Americans love shrimp. It doesn’t take a stream of endless shrimp extravaganza commercials to figure that one out. They are our seafood of choice, with per capita consumption far outpacing the next runner up, salmon. Battered and fried, dredged in cocktail sauce, or grilled on the barbecue, they are the low-fuss, crowd-pleasing seafood option that feels special without busting the bank.
Our love affair with these crustaceans, however, means that the shrimp industry relies heavily on farming to keep up with demand. As you might expect, some farms’ practices are less savory than others. Plus, the dilemma of which shrimp is the best shrimp doesn’t stop at wild-caught versus farmed: when shopping for them at the store, you might find yourself wondering whether to go for shell-on or shell-off, fresh or frozen, small, large, or jumbo (and hey, isn’t jumbo shrimp an oxymoron)?
While the number of shrimp options out there may seem as wide as the sea is deep, there are a few basics to know that will make you smarter at the seafood counter. So make like Bubba from Forrest Gump and get the low down with our shrimp 101:
1. There’s a shrimp for every occasion
The shrimp family consists of thousands of different species, but only a small portion of these are widely consumed. Although they can be found throughout the world’s oceans, the majority sold for consumption in the U.S. are farmed, either domestically or in one of a handful of countries in South America, Central America, and Southern Asia that dominate the trade. The rest are wild-caught from the areas just off our coasts. If you’re lucky and live near the shore, you might have access to an array of local species. These six, however, are the ones you’re most likely to see at your average grocery:
Brown gulf shrimp: These are your all-purpose variety, well-suited for stews, curries, stir fries, and more. Most wild-caught brown shrimp hail from the Gulf of Mexico, although they can also be found off the Atlantic coast up to North Carolina. Grayish-brown in color, they tend to be small to medium-sized, with firm, flavorful meat.
White gulf shrimp: Wild white shrimp are also abundant in the waters off the east and southeastern U.S., and can be found in close proximity to their brown counterparts. They are distinguished by their larger size, smoother shell, and pale grey or bluish color. Prized for their mild, tender, and fleshy meat, they readily absorb seasoning. Another excellent choice for general use, they are especially suited for shrimp boils or grilling, where that extra heft really counts.
Pink gulf shrimp: Another eastern variety, with high concentrations off the coast of Florida. Distinguished by their pinkish-gray shell and a dark spot halfway down the tail, they are small to medium sized. Known for their distinctive sweet and briny flavor, they are a favorite for simple preparations such as shrimp cocktails or baskets of peel and eat shrimp.
Rock shrimp: A chef-y favorite, rock shrimp, which are found a bit farther offshore in the southeastern U.S., have caught on in popularity in recent years. Distinguished by their hard outer shell, they have a full, lobster-like taste and texture.
Northern pink shrimp: Found in the cool waters off both the northeastern and northwestern coasts, northern pink shrimp are small (about 50 or more per pound), but they pack in loads of sweet flavor. These are ideal for shrimp-based salads.
Tiger shrimp/tiger prawns: Tiger shrimp are native to the Indian Ocean and the Asian side of the Pacific, although the majority sold for consumption are farmed. Distinguished by the dark stripes that run across their shells, they tend to be medium to large in size, and some specimens have even been known to reach well beyond a foot in length.
It should be noted that in the U.S., “shrimp” is used to refer to most edible species, from the smallest to the very large, although you might see the word “prawn” used to describe the biggest ones. In the U.K., the word “shrimp” tends to be reserved just for the smallest specimens, while “prawn” is more common in general use. Langoustines, although commonly referred to as scampi or Dublin Bay prawns, are actually a part of the lobster family.
2. Size Matters
Depending on your recipe, you may want to go for a larger or a smaller shrimp. Categories like small, medium, or large aren’t standardized, but you can go off the by the pound count, which any seller worth their salt will provide. You’ll often see a ballpark number, annotated with a slash. For example, 26/30 means that there are 26 to 30 shrimp in each pound. The largest shrimp may be marked with a “U” for “under”—for example, U10 shrimp will be 10 or less per pound. Once you get above 50 per pound, you’re dealing with some pretty small specimens. At the other end, once you start to go below 20, things get pretty colossal.
3. Go Frozen
Fun fact: virtually all shrimp are frozen soon after they are captured. Those “fresh” shrimp in the store? They are previously frozen and thawed.
Shrimp (and all crustaceans) have enzymes in their liver that begin attacking the flesh as soon as the animal is killed, turning it to mush. This process is partly mitigated by removing the upper torso and head (most shrimp sold for consumption is actually just the tail), and is why head-on shrimp spoils especially fast. But the only way to fully minimize spoilage due to enzymes, bacteria, and oxidation is by freezing them completely. You’re better off buying them from the freezer case, since as soon as they defrost, they begin to deteriorate again. Just let them thaw in the fridge a couple hours ahead of when you plan on using them.
If you do have some fresh or defrosted shrimp on your hands, make sure that the flesh is firm and that there aren’t any noticeable “off” odors. While a slight iodine smell is normal, especially with brown shrimp, there shouldn’t be anything particularly fishy or ammonia-like going on—that’s a sign that your catch is well beyond its peak.
4. Wild or farmed? It depends.
If you’re conscious about avoiding antibiotics and other substances used to maintain farmed seafood stocks, it would seem logical to go for wild-caught shrimp. But in the wild, shrimp inhabit the bottom floor of their habitats. It’s necessary to use large nets to catch them in significant numbers, and these nets tend to pick up a lot of bycatch. This method can produce significant waste and be disruptive to the marine ecosystem.
Farmed shrimp, on the other hand, are hit or miss, depending on the methods used to raise them. Laws regarding the use of antibiotics and chemicals vary widely from country to country, although the U.S. has pretty comprehensive regulations. Additionally, inland shrimp farms are generally set up with circulation systems that can handle waste, whereas coastal operations tend to deal with waste simply by dumping it back into the environment.
All in all, it’s best to consult with organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Their guides make recommendations regarding the sustainability of different fishing and seafood farming methods, and are updated regularly.
5. For the best flavor, go for shell-on and vein-in
If you’ve ever had shrimp cooked in the shell, you’ll know that the outer layer locks in all of the meat’s fullest flavors. Even if you don't plan on cooking or eating them that way, you should still seek out shrimp that come with the shell on because it acts as a barrier against spoilage and oxidation, keeping the meat firm and tasty. Plus, shelled shrimp is generally more expensive, and there’s a higher likelihood that its been mangled or mishandled somewhere along the line. To remove the shell, just slide your thumb in where the legs are to loosen it, then peel it away, leaving the tail on, if your prefer, or gently pinching it off.
For the same reasons, you should also buy shrimp with the vein in and remove it on your own. Yes, deveining (that’s taking out the intestinal tract, which can be filled with sand and debris) is an extra step, but the rewards pay off in a better-tasting product. Just make a shallow slit down the back with a paring knife and remove the dark tube inside. See? Easy peasy.
Now get cooking!
Despite their diminutive name, shrimp have a domineering presence across cuisines and take well to a wide range of flavors and accompaniments. To get started with the classics, check out our Shrimp Cocktail recipe, Shrimp and Grits recipe, and Shrimp Scampi recipe. Then feel free to take that inspiration further with our favorite Shrimp Recipes That Won’t Break the Calorie Bank!
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.