Perhaps the most versatile crustacean, shrimp are popular around the world. Thanks to both wild caught and widespread shrimp farming, this shellfish is available for purchase at most grocers all year-round. It is a popular ingredient in appetizers, salads, chowders, and, of course, as a main dish. It's easy and quick to cook, and due to its ubiquity, just about every cuisine incorporates shrimp into its repertoire in some capacity. Because it keeps frozen for months at a time, it's a convenient ingredient to stock in your freezer for dinner in a flash.
What Is Shrimp?
Shrimp is a type of shellfish that is found abundantly all over the world but is especially popular in the United States. Most shrimp species are adapted to marine life, but many shrimp can live in fresh water. In terms of size, shrimp varies from about the size of a quarter to "jumbo" shrimp, which can reach several inches long. It adds a slightly sweet, briny, and tender taste to whatever it's cooked with, and its versatility is part of its widespread appeal. It can be cooked almost any way you can imagine: poached, fried, fermented, broiled, grilled, sauteed, stir-fried, and used in soups, salads, pasta, Thai curries, kebabs, and appetizers.
Americans love their shrimp—they eat about a billion pounds of it per year, and in 2019, imported about 760,000 tons. China is the biggest exporter of shrimp. As with many types of seafood and shellfish, it's not the cheapest protein you can buy at the store, which makes it feel a bit luxurious when you're cooking with it and eating it. A little bit of shrimp can go a long way, and it keeps well in the freezer until you're ready to use it, which is a small price to pay for convenience.
How to Cook Shrimp
Shrimp cooks quickly, whether you sauté it in a pan, grill it on a skewer, or pop it into a soup. It doesn't take long for it to turn from grey to pink and become tender to bite into. And this expedience holds true whether you start with fresh or frozen; shrimp that's been frozen is easily defrosted in its packaging in the fridge, or by running cold water over it in a colander until it's thawed enough to work with. You can decide you want shrimp for dinner, pull it out of the freezer, and make it the same evening.
You can buy shrimp peeled and deveined, which is the fastest way to cook it; it means the outer crunchy shell has been removed along with the "vein," which is really its digestive tract and can sometimes get gritty with sand. However, some recipes for grilling shrimp will suggest you use unpeeled shrimp, shells intact, because it helps to protect it from drying out quickly. Shrimp shells also add a ton of flavor, and sometimes recipes will suggest you leave them on because of that. However, many home cooks don't want to fuss and will skip straight to the bag of peeled and deveined shrimp and add that to their grocery cart.
Shrimp is used in myriad dishes around the world, but in the United States especially it has a long history with grits. It all started with Muskogee Indigenous people using corn in a variety of ways for food. When their grits were mixed with the abundance of shrimp in the coastal areas of southern states such as Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Louisiana, the dish became a cheap and easy meal to make. Nowadays, it's found equally at home on the average dinner table and restaurant menu across the U.S.
Rock shrimp is very different: it is smaller, has a tough, rock-like shell, and tastes similar to lobster or Dungeness crab. It can be compared to a spiny lobster, and you can work with it in many of the same ways you'd cook lobster or shrimp.
What Does Shrimp Taste Like?
Shrimp offers a sweet and mild taste and a tender texture with a bit of a crunch if cooked right. Shrimp that tastes rubbery has not been cooked properly. If it's very fresh, its taste is redolent of the ocean, but not overly briny.
This crustacean gets around. Soups, gumbo, rice, and pasta dishes easily welcome shrimp, along with Asian stir-fries and a classic strip steak. Grilled shrimp is a summer classic, skewered on a kabob, filling a taco, or sitting atop a fresh seasonal salad. The French often include it in recipes for bouillabaisse, and it's often part of a seafood stew concocted by Italian fishermen in San Francisco called cioppino.
It's very easy to overcook shrimp, and the best way to determine its doneness is by shape. An uncooked shrimp is straight. When it curves perfectly into a C-shape, it's ready, and if it's gone so far as to curl in on itself into an O-shape, it's overdone and will taste rubbery.
Where to Buy Shrimp
You can buy shrimp very easily, fresh and frozen, from specialty seafood purveyors and fishmongers to supermarkets and large discount/wholesale grocers. It's fairly ubiquitous. Shrimp is most abundantly available in frozen form. The packaging often will say small medium, large, extra large, or jumbo, which in practical terms is indicated by a count number on the package. This will reflect the average number of shrimp to a pound as a way to designate size (fewer shrimp in a pound indicates larger size shrimp), but this can be arbitrary from packager to packager. You'll also likely see language such as wild-caught, which means it was not farmed; you'll typically pay more for such an item.
Additionally, shrimp is often labeled cooked, which means all you have to do is thaw it and use it, or raw, which means it needs to be cooked.
If you are buying it fresh, cook it within 24 hours but no more than 48, depending on its freshness, as it's extremely perishable. If your shrimp smells funky, like ammonia, overly "fishy," or anything other than fresh salty water, ditch it. It's past its prime.
Once it's cooked, shrimp will keep in the fridge for a few days. Shrimp that you buy frozen will keep for up to six months.
Shrimp vs. Prawns
It's very easy to confuse shrimp and prawns, especially because they're often used in similar ways in cooking, and their names are often used interchangeably on menus and in shrimp packaging.
However, it's more common to see the word prawns used in the United Kingdom and Australian, and shrimp in the U.S. Additional confusion arises because the term "jumbo shrimp" seems like an oxymoron but "jumbo prawns" does not; you're more often than not likely to see large shrimp labeled as jumbo or king prawns. In short, they are both Decapod crustaceans, which means they have 10 legs and external skeletons, but they are not the same animals. Their anatomical shape differs slightly; shrimp are curved while prawns are straight. Shrimp are usually smaller than prawns and typically live in saltwater, whereas prawns are freshwater inhabitants. In cooking, they can be used interchangeably; they both tend to taste sweet and tender.