The Skinny on Shrimp

Sunday June 15, 2014

When I use to travel in Baja, I ate fresh-caught shrimp just off the Sea of Cortez boats. Up to that time, I had only had frozen shrimp, not fresh from the sea. The common preparation in all the restaurants is con ajo, with garlic, and from the US border to tip of the peninsula at Cabo, it was so delicious I couldn’t get enough. I think every dinner in Baja I ate shrimp. My boyfriend at the time would scrounge at the local flea market up here before our yearly trip and buy up libros de damas, Playboys and Hustler magazines, then use them for bartering at the boat docks while traveling south in Baja. It was an incredibly lucrative means of currency! We had plenty of fresh fish to eat.

Preparing seafood with lime and pounded (usually with the handle butt of a large knife) mashed garlic (fresh dug, which tastes mild) is a standard in Baja. Memorable meals include a restaurant on Thanksgiving, rolling up the shrimp in fresh made tortillas with pickled chiles and I even had it grilled outside on a requisitioned-from-the-deep iron manhole cover over an open fire by local fisherman at the Bay of Conception. That was a memorable meal watching the men cook, sipping their cold cervezas. Eating a seviche, or just dunking in an ice cold tomato cocktail sauce under a palapa on the beach was equally enjoyable and satisfying. Street-style shrimp tacos are now a north of the border fast food.

the iconic shrimp cocktail

Sweet, succulent, and slightly briny, shrimp is America’s favorite seafood. Delicious cooked all kinds of ways—poached, in shrimp cocktail, battered and deep fried, sautéed, broiled, and grilled—this crustacean is quick-cooking and incredibly versatile. Most of the shrimp available in the continental US is frozen right on the boat to preserve the freshness and for convenient shipping, so fresh is rare unless you live on the Gulf or on the coast of Mexico. So how to know what to eat and what not? Here is some information to help you decide.

With the massive Gulf oil spill of April 2010, there has been a lot of press about the availability of Gulf of Mexico wild shrimp, which is sold fresh. Shrimp is by far one of the most popular shellfish by foodies, but how much do we really know about shrimp and how they live?

First off, the terms shrimp and prawns get used interchangeably in foodland. So if you get it mixed up in your mind, you are not alone.

live white shrimp swimming..shrimp swim backwards and feed off the bottom of the ocean floor/white shrimp catch in the Gulf is down 80 percent in 2011

Technically prawns are referring to freshwater forms and shrimp are the marine seawater forms. The live in schools and a female lays an astonishing 50,000 to 1 million eggs which mature in a mere 12 days. Hence the great success of farming for human consumption. But shrimp are also one of the great food sources of the sea, an important food source for larger animals from fish to whales. They have a high tolerance to toxins in polluted areas and are known as bottom feeders for living on the sea floor, which translates to passing toxins into the predators and humans who eat them. They eat everything from algae to decaying plants. Shrimp is one of the more common food allergies along with garlic, milk, and peanuts.

White shrimp and tiger shrimp are two widely available varieties. Size ranges from

"Fairy" comes from fairy shrimps' delicate, almost transparent bodies and graceful movement. They swim upside down.minute fairy shrimp are the bay shrimp on your salad...they are an endangered species

smaller than a pinky to colossal, which can be as big as a hand. Because adjectives that describe the size, like “jumbo” or “large,” aren’t used consistently, a better way to buy shrimp is by the “count,” a pair of numbers divided by a slash, which refers to the number of shrimp in a pound. For instance, shrimp labeled “21/25″ means 21 to 25 shrimp in one pound (in general, the lower the number of shrimp per pound, the larger the shrimp). 16 count are considered the biggest you will usually find. I always specify the size count in my recipes so that the recipe will turn out correct.

Colossal – 10 or less (like a lobster tail)
Jumbo – 11 to 15
Extra-Large – 16 to 20 (for shrimp cocktails)
Large – 21 to 30
Medium – 31 to 35
Small – 36 to 45 (popcorn shrimp)
Miniature – about 100 (bay shrimp)

Most shrimp are sold frozen and marketed based on their categorization of presentation, grading, color, and uniformity. Don’t freeze shrimp that you buy fresh at the grocery store; it’s likely already been frozen and thawed once, and refreezing will hurt quality. Look for firm meat and a pleasant odor telling you it has been recently thawed. Use fresh shrimp within a day or two of buying. For longer-term storage, buy frozen shrimp and defrost it as needed. 1 pound of raw shrimp will yield ½ to ¾ pound cooked meat.

