Shrimp 101: The Definitive Guide to Buying the Best Shrimp

America’s favorite shellfish…wait for it…Lobster? Nope. Try again. It’s shrimp! Shrimp represent more than a quarter of all the seafood eaten in the US each year. According to the the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), each American consumes about four pounds of shrimp annually! 

Despite the popularity, buying shrimp can be challenging simply because there are so many kinds. It’s important to know the differences in types of shrimp, how they’re sold, and what you’re paying for. 

We want to give you a good primer about buying shrimp so when you’re in the market for this delicious creature, you can get just what you’re looking for.

 We’ll teach you about

  • The 5 most common shrimp types
  • How to avoid cheap (read: bad) shrimp
  • Heads, veins, peeled—all the lingo you need to know

Let’s get to it!

Shrimp Buying Tips

Shrimp Glossary and Lingo

Prawn: Some people refer to prawns as large shrimp. According to the Fish Book by Kelly McCune, “shrimp” are sea creatures, while “prawns” are from freshwater. In reality, there’s a bigger difference—we’ll cover it below.

Count Per Pound: Just like how scallops are sized, shrimp are sold by counts per pound. The smaller the count, the larger the shrimp. For example, our 8-12 count colossal shrimp include about 8 to 12 shrimp per pound. 

P & D’s: Peeled and deveined shrimp are shrimp with the shell as well as the digestive tract (also known as the sand vein) already removed. 

Green Headless: In the trade, this term refers to shrimp sold without the head.

Block Frozen: Shrimp is frozen in a solid block of ice, usually in 5 lb. blocks.

Sodium Tripolyphosphate (STTP): A chemical used to treat and preserve seafood. It keeps shrimp from darkening and losing moisture.  It can leave shrimp with an off taste and mushy texture.

Up First: The Difference Between Prawns and Shrimp

Shelled prawns and shrimp look similar, taste just about the same and have comparable nutritional value, but they are two different types of crustaceans.

They both belong to the crustaceans of ‘decapod’ (meaning they have 10 legs), but shrimp are from the species Pleocyemata, while prawn are Dendrobranchiata. They are technically different species.

Oddly enough the names ‘shrimp’ and ‘prawn’ originated in Britain, yet in the UK people tend to lump both crustaceans together and refer to them all as ‘prawns’. Australians too, really only use the term ‘prawn’ no matter which it is, where Americans go the other way and use ‘shrimp’ almost indiscriminately.

To be sure what you are paying for, buy from a reputable distributor such as Lobster Anywhere, or accept that it isn’t important which you get and buy them wherever you happen to be.

Prawn and Shrimp Similarities

  • Salt and freshwater are equally suitable habitats for both shrimp and prawns. However, most shrimps live in saltwater, whereas most prawns are found in freshwater.
  • Both shrimp and prawns stay near the ocean floor.
  • Different varieties of both shrimp and prawns exist, and while these each have their own flavor, it does not let you know which is prawn and which is shrimp. This does mean you can use them interchangeably in recipes, and explains the confusion over ‘prawn cocktail’ and ‘shrimp cocktail’.

Prawn and Shrimp Differences

(Many of these are really only noticeable when still in their shells)

  • If it has claws on two of its five pairs of legs it is a shrimp. If it has claws on three of its five pairs of legs it is a prawn.
  • Shrimp also have their largest claws on the front legs, while prawns have the largest ones on their second set of legs.
  • The way their shell plates are attached is another means for telling them apart. Shrimp have segments overlaid in front and behind, so a segment overlaps the one before and the one after it, but prawns overlap from front to back, (like the roof on a house). This seemingly unimportant difference has other, less obvious consequences – the prawn’s outer skeleton does not allow it to bend, so they are nearly straight when shelled, whereas shrimps can curl. 
  • Shrimps carry their fertilized eggs under their tails. Prawns don’t carry their eggs, preferring to release their fertilized eggs into the water.

Shrimps tend to be smaller than prawns, but this is not a general rule. Just like people, there are small prawns and big shrimp and these cross the ‘size boundaries’ making it an unreliable way to tell them apart. Jumbo shrimp, also called colossal shrimp, are bigger than many prawns for instance. These are also considered quite a delicacy, either for shrimp cocktail, (see our recipe for a quick, easy and delicious meal), or for ‘butterflying’ (cutting open along the back), and throwing on a barbecue.

All in all, it is hard to tell shrimp from prawns unless you take the time to check them out thoroughly before they are shelled.

What are the different kinds of Shrimp?

