The Home Cook's Guide to Buying Shrimp

Shrimp is among the most popular and convenient seafood picks, but it can be confusing to navigate all of the options available.

Cooking shrimp can be quick, easy, and delicious, with many shrimp recipes ready to eat in less than 30 minutes. But before you go preparing dishes like garlic shrimp, shrimp linguine, or shrimp bisque, you need to carefully select the best variety to buy for your dish. If you're not sure how to pick the best shrimp or what to look for when buying shrimp, read on for tips from seafood experts to help you demystify the types, sizes, preparation options, and what else to know before tossing shrimp into your grocery cart.

What sizes do shrimp come in?

Shrimp vary a lot, ranging from the size of a rice grain to giant ones weighing 4 ounces each, says Michael Chanthavong, executive chef at Mizu, a wood-fired seafood restaurant in Charlotte, N.C. The number on the bag typically tells you how many shrimp are in a pound. For instance, a bag printed with "26/30" means you'll get 26-30 individual shrimp in one pound. A general rule of thumb is that the lower the number on the bag, the bigger the shrimp will be. Use the following chart for a sizing guide.

Size Amount per Pound
small 51 to 60 shrimp
medium 41 to 50 shrimp
medium-large 36 to 40 shrimp
large 31 to 35 shrimp
jumbo 21 to 25 shrimp
extra-jumbo 16 to 20 shrimp
colossal 15 or less shrimp

What are the types of shrimp?

Like other seafood and shellfish, there are numerous varieties of shrimp — more than 300 species around the world, in fact, says Derek Figueroa, president and CEO of Seattle Fish Company and 2021 chair of National Fisheries Institute. However, only a small portion are commercially available for consumption. Most shrimp you find at the grocery store fall into three categories: black tiger, white, or brown, says Figueroa.

The different regions, climates, and waters a shrimp comes from will affect its size, texture, and taste, says Chanthavong. For instance, a tiger shrimp is denser and chewier than an Atlantic white shrimp, which is more tender but sharper and saltier, he adds.

platter of grilled shrimp

What's the difference between farmed and wild shrimp?

Farmed shrimp are very consistent and widely available, says Figueroa. The production of farm-raised shrimp is tightly controlled, and there are many options available that fit any option and use including cooked, tail-on or tail off, and peeled and deveined.

Wild shrimp, on the other hand, are not as easy to find, but can be a special treat with a rich shrimp flavor that's worth the effort to seek out if you have the means, says Figueroa. "I think of shrimp as I do tomatoes: Hothouse tomatoes are a great choice all the time, but there is something inherently special about finding and enjoying heirloom tomatoes," he adds.

If you want assurance that the shrimp you're choosing don't have a negative impact on the environment, choose shrimp that are certified by a credible third party, says Figueroa. For wild-caught shrimp, look for MSC or Fair Trade certifications, and for farm-raised, ASC or BAP certification.

What other details should you consider when buying shrimp?

One big option when you buy shrimp fresh is choosing how you want them prepared on-site, which is head-on or head-off. The answer depends on how much cooking you want to do and personal preference, says Nathan Hood, executive chef at Post House restaurant in Charleston, S.C. If you choose head-on, you can roast the heads and shells to make a shrimp stock to be used later for a seafood soup, pasta, or cooking grits or rice. Head-off is a better choice if you have less time to cook or simply prefer to touch the shrimp less as you prepare your dish.

Also check out the tails of the shrimp before buying. "They're like a timer [for revealing how fresh it is]," says Chanthavong. The tail will start shifting from an iridescent blue-green to more of a yellow or red as the harvested shrimp ages.

Another choice is buying shrimp shell-on or shell-off. Buying shell-on shrimp helps to keep the meat more perfect, but not so much more than shell-off shrimp that you'll always want to peel and devein them yourself, says Chanthavong. If you're wanting shrimp to add to a dish ASAP, you may want to select head-off, tail-off, shell-off for the least amount of prep work.

How you're planning to serve the shrimp should also play into your decision on what shrimp to buy. Figueroa makes the following recommendations:

  • For a snack, appetizer, or picnic: Pick up cooked, peeled, tail-on shrimp that can go from freezer to plate in 15 minutes with almost no prep work.
  • For pasta, salad, or ceviche: Buy smaller, fresh, raw shrimp — or even shrimp pieces — which are affordable and versatile.
  • For main dishes: Consider featuring large shrimp that can stand up to cooking methods such as grilling and can be served alone with vegetables or paired with another protein, like steak. You can use either shell-on or shell-off here; go with shell-off if you're short on time, and opt for shell-on for a more restaurant-like presentation.

Where can you buy shrimp?

Most grocery stores offer frozen, previously frozen, and sometimes fresh shrimp. That's the most convenient and affordable place to buy shrimp, but keep in mind you may be paying by the pound for some of the ice that surrounds frozen shrimp, says Hood. If you have fresh shrimp available to you from a local market, that's the best way to go. The price will be higher, but you'll get shrimp that are of the highest quality, super fresh, and have a variety of types and sizes to choose from. Two questions you should always ask a fishmonger before buying:

  • When was the shrimp caught? (Freshest is best!)
  • What's your personal favorite recipe for them? (They might inspire a new idea for you!)

How much shrimp per person?

It depends heavily on how much your guests like shrimp, of course, as well as what else is on the table — but in general, about five large shrimp per person is appropriate for an appetizer or starter, says Chanthavong. For entrees, he recommends going up to seven large shrimp per person. And if you're going small, size up. "When it comes to popcorn shrimp, go with a million!" he jokes.

How long do shrimp keep?

Buying and using shrimp on the same day is ideal, but if your shrimp is super-fresh, it will still be OK to cook 2-3 days later, says Figueroa. If you get a good deal on fresh shrimp, there's nothing wrong with processing and freezing them for later. For frozen shrimp, go by the "use by" date on the bag. They're usually flash frozen, so they'll be well-preserved until you need them.

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