As the most-consumed seafood and the top seafood import in the United States, shrimp has earned impressive accolades. Culinary appreciation for shrimp extends to antiquity, with recipes featuring shrimp appearing in the 1st-century Roman cookbook Apicious.
Shrimp often is confused with its decapod crustacean relative, the prawn. Both have external skeletons, 10 legs and are similar in taste, but they are a distinctly different species. Prawns tend to be plumper and therefore are coveted by chefs. Prawns are found only in fresh water, while shrimp can survive in both fresh and salt waters. This adaptability makes shrimp accessible worldwide.
In the Kitchen
Shrimp can be served as an appetizer paired with cocktail sauce, sautéed with fresh vegetables or skewered and grilled on kebabs. Shrimp has a mild flavor, making it an ideal match for potent flavors used in curries and stir-fries, and its juicy texture creates a pleasant bite when lightly covered in breadcrumbs.
Despite a range of preparation options, there are two points of culinary contention a chef is bound to face: to cook with the shell on or off, and to leave or remove the digestive tract, better known as “deveining.”
Americans have become accustomed to shrimp being deveined and cleaned prior to reaching the plate. In fact, most grocery stores perform the task for buyers rather than giving the option. Arguments for removing the vein include a result that is visually pleasing and less gritty, plus the added peace of mind that the crustacean is free of its bodily waste. Still, eating the vein is perfectly safe and cultures that consume the entire shrimp, head and all, prefer it left intact.
Whether or not to keep the shell intact while cooking is debated. Flavor purists fight for the shell, claiming it creates an inherent depth of flavor that can be lost among spices and sauces. But to seasoning alchemists, when the shell is peeled, the flavor goes with it. Ultimately, the cook must consider personal preference and the intended eater, especially since the shell may be a choking hazard for young children.
In the Clinic
Shrimp is relatively low in calories and rich in protein. Three ounces of cooked shrimp contain approximately 100 calories and 20 grams of protein. Shrimp is a good source of copper, niacin and vitamin B6, and an excellent source of iodine, phosphorus, selenium and vitamin B12. Also present is astaxanthin, the xanthophyll carotenoid that gives shrimp its reddish-pink color after cooking. Although research showing benefits of astaxanthin in humans is limited, powerful anti-inflammatory actions have been suggested.
The 179 milligrams of dietary cholesterol in three ounces of cooked shrimp has long been a deterrent of its consumption; however, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans note that some shellfish, including shrimp, are higher in dietary cholesterol but not in saturated fat and may be enjoyed as part of a healthy eating pattern.
Shrimp fall under the shellfish category, one of the eight most common food allergens in the U.S. Those affected should be wary of shrimp-containing dishes such as paella, étouffée and scampi.
Shrimp’s mild flavor makes it a desirable option for diners seeking alternatives to beef and chicken. Since shrimp is farmed from fresh and salt waters throughout the world, chefs should specify the preferred type and origin when making a purchase.
Although taste differences are subtle, choosing the right variety can elevate a dish. White shrimp’s tender texture fares better in soups and pastas, while brown shrimp’s firmness is ideal for stuffing and thick stews. Whether shrimp arrives raw, frozen or dehydrated, it is important to evaluate the quality of the product. A high-quality delivery will arrive properly sealed and contain whole pieces of shrimp that are uniform in size with minimal odor and no damage.
In terms of sustainability, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program rates various kinds of shrimp as “best,” “good” and “avoid.” Among the best choices are giant freshwater “prawns” from indoor recirculating tanks and those raised in ponds in the U.S., Canada, South America and Central America. Some researchers suspect climate change will cause decreased shrimp populations around the world, including those found off the coasts of the northeastern United States, Brazil and Bangladesh. Warming North Atlantic waters already have been implicated in Maine’s lack of shrimp the past several years.
International trade and flash freezing allows consumers to buy shrimp year round. To properly thaw, keep frozen shrimp in its freezer wrapping in the refrigerator overnight and slowly let the ice melt away. Shrimp should not be refrozen; with a high water content and soft flesh, shrimp can become mushy when rethawed.
See the recipes that accompanied this story: Grilled Shrimp and Melon Salad and Zesty Shrimp Sauté.