, serve shrimp peeled and remove the tail. For finger food, leave the tail intact, as it makes a convenient "handle."

Now that you're armed with the truth about everybody's favorite seafood, the following recipes will show you some of the countless ways to make the most of shrimp's sweet, mild flavor and tender goodness.

 Tequilla Shrimp and Citrus 

 Coconut Curried Shrimp 

 Cheesy Shrimp and Grits 

 Fiesta Shrimp Salad 

 Citrus-Marinated Smoked Shrimp 

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