You may know about the different sizes of shrimp, but there are also different types and species. What you can get in your local grocery stores and restaurants may vary by where you are, but there’s a difference, so if you want the best bang for your buck, let’s run through the types of shrimp out there. Here are the five you’re most likely to encounter

Brown shrimp

Along with pink and white, these are the most commonly found varieties in the US. Brown shrimp are generally found in the Gulf of Mexico. They tend to be smaller, with a purple-ish tail. Tastewise, they don’t have the strongest flavor, but a very traditional “shrimp” taste.

Pink shrimp

Recognizable by a spot on their body and a dark blue tail, these are some of the tastiest shrimp you can find. Though named “pink shrimp”, that’s not always what you’ll find in the store. Sometimes they are grey or white in color.

White shrimp

how to buy shrimp
US white shrimp

Found along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, white shrimp are also often imported from Latin America and other places with shallow, warm water. They are lighter in color with a green-hued tail.

Tiger shrimp

Striped in appearance and much, much larger than their brown, pink, and white cousins, tiger shrimp are the most farmed variety in the world. Extremely popular in Asia, you’re likely to find them frozen in 5 lb blocks in Asian markets. Commercial shrimp farming has significant environmental impacts, though, so you’ll want to look for the Seafood Watch seal of approval to indicate sustainability and quality—like these

Fresh or frozen, these giants (up to a foot long!) have a delicious, shrimpy flavor.

Spot prawns

In the US, we generally use “shrimp”, but for some reason, spot prawns are always prawns. Found on the Pacific Coast, these big prawns are popular in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. The spot prawns texture is delicate and buttery, and the flavor is sweet, fresh, and briny.

Rock shrimp

These tough-shelled shrimp are found in deep, cold waters both on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. Sweet and lobster-like in taste and even appearance, rock shrimp are really hard to peel, so they’re generally sold pre-peeled.

Want to go deeper into the types of shrimp? We compare more elements (flavor, origin, fun facts) in a more in-depth article: The 11 Most Popular Types Of Shrimp From Around The World.

Shrimp Nutrition

As well as being delicious, shrimp is also low in fat and calories. It only has about 80 calories per serving and includes rich nutrients and good fats: the omega-3’s. Shrimp can be a good source of protein, Iron, Vitamin B, Zinc, and more. Even better is that it contains NO CARBS. 

With how nutritious the little guys are, it’s no wonder they make such a tasty dinner.

Why Maine Shrimp is Considered the Apex of Shrimp

Maine shrimp, also known as Northern shrimp (Pandalus borealis) or pink shrimp, have a shiny pink to reddish color. Maine shrimp come directly from the cold Atlantic waters, usually off the coasts of Massachusetts, Maine, and further up north. They are sold fresh and never frozen. These are shrimpy, shrimp and are often called “popcorn shrimp”. For such a tiny size they are big on flavor.

If you’re not in one of the few lucky locations with Maine shrimp, the clear runner up is colossal tiger shrimp that’s been certified by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.

Finding sustainable shrimp in grocery stores can be difficult because over 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in the United States (that’s 3.6 pounds of the aforementioned per capita average) comes from China, Indonesia, and Thailand.

In that region of the world, shrimp farms have long been tied to the destruction of critically important mangrove forests and have been plagued by veterinary drug residues, salmonella, and high levels of “filth”—in other words, rejected by FDA inspectors as having too high levels of rat feces, parasites, illegal antibiotics and glass shards. 

Beware of Cheap Shrimp (Read: Avoid At All Costs)

Not all shrimp are caught, farmed, prepared, or sold equally. Like any other food source, there are some situations across the globe that will make you want to think about where your shrimp is coming from. Unfortunately, the US doesn’t have a lot of requirements for communicating these details to consumers. Here’s why:

“Any shrimp that’s ‘processed’ is completely exempt from Country of Origin and farm vs. wild labeling requirements. The majority of shrimp qualify for that exemption: If a shrimp has been deveined, peeled, frozen, beheaded, packaged, or cooked, USDA regulations do not require that you, the consumer, know where it’s from or how it was caught.”

Always check the ingredient statement and country of origin. You can look for independent regulatory groups like: Marine Stewardship Council, Aquaculture Stewardship Council, and Naturland will add their labels to shrimp they approve.

aerated shrimp pond
Indonesian shrimp pond with aerator

Chemicals and Additives

If you’re buying any packaged shrimp, be sure to check the label. Additives are used to preserve and extend shelf-life or even to cause the shrimp to absorb more liquid so they can be sold as larger shrimp. As for chemicals, you’ll want to check where the shrimp is coming from. Farmed, freshwater shrimp can absorb environmental chemicals where they’re raised, so it’s important to check those details.

Labor Issues

In Southwest Asia specifically, there have been a number of reports showing that many of the farms rely on literal slave labor to process the shrimp. You can avoid these issues by taking the advice above and looking for labels that are more transparent than the USDA requirements.

