Frozen Shrimp 101
While there are choices to make when buying shrimp, frozen versus fresh is rarely one. That's because nearly all the shrimp sold in our markets have been previously frozen.
There are two exceptions: in the spring many of our east coast fish markets have fresh Maine shrimp, a seasonal treat. These small, fresh shrimp are sweet and tender and while their size makes them a pain to peel, their flavor and low price make the effort worth it. And if you have access to a really good seafood market, the kind that sells not just to home cooks but also top restaurants, you can occasionally find fresh wild shrimp, often caught off the coast of Georgia or Louisiana. In New York, The Lobster Place's main store in Chelsea Market often has fresh wild shrimp, sometimes from the Louisiana or Florida gulfs, and other times caught off the coast of Georgia. Fresh-never-frozen wild shrimp are more expensive than the once frozen, but their bigger flavor makes them worth the price.
But back to frozen because for most of us, this is what we buy. It doesn't matter if you choose medium or jumbo, farmed or wild, peeled and cleaned or with the head and tail still on -- when you stand at the fish counter and point at a mound of shrimp to place your order, know that it's been frozen and then defrosted. The fishmonger buys shrimp in large quantities and then defrosts them as needed to sell. It is likely that the shrimp you buy was defrosted that day after having been harvested and frozen three or so months earlier.
There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it's a key to how the shrimp industry can harvest and bring to market what is a fragile crustacean.
Some don't eat shrimp for religious reasons or allergies. But for those of us who do, shrimp can be very city kitchen-friendly.
Buying Frozen Shrimp
Many of our larger markets, including most supermarkets, sell bags of frozen shrimp. The bag should clearly note if the shrimp is farmed or wild as well as the country of origin. Look for "IQF" on the bag. This stands for "individually quick frozen" which means the shrimp weren't frozen in a big block of ice and are more likely to have better flavor and texture. And the only ingredient listed should be shrimp: no preservatives or chemicals or salt.
The bag will also indicate if the shrimp has been peeled or cleaned (usually they have not) and also the size of the shrimp. I look for wild shrimp that still have their shells and tails because these natural casings provide some protection during the freezing. And I buy large or jumbo because when shrimp are smaller it takes far more time to clean them to get enough for whatever I'm cooking. Shrimp also shrink when they cook so what may start out as a reasonably sized medium shrimp will become, well, a shrimp when it's cooked.
Wild shrimp generally cost more than farmed shrimp. If you're comfortable with the country of origin (90% of farmed shrimp is imported from countries like Thailand, India and Indonesia) then go ahead and buy farmed shrimp. But I have long been troubled by various public reports and FDA studies about the toxicity of imported farmed shrimp, plus all the antibiotics the farmers add to the shrimp pits (yes, the shrimp are farmed in sand pits). So I personally never buy anything but wild.
Two other reasons to buy frozen shrimp by the bag: They are usually much cheaper. And you get to control when they are defrosted; who knows how long that pile of shrimp in the market may have been sitting there?
Defrosting Frozen Shrimp
Shrimp can be eaten cooked and warm, or cooked and then chilled, as in a shrimp salad. But before we get to cooking, first the shrimp need to be defrosted. And how you defrost them can impact their final texture.
If you've bought a bag of frozen shrimp at Costco or Whole Foods or Fairway, or any other large market that keeps a frozen seafood case, here's how to defrost them:
- Remove the shrimp for your recipe. Reseal the bag and return to the freezer.
- Place the shrimp in a fine-mesh sieve or colander, which, in turn, you place in a large bowl of cold tap water. This makes it easy to lift the shrimp in and out of the water.
- Let sit submerged for 10 minutes.Lift the colander and all the shrimp out of the water. Change the water in the bowl, again using cold tap water, and re-submerge the shrimp.
- Leave for another 10 to 20 minutes and the shrimp should be completely defrosted and still cold. Pat them dry before cooking.
You can also defrost shrimp overnight in the refrigerator. Just place them in a covered bowl. The next day give them a rinse with cold water and pat dry with a paper towel before cooking.
