The Smart Cook's Guide to Buying and Storing Shrimp

Fresh or frozen? Shell on or off? Here, discover everything you need to know about sourcing, freezing, and thawing everyone's favorite shellfish.

raw shrimp
Photo: Anna Williams

What's America's favorite seafood? If you guessed shrimp, you're spot on. It's no wonder we love shrimp: It's quick-cooking, versatile, and delectable. Here's what you need to know about choosing the best of this popular crustacean at the grocery store or fish market—plus our tips for storing shrimp at home.

Buying Fresh vs. Frozen Shrimp

Most markets offer fresh and frozen shrimp—and you might think fresh is, well, a fresher choice. Most shrimp, however, is flash-frozen on board the boat it was caught on, so the "fresh" shellfish you see at the seafood counter has probably been frozen, then thawed by the folks at the market. Unless you are sure the fresh shrimp for sale is actually straight from the boat—which is more likely if you live near a coast—frozen shrimp is ultimately a better buy.

If you're going the fresh route, heed these tips: Fresh shrimp should not smell like ammonia, nor should shells be soft. And yes, they should have shells, since the best way to achieve tastier shrimp is to buy them shell-on. It's often more economical, too, since you can use the casings for shrimp stock.

Buying Sustainable Shrimp

There are questions surrounding the sustainability of both wild-caught and farmed shrimp, as well as concerns about the treatment of workers, so shop with care. Seafood Watch recommends looking for shrimp sourced by Marine Seafood Council Certified fisheries or Aquaculture Certified fisheries; these certifications will be displayed on the packaging.

Shrimp Size

There aren't any official guidelines for determining how shrimp is labeled, so sizes often differ from store to store. For example, what one market calls medium, another may call large. To make sure you get the amount you need for your recipe, it's better to buy shrimp by the "count"—or the number of pieces per pound—rather than by size. Note that the larger the shrimp, the higher the cost per pound and the fewer shrimp you will need per portion.

Pro tip: Small shrimp work best for salads and Popcorn Shrimp whereas larger iterations are ideal for appetizers like Shrimp Cocktail or entrées.

Shrimp Count Per Pound

As size varies by store, it's important to keep these general rules of thumb in mind when choosing shrimp by size. These sizes come from Fulton Fish Market.

Shrimp Name Count (shrimp per pound)
Colossal 16 to 20
Jumbo 21 to 30
Large 31 to 40
Medium 41 to 60
Small 71 to 90

How to Thaw Frozen Shrimp

To thaw frozen shrimp, transfer them to the refrigerator and allow them to defrost; this will take 8 to 12 hours, depending on the size of the shrimp and the size of the package. We recommend placing the package on a plate or baking sheet lined with paper towel to prevent leakage. Whatever you do, don't leave frozen shrimp on the counter to thaw.

If you need to quickly thaw shrimp, follow these steps.

  1. Check if the frozen shrimp are in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. If they are not, transfer them to freezer zip-top bag and seal. Fill a large bowl with cold water.
  2. Submerge the bag of shrimp in the cold water, placing a plate on top of the bag to make sure it remains totally submerged.
  3. Let sit until shrimp are fully thawed, 20 to 30 minutes depending on the size of the shrimp.
  4. Remove shrimp from bag and place on a paper towel-lined baking sheet or plate. Pat with more paper towel to remove any excess water.

How Long You Can Safely Store Fresh and Frozen Shrimp

Raw frozen shrimp can be stored for up to six months in the freezer, while cooked shrimp should be consumed within two months. You can keep fresh shrimp in the refrigerator for up to two days before cooking.

Shrimp needs to be kept well-chilled until the moment you cook it. If you want to bring your shellfish to the grill a few minutes in advance, keep them cool by filling a shallow pan with ice. Cover the pan with plastic wrap, place the shrimp on top, and cover with more wrap to keep everything fresh until you're ready to fire them.

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