When buying bags of shrimp, keep them frozen until ready to use; thaw under cold running water. Store thawed shrimp in the refrigerator in a loosely closed plastic bag on a bed of ice in a large bowl or dish with sides. Refresh ice as it melts and use within a day.

To prepare a shrimp for cooking, usually it is shelled and deveined, that is having its digestive tract removed, which runs down the entire back side of the body. You can buy bags of what is referred to and P and Ds, or already peeled and deveined.

To de-shell a shrimp, hold the the tail while gently removing the shell around the body; it will slip off. The tail can be detached completely at this point, or left attached for presentation purposes. The shell accounts for approximately half the weight of the whole shrimp.

deveining a prawn

To thaw: Let frozen shrimp thaw overnight in the fridge, or for faster thawing, take the shrimp out of its package, put it in a bowl of cold water, and let a trickle of cold water run into the bowl while excess water goes down the drain. The shrimp should be ready to cook in about 15 minutes.

How to devein shrimp: The vein in shrimp won’t hurt you, but it’s sometimes unsightly and a bit gritty. If the vein is still intact, it’s easy to remove yourself: just use the tip of a paring knife to slit down the back of the peeled shrimp, then lift the vein out of the shrimp and wipe it on a paper towel. You can also rinse it out under cold running water.

A quick guide to some of the varieties of shrimp you might encounter on a menu:

raw shrimp is grey

Imported farmed shrimp: The cheapest and most abundant shrimp on the market. It’s also the most environmentally destructive, says Megan Westmeyer, who runs a sustainable seafood program at the South Carolina Aquarium. Most shrimp sold in the U.S. is imported from countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia, where environmental regulations are often lax or not enforced, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, (EDF), an education and advocacy non-profit. The EDF classifies shrimp imported from these regions as “eco-worst” for the environmentally destructive ways in which they are often farmed.

Most imported shrimp comes from South and Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Bangladesh), where shrimp farms have replaced the mangrove that once served as a natural barrier between the coastline and the ocean. Brazil is the main exporter for Latin America. Shrimp farms are also notoriously dirty: waste from the farms is often pumped into the ocean, and pesticides and antibiotics are both in heavy use. Sometimes these substances leave the farm with the shrimp. “Very often inspectors find chemicals that are banned for human consumption by FDA on imported shrimp,” says Westmeyer.

Greenpeace took aim at Costco’s seafood sustainability practices in 2010 with an aggressive campaign called Oh No Costco. While Costco seafood buyer Bill Mardon says his company has entered into a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund to set global standards for shrimp farming, the specific objectives are still being discussed.

“Costco gets credit for starting down the road,” says Tim Fitzgerald, senior policy analyst for oceans at of the EDF, “but they are still very early on.” In the meantime, you’re better off buying shrimp at Trader Joe’s, which is much further along on the same path. After Greenpeace launched its Traitor Joe campaign in early 2009, Trader Joe’s pledged to remove all non-sustainable seafood from its stores by the end of 2012, and it’s already taken concrete steps in that direction.

Wild shrimp: In general, domestic wild shrimp, which accounts for about 10 percent of all shrimp consumed in the US (of that, about 75 percent comes from the Gulf), is considered significantly more sustainable than farmed shrimp. Still, it’s not perfect: one of the major criticisms of wild shrimping in the US coastal waters is its high rate of bycatch—other species (like sea turtles and large finfish) end up dying in the nets along with the shrimp. There is an estimated 5 to 20 pounds of bycatch per pound of shrimp netted. That is a staggering amount, considering the bycatch usually dies and with extensive trawling in the area, this can upset an entire ecological system of an area.

Two simple net innovations have dramatically reduced bycatch in recent years: The Turtle Exclusion Device (TEDs), a kind of trap door in the net that allows turtles to swim out, is about 97 percent effective, says Westmeyer. Bycatch Reduction Devices (BRDs), which allow small fish to swim out through a small hole at the top of a net, are about 20-30 percent effective. The Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board is currently working with scientists at Louisiana State University to develop a sustainable shrimp certification program, which “will certainly include a close look at bycatch,” says LSU fishery researcher Mark Schexnayder.

