Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Shrimp

I was spoiled by good shrimp at an early age. Having lived for a few years in Savannah, Georgia, some of my earliest seafood-eating memories are of delicious Georgia shrimp. When the influx of imported, farm raised shrimp started happening in the late 80s and early 90s, I lost my taste for the crustaceans, in part, I think, because my sense memory was based on those sweet Georgia shrimp. To get my shrimp on now, I try to hunt down sustainably caught wild shrimp (my community supported fishery membership helps) to relive my childhood years spent near the coastal marshes.  

A Brief History

While there is little archaeological evidence of shrimp eating, specifically (owing primarily to the crustaceans' soft exoskeleton, which doesn't preserve well), there is ample proof of pre-historic humans' consumption of other kinds of crustaceans and shellfish from sites all over the world. In fact, scientists are just beginning to understand that shellfish may have been a culinary treat before we were even humans: there is new evidence that Homo erectus, one of our hominid ancestors, consumed shellfish, and may have even made geometric designs on their shells (the earliest art ever discovered). It's not much of a logical leap to assume that our earliest ancestors ate all sorts of seafood, shrimp included - especially because many shrimp habitats are shallow, coastal areas. Even more incredible? The fossil record for shrimp goes back hundreds of millions of years, with the oldest shrimp fossil found to date, from Oklahoma, clocking in at 360 million years old.

Factual nibbles

  • One species of mantis shrimp, a type of super aggressive predatory crustacean made famous by web comic The Oatmeal, smashes its prey with incredible force. Here are more True Facts about the Mantis shrimp. Oh, and they are edible.
  • The New York Times notes that shrimp took off in popularity in the US after Red Lobster restaurants started offering popcorn shrimp in the 1970s.
  • Harold McGee, writing in On Food and Cooking, tells us that the word "shrimp" comes from the Indo-European root skerbh, which means to turn or bend.
  • In Oostduinkerke, Belgium, shrimp have been harvested by horseback for centuries. There are only a few families continuing this tradition, mostly for the tourist industry.
  • Americans eat over four pounds of shrimp per person per year.

Cultivation, Harvest and Environmental Impact

The term "shrimp" usually refers to crustaceans in the order Decopoda, although other shrimp-like animals may be called by that term (or by the word "prawn," especially in England). According to Jack and Anne Rudloe, authors of the book Shrimp: the Endless Quest for Pink Gold, as of 2009, over 70 percent of the shrimp on the market were farmed. This has serious environmental, health and labor implications.

Farmed shrimp can be raised in saltwater coastal open ponds with some water circulation, inland ponds or in closed indoor systems. Shrimp farms run the gamut from the more sustainable closed indoor systems, to the truly dismal. On the dismal side, native mangrove forests and other coastal wetland ecosystems are being destroyed at a rapid rate by coastal shrimp farms, which are built where salt water is easily accessible for the ponds. Consumer Reports notes that if shrimp ponds are not carefully managed, a buildup of organic waste, chemicals and other pollutants can be discharged into local waterways, and the World Wildlife Fund explains that this wastewater can pollute local groundwater and coastal estuaries. Unclean pond environments and crowding, coupled with the fact that most farms raise only one or two species of shrimp, means that disease is frequent. In some aquaculture operations, antibiotics and other chemicals may be used to combat these problems. Although antibiotics are technically prohibited for shrimp raised for the US market, they are still used in some operations, dangerous, in part, because the use of them could lead to antibiotic resistance. Read Consumer Reports' Special Report on shrimp safety, and watch the video in the upper right for more information on these important issues.

Unfortunately, it gets even worse. Barry Estabrook, reporting on Civil Eats, explains that the six billion dollar Thai shrimp industry is based on slave labor, with slaves primarily from Burma and Cambodia being forced to work 18-hour days amidst threats of violence and little food. Read The Guardian's heartbreaking, in-depth report on Thai slave labor for the shrimp industry for a deeper dive.

Wild harvested shrimp is not always better for the environment, as the NRDC points out. In poorly managed shrimp fisheries, wild-harvested shrimp may be caught using destructive trawling methods that can destroy the sea bed, and that results in excessive bycatch of other species, including sea turtles. (The US shrimp harvesting rules are stricter than those of other countries regarding bycatch reduction.)

Flummoxed by all of the different shrimp choices out there, and looking to make a sustainable and ethical choice? Check out Monterey Bay Aquarium's guide to buying sustainable shrimp.) Also look for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified shrimp, increasingly available at many retail stores, and avoid imported Thai shrimp.