Resist using warm water because the shrimp will defrost unevenly and this can cause the shrimp to also cook unevenly if the outside seems defrosted but the inside isn't. Also, like most seafood, shrimp is highly perishable and you want them to stay cold right up to the time when you cook them.
Resist, too, using the microwave. Shrimp cook very quickly and with the microwave you will quickly go from frozen to defrosted to cooked, probably making a mushy mess along the way.
Cooking With Frozen Shrimp
I should just say, cooking with shrimp. But I'm trying to emphasize the point that you can have a bag of shrimp in your freezer, come home from work and remove what you need for dinner, do a quick defrost, and then cook. It's an example of pantry cooking when you think of your freezer as part of a city pantry.
Shrimp is a high quality protein -- also rich in calcium, iodine, and good cholesterol (unless you cook them with lots of butter!). They have a delicate, slightly sweet flavor and tend to take on the taste of whatever you cook or serve with them. But this also makes them versatile.
The key to successfully cooking shrimp is to not overcook them. Regardless of boiling, broiling, baking or sautéing, if you cook shrimp for too long they'll get tough. They cook quickly and as soon as the flesh changes from opalescence to opaque, they're done. We're talking 2 or 3 minutes depending on the size.
A final point about cooking shrimp, which is actually a question: to peel or not to peel? Most shrimp that we buy, whether in a bag or at the fish market, come in the shell. Some home and restaurant cooks, including ones in Europe, will cook and serve shrimp still in the shell. But shrimp naturally come with a "vein" -- it's actually the shrimp's digestive tract. It won't hurt you to eat it but it's not very appealing. Most home cooks will take the vein out either before or after cooking, at the same time removing the shell, head and tail. When you do this is up to you, but I think it's easier to do before the shrimp is cooked. Whenever I'd tried to do it afterwards, part of the shell always sticks and I end up wasting some shrimp.
Shrimp Recipe Ideas
Here are some of the more popular ways to cook with shrimp, some of which are quick and easy, with others needing more time and attention. Because shrimp is raised around the world, it's found in many of the world's cuisines:
- Shrimp Fried Rice -- a great way to use leftover rice and vegetables
- Shrimp Scampi -- excellent with pasta, this popular dish often includes lots of butter and garlic
- Shrimp Salad -- use a good bought mayonnaise like Hellman's or even better, make your own; see our link to learn how. Add chopped celery, scallions, and red pepper or any other favorite vegetable
- Shrimp Cocktail -- for Mad Men fans and anyone who loves shrimp's sweet flavor kicked up with an easy spicy cocktail sauce
- Shrimp Rémoulade -- boil, drain and chill shrimp and toss with (preferably home-made) mayonnaise to which you've added mustard and diced little cornichon pickles; this is similar to céleri rémoulade
- Paella with Shrimp and Chicken -- the shrimp is added for the last leg of cooking
- Coconut Shrimp -- fried in a coconut-dusted batter
- Shrimp Newburg -- baked with a tomato-tinged béchamel sauce
- Baked Shrimp With Pasta, Feta and Tomatoes -- see our recipe
- Shrimp Risotto -- we've added a link to Barbara Kafka's excellent microwave version
- Shrimp Tikka Masala -- there are as many versions of this dish as cooks in India and the quality of your results will depend upon the quality of your garam masala
- Shrimp Marsala -- what a difference a letter can make? This dish is Italian and is flavored with Marsala wine
- Shrimp Stir Fry -- use seasonal vegetables
- Shrimp Bisque -- a creamy and luscious soup
- Shrimp on Grits -- a southern classic
- Shrimp Toast -- a classic warm hors d'oeuvre
- Grilled Shrimp -- use your broiler as an upside grill and brush with teriyaki or barbeque sauce
- Shrimp Stock -- simmer shrimp shells in water to create a flavorful broth for bisque, risotto, or seafood soups
The New York Times has written a major piece about the American shrimp industry, including a few very appealing recipes for cooking shrimp. See our link.
So next time you're at a supermarket, buy a bag of shrimp and keep them in your freezer. It will make for easy, last minute cooking and may help give a little boost to a Louisiana shrimp boat.