Shrimp: America’s Favorite Seafood

shrimp cocktail

Shrimp: America’s Favorite Seafood

a test kitchen dossier

Shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, sautée it. Dey’s uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That…that’s about it.
– Bubba, Forrest Gump

Foodstuff: Shrimp

Etymology: From the Middle English shrimpe, meaning either “pygmy” or the crustacean.

Girded behind their exoskeletons, shrimp may not look like they’re calling out to be eaten. If you’ve ever seen a whole, live shrimp, they’re actually a little creepy looking; but once you get past that armor, you find delicious little morsels of culinary inspiration. Our favorite thing about shrimp is their versatility – one of the reasons why they may have become so popular in America is that they substitute beautifully for other kinds of crustaceans unavailable in our waters, such as scampi in Italy and langoustine in France. Shrimp’s mild, sweet flavor goes well with almost any type of cuisine, and is so easy to cook – no waiting around, no braising, roasting or stewing. Shrimp may be the perfect summer party food.

According to archeological evidence, human beings have been eating shrimp since. . . well, since there have been human beings. Ancient Latin had a word for shrimp — squilla — and numerous references suggest that Ancient Roman and Greek peoples were extremely fond of shrimp, preferring them to lobster and other types of crustaceans. Much of this evidence comes from a compilation of culinary writings from the 4th or 5th century AD, often attributed to the infamous food writer Apicius (though, much like Shakespeare, his true identity remains a mystery). The first assumed attempt at a cookbook, the culinary writings of Apicius attempted to make a formal record of the basics of classical Roman cooking. Thanks to his writings, and other culinary records that have survived, we know the Greeks liked to cook large shrimp wrapped in fig leaves, and that Romans usually roasted or fried them, and sometimes served them with a honey glaze.

In early America, According to Fanny Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, shrimp were most widely available from Southern waters, rather than from either coast. Canned shrimp was also extremely popular. Up to this point, shrimp recipes appeared primarily in Cajun and Creole cookbooks, probably because the availability of fresh shrimp was restricted to the South; but this changed in 1917 when the mechanical harvesting of shrimp began. Shrimp Cocktail, a staple of American cuisine, was invented around this time. The original recipes consisted of a combination of shellfish (but almost always shrimp) served with a mixture of ketchup, horseradish, Tabasco and cayenne, served in tiny cups.

Shrimp’s popularity has only grown since that time, and today it is the average American’s favorite seafood. The United States harvests more than 650 million pounds of shrimp a year, and imports another 200 million.

Purchasing and Preparing Shrimp
The best way to purchase shrimp is fresh, provided your supply comes from a nearby source. If you know of a fishmonger with a boat, and live in a part of the country where shrimp are plentiful, it pays to develop a relationship with him. Otherwise, many greenmarkets on the coasts have fishmongers selling shrimp. Although it may be tempting to buy cleaned shrimp, you can best test freshness by purchasing whole shrimp with the heads on. Just as with fish, you want to be sure they smell of the sea, and not “fishy”. The eyes, although much smaller than those of fish, should be clear and not sunken in or cloudy. Also, the legs and antennae should be firm and not completely droopy. Fresh shrimp should always be stored in chipped ice. Avoid shrimp that is simply displayed in a case, even a refrigerated one.

If you are not able to buy fresh shrimp, the next best way is flash frozen. Since almost all shrimp is frozen before being sent to market, it is much better to purchase it still frozen and put it immediately in your freezer than to buy shrimp that has been thawed. In fact, ask the person behind the counter (because in most markets, you’re not dealing with a real fishmonger), whether the shrimp has been frozen, in which case to simply bring some still frozen shrimp from the back. To defrost, simply run them under COLD running water until they come apart and reach a pliable state. The water need only be moving, not running fast.

Shrimp are more flavorful if they are cooked in their shells, but it is easier to remove their digestive tracts before they are cooked. While it is not necessary to perform this step, especially in small shrimp, many people prefer shrimp prepared this way. Remove the shell by slipping your finger into the opening on the bottom side of the shrimp and snapping part of the shell off. Continue to peel, making sure to pull off all of the legs. After the first section is removed, you should be able to pull of the rest of the shell. Then, if you want to remove the digestive tract, take a paring knife and slice down the center of the back. Be careful not to cut too deep. Widen this gap a bit with your fingers and gently remove the black or grey “vein” which is the digestive tract. You can do this with tweezers if you like, but it is just as easy by hand (there are also gadgets available in stores specifically for this task).

If you peel your shrimp before cooking, make sure to save the shells in your freezer. When you have about a gallon bag-full, make shrimp stock!

Varieties of Shrimp
Technically, shrimp and prawns are different things, but widespread confusion has lead to the two names being used interchangeably. Often, larger shrimp are called prawns. There are many, many varieties of shrimp depending on where they are harvested, the time of year, etc. In terms of flavor, they can generally be divided into three types:

Brown shrimp
The color of shrimp comes from what it eats. Brown shrimp eat sea plants and are generally higher in iodine. They have the most distinctive flavor, and they are usually less expensive.

Pink shrimp
Sweeter than brown shrimp, pink shrimp are most commonly found in colder waters, and are generally smaller with moister flesh.

White shrimp
The most highly prized shrimp, white shrimp have a very mild flavor.

Remember, all shrimp turn pink when they are cooked! Another way of dividing up the species is by area of origin:

Cold water shrimp
Cold water shrimp can be found in the Northern Atlantic and Pacific. These shrimp are generally very small, and some think they are sweeter and more tender.

Warm water shrimp
Warm water shrimp can be found along the Gulf States of the United States, including Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. They are generally larger than cold water shrimp, which makes them ideal for grilling or shrimp cocktail.

Tiger Shrimp
These striped shrimp are from southeast Asia and are usually farm raised.

Rock Shrimp
This species, which can be found from Virginia to the Gulf of Mexico, is less well known in North America. It is large with firmer flesh, similar to lobster.

Best Matches
We of course find citrus to be the perfect companion to shrimp (and pretty much any seafood), so this month features some wonderful summer preparations with lemons, butter, curry, and anything else we can find in the pantry. We especially love ceviche this time of year.


Shrimp Ceviche
Mediterranean-Style Shrimp with Orzo
Avocado Crème Shrimp
Grilled Lemongrass Shrimp with Sweet Chile Dipping Sauce
Roasted Prawns with Morels & Red Curry Butter
Shrimp & Avocado Canapés
Mixed Seafood in Ginger Broth with Confetti Vegetables
Sea Grant: University of Delaware
Food Timeline — History Notes: Lobster, crab, shrimp & Oysters

Dossier by China Millman
Photo: Kelly Cline