Buying shrimp is a little like buying wine. If you’re having a party and want to impress, without spending a lot of money, buy jug wine, and transfer to carafes, or check with your wine merchant to get the best deal for the price. Most people will happily chuga-lug the stuff, and even get a buzz on, no matter what the quality. But hey, it’s a party!
So it is with serving shrimp. Just buy the frozen and ready-to-serve bags in the largest size you can afford. (Skip the little ones; c’mon, with these prices, you can be a hero with the big ones.). Thaw and serve. No matter if the shrimp are mushy, tough or tasteless, a peppy cocktail sauce will mask any of the crustaceans’ flaws. Notice the guests passing on the cheese and dips, so they can hover over the shrimp, glomming them up until they’re gone.
It wasn’t long ago, perhaps two decades, that shrimp were in the same rarified category as lobster, due to their scarcity, which resulted in astronomical prices. Today, while they can be really cheap, the cachet of serving shrimp survives. Oh boy! Shrimp!
But there is more than meets the eye with shrimp, starting with the fact that there are more than 300 varieties. Who knew? Large sea mammals eat them for subsistence, and there are some you might even find swimming in your fish tank. However, for human consumption, the number dwindles considerably. There are cold water, warm water, wild and farm-raised varieties.
Until now, most shrimp came from markets within the United States, especially around the Gulf Coast. Recently, Asian markets have been invading the industry, according to a recent article by Rob Hotakainen in the McClatchy Newspapers. It’s been a double whammy for the Gulf fishermen, who are recovering from Hurricane Katrina and oil spills.
“You can buy shrimp cheaper than you can buy bologna,” said Richard Gollott Sr., co-owner of Golden Coast Packing Co., in Biloxi, Miss.
That said, there are many variables that bear taking note. No matter where their source, most are immediately frozen and put in containers to assure freshness. They are usually two pounds to a package, either cooked and out of the shell or raw and in the shell. Then add size, per pound, into the mix. Colossal, extra large, medium or small—listed on the package—are not the best determinants as to the size.
Many recipes give a size and a count to be sure the quantity of shrimp required is correct. There is no standard size for the names, but here is a guide:
Extra colossal: U-10 (under 10) Super colossal: U-12 (under 12) Colossal: 13/15 Extra jumbo: 16/20 Extra large: 26/30 Large: 31/35 Medium: 41/50 Small: 51/60 Extra small: 61/70 Where do prawns fit in? According to James Peterson, award-winning teacher and author of the 2007 book Simply Shrimp (Abrams Books), large shrimp in some parts of the United States and other countries may be referred to as “prawns.” To create some confusion, Dublin Bay prawns are the only prawns that aren’t shrimp, but are what the Italians call scampi and the French call langoustines. Peterson will probably get an argument from some chefs in the United States. Whether shrimp or prawns, raw, shell-on crustaceans will differ in the amount of the finished product, after cooking.
Raw, shell-on shrimp will give about a two-thirds yield of the original count, because, of course, you have to factor in the weight of the shells. But if you are preparing a special dish, opt for the raw, shell-on variety, because they will be the best-tasting shrimp, said Peterson. He cautions against buying some frozen, cooked shrimp, which may have been dipped in sodium trypolyphosphate to prevent drip loss and drying out. There are other additives that might affect taste or texture, like a soapy taste or slippery feel, as well.
Bottom line: Check ingredients on the label. Better yet, check with your fishmonger.
To devein, or not? Deveining is usually unnecessary, unless you are concerned with looks. Large shrimp, of course, produce a larger vein, like in Tiger shrimp, resulting in a grittiness that should be removed. It is a simple procedure. Just slide a knife along the outer, convex side, cutting in about 1/8 inch. Open the slit to reveal the intestinal tube, and pull it out. That’s it.
There are shrimp-deveining knives available, but a good knife will suffice.
What about brining? Brining can improve the texture of the shrimp, according to Peterson. Dissolve 1 cup sea salt and 1/2 cup sugar in 2 cups of hot water for 2 pounds of shrimp, which may be soaked for about an hour. Add herbs of your choice, if desired. Chill in the refrigerator, then dilute with an extra cup of water. When chilled, soak peeled shrimp for up to 40 minutes and unpeeled shrimp for twice as long. Brining adds “snap” by drawing out moisture, so it’s good for grilling or sautéing but not for poaching.
So many things are changing in the seafood industry that it behooves one to strike up a relationship with someone in the fish department of your favorite grocery store.
Michael Dove, of the Price Chopper supermarket on Erie Boulevard East, explains the reason for fluctuation in prices of shrimp in the store. “Prices are always changing, depending on availability, and we pass the savings on to our customers,” he explained. “We are always looking for the best value.”
Tom Farmer—who has been operating Fins & Tails Seafood, 3012 Erie Blvd. E., for 26 years along with his wife, Margaret Ringler—has learned a thing or two about the seafood industry. The most popular shellfish in the store is shrimp, said Farmer, who emphasizes that the store does not carry farm-raised shrimp.
“We only have domestic shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.
He added there is a distinct “shrimp” taste to the Gulf variety vs. the farmraised, which he says lacks in texture and taste. While Farmer buys his shrimp frozen, because they’re perishable (it’s the only fish or seafood in the store that comes in frozen), he thaws it for the convenience of his customers.
Try this experiment: Taste one of his shrimp to see the difference from what you have been used to. You might find it so shrimpy tasting that it’s like nothing you have had before.
Sean O’Dell, seafood team leader at Wegmans in DeWitt, has a different take than Farmer when it comes to farm-raised shrimp. Wegmans receives some of its shrimp from Thailand and Indonesia. O’Dell said Wegmans sends specialists to double-check and oversee that the shrimp are raised under the best conditions.
You will find a vast array of shrimp at Wegmans, from cooked and frozen, cleaned to raw and shell-on, but it also features thawed shrimp in all sizes, some that have been tossed with herbs and spices. There are also shrimp rings for your party, as well as individual-size portions from single-size packages, plus shrimp cocktail in an appropriate serving container. None are cheap, but quality is assured. Because of stringent laws, O’Dell said, the thawed shrimp on display may be sold for no more than three days, after which they must be thrown away.
For gourmet cooks who want only the best ingredients no matter the price, Wegmans carries fresh-only Gulf shrimp on weekends, according to O’Dell. They are flown by FedEx to the store as soon as they come out of the water.
The price tag: about $69 per pound. Oh well, it’s only money!
A final note: What is the plural of shrimp? It is “shrimp.”
Although rarely used, “shrimps” is also correct.