just off the boat wild louisiana gulf shrimp

So what is the situation in the Gulf? While over 1,000 square miles immediately surrounding the BP oil rig wellhead that spewed over 200 million gallons of crude oil into Gulf Waters is still closed to all fishing, the FDA and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)  re-opened 4,213 square miles of Gulf of Mexico federal waters to deep sea shrimping last February. State officials with LDWF and the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) examined the levels of contaminates associated with the BP oil spill, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), being found in Louisiana seafood that have been collected throughout the spill. And they determined that the levels were so low that they do not pose a risk to consumers, so spring shrimping season opened with great delight to not only the fishermen, but restaurants. Surprise surprise. One of the great consumers of Gulf shrimp is Taco Bell for their shrimp tacos, not just fancy restaurants. But domestic sales are down, there have been a number of hurricanes, and fuel prices are high, all contributing to a downturn in the industry. By this fall, the shrimpers have been out of work and say the season is the worst in history. L.S.U. research is finding signs of cellular damage to fish in the Gulf, a sign of exposure to oil.

Domestic farmed shrimp: Only a very tiny amount of US shrimp comes from domestic farms,

cooked shrimp is pink

though freshwater prawns grown in “closed loop” systems get the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s stamp of approval, and some sustainable farms in Central America seem promising as well. Thankfully, environmental regulations in the US prevent people from setting up cheap farms like those abroad, so sustainable shrimp farming is still very expensive. Researchers at South Carolina’s Waddell Mariculture Center are experimenting with environmentally friendly and economically viable shrimp farming models.

Trap-caught shrimp: Larger Pacific shrimp species (most commonly spot prawns) are sometimes caught in traps, which pick up significantly less bycatch than nets. Trapping is hard work, though, and these shrimp simply aren’t as abundant as the varieties in the Gulf, so they’re harder to find and more expensive.

shrimp provencal

Shrimp Provençal

Frankly speaking, Shrimp Provençal is a dazzling little dinner made in about 30 minutes and when I was catering, it was the most popular fast entrée in my repertoire. It was not only delicious, but beautiful with the green pasta and red sauce. I would make the entire dish right on site. I even typed up the recipe and carried it with me I had so many requests for it. I have also made this with monkfish in place of the shrimp, which was also luscious, but monkfish is only occasionally available anymore. Serve with green salad, crusty French baguette, and a steamed veggie like an artichoke. No cheese, please–cheese is not traditionally used with Italian fish dishes.


Cooking Method: Stovetop

Cook Time: About 30 minutes

Serves 4


  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 medium shallots, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 15 leaves fresh basil, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon crushed dried thyme
  • Two 28-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
  • 2/3 cup dry white wine
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 16-ounces fresh spinach fettucine
  • 1-pound medium to large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined (23/30  count)


Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil for the pasta.

Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium to medium-high heat.  Add onion and shallot; sauté until just soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic for 30 seconds.  Add the basil, thyme, tomatoes, and wine; simmer uncovered 15 minutes.  Season to taste.  Meanwhile cook the pasta according to package directions.

Add the shrimp to the hot tomato sauce and cook 2 to 3 minutes, until pink, stirring a few times.  Drain the pasta and divide between 4 shallow plates.  Ladle over the prawns and sauce.  Serve immediately.

shrimp scampi


Scampi is probably the best known pan-sautéed prawn dish and it has that Italian flair for economy, ease of preparation, and flavor. While we associate the word scampi with all large shrimp, it is the Italian word for the specific tail portion of certain small Mediterranean lobsterettes also known as Norway lobster. Scampi is the plural, meaning a nice portion of scampos, the word for a singular prawn. There is no substitute for the dry sherry; it is integral to the success of this dish. Also, don’t skip the bit of parsley at the end just because it looks like a small amount. Every ingredient adds to the final dish. This recipe came from a flyer that sat on the top of the counter at my local fish market some 25 years ago. Serve with fluffy steamed rice and a green salad.


Cooking Method: Stovetop

Cook Time: About 5 minutes

Serves 4


  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1-pound raw large shrimp, peeled and deveined (21/25 count)
  • 3 tablespoons seasoned dry breadcrumbs (I use Progresso)
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup dry sherry
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
  • Salt, to taste


Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook for no more than 30 seconds. Do not brown or burn. Add the shrimp, breadcrumbs, and pepper; simmer 1 minute. Add the sherry, lemon juice, and parsley; simmer 1 to 2 minutes to thicken. Taste for salt and serve immediately.

Excerpted from Not Your Mother’s Weeknight Cooking, by Beth Hensperger. (c) 2008, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.

Text copyright Beth Hensperger 2014

Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.

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