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Shrimp Basics - Shopping for Shrimp

Sizes, Varieties, and Freshness


Shrimp with heads attached

Shrimp with heads attached.

Photo by Phu Thinh Co [flickr]

What are Shrimp?

Shrimp is the general term used for over 300 varieties of crustaceans that dwell in rivers, lakes, and oceans across the globe. Sometimes referred to as prawns, these small sea animals are a familiar food items to many cultures throughout the world, including Asia and the Southern coast of the United States, where they are often grown.

With so many varieties and preparations to choose from, purchasing and cooking shrimp can be slightly confusing. Use this quick guide to help you navigate through the sea of commercially available shrimp.

Shrimp Sizes

Most shrimp sold within the U.S. will be labeled with a size or count to indicate the average number of shrimp per pound. This can be helpful when determining how much to buy or how much will be needed to feed a specific number of people. This number is usually displayed prominently and is in the form of an average per pound. Shrimp labeled "41/50" will have an average number of 45 shrimp per pound, shrimp labeled "21/25" will have an average of 23 shrimp per pound, and so on. Larger shrimp that weigh more will take fewer actual shrimp to reach a pound and therefore will have smaller count numbers.

Shells, Veins, and Tails

Shrimp can be purchased a number of ways from whole and raw to completely shelled, deveined, and cooked. The best variety to buy depends on the size and how the shrimp will be cooked or served.

"Shelled" refers to shrimp that has had the outer crustaceous shell removed before sale. Some people prefer to keep the shell intact during cooking, especially if the shrimp are being grilled. The shell can help retain moisture and add flavor, but can be difficult when it comes time to eat.

The dark "vein" running down the back of a shrimp is actually the shrimp's digestive tract. Larger shrimp usually have the vein removed prior to cooking because they can be filled with gritty or unpleasant flavors. Veins can be difficult to remove from smaller shrimp and the contents so scarce, that they are often left in. Vein flushing methods may also be employed to cause live shrimp to expel their digestive tract contents, leaving a clear, unnoticeable vein.

Tails can be left on for a decorative effect, or removed for easy consumption. Leaving the tails intact can provide a "handle" for dipping larger shrimp. Heads may be left intact on large shrimp and are usually only done so for decorative purposes. Whole shrimp that still have the heads and tails intact and are often less expensive, but will yield less meat per pound.

Fresh vs. Fishy

When purchasing shrimp, always look for transparent flesh and avoid dull or cloudy shrimp. The scent should smell sweet and fresh like sea water and never fishy or reminiscent of ammonia or bleach. Shrimp parish quickly, so if you do not live near a coastal area, it is best to purchase shrimp frozen. While fresh, refrigerated shrimp has a shelf life of only a few days, but frozen shrimp will stay fresh for weeks.

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