Poor Inspection

There’s a lot of conversation surrounding the FDA and USDA and their inspection of seafood, especially imported. As we let them fight this out in Washington, you can protect yourself by buying from reputable shops.

Identifying the Different kinds of Shrimp for Sale

Frozen shrimp

It’s best to buy shrimp frozen. That’s because they are generally frozen at sea right after they’re caught. This is your best bet for fresh, safe to eat fish.

  • IQF – This stands for “individually quick frozen” and what you should look for. These are less likely to be damaged during the freezing and thawing process, and convenient as you can choose how much at a time to thaw.
  • Block – Usually found in 5-pound blocks. Unless you’re throwing a big party, we’d opt for IQF.

Fresh shrimp

Unless the shrimp are living in a tank at the shop, we’d avoid these. You just never know how long they’ve been out, and it’s just risky.

Previously frozen shrimp

NOT the same as fresh! Even in your market’s case, the thawed shrimp there were most likely delivered frozen, then thawed and placed in the case. And since you don’t know how long they’ve been in there, you’re better off finding good frozen shrimp and thawing it yourself.

Head on or off

The heads add a unique issue to shrimp: once the shrimp is dead, the head contains enzymes that start to break down the flesh on the body. Kind of gross, but that’s how it works. So, unless you’re buying super fresh shrimp out of that tank we mentioned above, you probably want your shrimp headless.

Peel on or off

The peel is tasty and adds a lot of flavor, depending on what you’re doing with your shrimp (grilling, anyone?). And, if the shrimp has been peeled, it’s likely to be in pretty rough shape. The machine they use to peel (and clean for that matter) can mangle the shrimp. This affects presentation, but not necessarily taste. So, it’s up to you!

Cleaned and Deveined Shrimp

This is a personal preference. Based on price, what you’re doing with the shrimp, and how you feel about deveining yourself. There’s no difference in quality, really, just price.

Cooked Shrimp

Just don’t. These are gross and cooking shrimp really doesn’t take that long. Take the extra two minutes and make it worth the effort!

TLDR: Shrimp is delicious and should be bought frozen with a label denoting a private regulatory group. We’d recommend buying shrimp from us, which has been approved by Seafood Watch itself. Get some today!

The Best Places to Buy Shrimp: Online vs Grocery Stores

The best place to buy shrimp depends on what kind of shrimp you are looking for. Do you want it frozen and ready to cook or you want your shrimp to be still kicking? 

We generally say it’s best to avoid grocery stores. You don’t know how long the shrimp has been there or where it came from—not to say anything about the questionable quality! The only thing we can recommend getting from the store is live shrimp. That way you can guarantee freshness at least.

For other types of shrimp, we recommend getting the shrimp straight from the source. If you don’t have access to the ocean or a fisherman market, get it shipped right to your door! Ordering online can be a great source for fresh and ready to go shrimp. 

How Much Does Good Shrimp Cost?

We all know that seafood can be a little pricey depending on what you’re buying. Thankfully, Shrimp is the most popular seafood eaten in the United States. Shrimp represents over 25 percent of the nation’s annual per capita seafood consumption. This means that it’s a common and affordable seafood you can serve at dinner.

How Much is a Pound of Shrimp

Prices for fresh shrimp usually vary between $6 to $25. Depending on the size of shrimp you are looking to buy, the average cost for one pound is between $10 to $16. 

How Much Shrimp to Buy Per Person

Shrimp Per PoundAppetizer Serving SizeEntree Serving Size
Colossal8-1224
Jumbo13-254-56-8
Large26-354-68-10
Medium36-5069-12
Mini51-71+6-812-20

The “Best Choice” Shrimp to Buy, According to The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

You won’t find our shrimp in any grocery store either or at any of those big catalog companies. Our shrimp are all-natural and sustainably harvested. Check out our colossal shrimp or wild caught shrimp you can buy by the pound.

  • We deliver anywhere in the U.S. and only ship overnight to ensure maximum freshness of all our products
  • Our freshly caught shrimp are brought back and harvested the same day, so you know you’re getting the best shrimp out there.
  • We keep our shrimp all natural and chemical-free.

What are you waiting for? Get fresh, mouthwatering shrimp delivered to your doorstep today! 

References:

Rudalevige, C. B. (2017, December 22). No Maine shrimp, but there are other domestic sources to choose from. Retrieved from https://www.pressherald.com/2017/12/24/green-plate-special-with-maines-shrimp-fishery-closed-again-other-u-s-sources-are-next-best-choice/

McCune, K. (1988). The fish book: A seafood menu cookbook. New York: Perennial Library.

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