Characteristics

Most shrimp available for eating in the US are decopods, meaning ten-legged. (Here's a picture of the external anatomy of a shrimp, if you're interested.) They've got a soft exoskeleton that is easily peeled away, and a head that is easily popped off (and sucked out, if you're so inclined). The flavor of shrimp varies by where they were caught or raised. As most farm-raised shrimp have little variation in their diets, their flavor is more consistent. But the flavor (and color) of wild-caught shrimp varies depending on how much iodine is in their body and based on what they eat. Most of us think of shrimp as pink, but there are white, brown, red, gray and striped types. In the US, wild brown shrimp have a peak season from May through October, while wild white shrimp are caught mostly between September and January.

Size

Shrimp come in all different sizes - from the diminutive bay shrimp to giant prawns. But here's the deal: you can pretty much ignore sizing designations like "jumbo" and "large" - they vary from store to store and are completely unregulated. Instead, good fishmongers label shrimp with a set of numbers, like 31/35, 43/50 or sometimes even U/10. These numbers refer to the amount of shrimp in a pound - so in the first example, you'll get between 31 and 35 shrimp per pound, and in the last example, under 10 shrimp per pound.

Fresh vs. frozen

It is very rare to find fresh shrimp that has never been frozen - even the "fresh" shrimp at many seafood counters are simply defrosted. If you belong to a community-supported fishery (CSF) or have access to a fishmonger you trust, you are very lucky - you may be able to find fresh, never frozen shrimp. (Be sure to ask how long they have been sitting on ice!) For the rest of us, frozen shrimp may be the best bet, because the crustaceans are often frozen just after harvest. These days, individually quick frozen (IQF) shrimp are easy to find, making thawing the shellfish much easier. Both fresh and frozen shrimp may have been treated with sodium tripolyphosphate (STP), a preservative, which can negatively affect the texture and flavor of your shrimp. If buying from a store, ask your fishmonger if the shrimp you are buying have been treated with STP. Frozen shrimp should have the preservative listed on the label, if used.

Nutrition and effects on the body

Shrimp are an excellent source of low-fat protein. The little crustaceans are high in Vitamin B12, iron, phosphorus and especially selenium, a nutrient important in reproduction, thyroid function and protecting the body from infection. They're also a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. The perceived nutritional downside to shrimp is the amount of cholesterol they have - just four large shrimp accounts for about 14 percent of your daily cholesterol intake. However, the US Government's revised 2015 Dietary Guidelines removed their recommendations on restricting dietary cholesterol, noting that, for most Americans, diet has little effect on cholesterol levels. Good news for shrimp lovers. The bad news: shrimp (and other crustaceans) are one of the most common, and most dangerous, food allergens. They also most frequently develop in adulthood.

What to Do with It and Cooking

Shrimp are delicious steamed, barbecued, boiled, fried, poached, sautéed and baked. They are eaten raw in sushi, and sometimes even alive - although the ethics of this has been questioned. My favorite way to eat shrimp is a simple shrimp boil with a lot of Old Bay seasoning, beer and lemon: just bring a large pot of water to the boil, add 2 bottles of beer (lager is good), lemon slices and a few heaping tablespoons (or more) of Old Bay. Add the shrimp, shells on and de-veined, and cook until they are done - about 5 minutes, depending on the size of the shrimp. Peel and eat. I also love to make salt-baked shrimp - an easy, delicious way to cook the little crustaceans. Shrimp pair beautifully with citrus, chiles, fresh herbs, tomatoes, corn and corn meal (as in shrimp and grits) garlic and other alliums, beans and bacon.

Storage

Both Harold McGee and Jack and Anne Rudloe note that fresh shrimp can be kept for quite a while - McGee says for up to two weeks without spoiling, and the Rudloes note that the older the shrimp, the more deliciously "shrimpy" they will taste. (They liken this to dry-aging meat.) Head-on shrimp are far more perishable, however - although they are much harder to find in the United States. Shrimp can be safely kept frozen for months.

Pro Tips

The dark line that runs across the back of shrimp, commonly called the "vein" or the "sand vein," is actually the digestive tract of the animal. It won't kill you to eat it, but the vein can be gritty and it's also kind of gross to eat shrimp poop. There are a couple of different methods for deveining, but I think the easiest is to use sharp kitchen shears to cut open the back of the shellfish, and then remove the vein with the tip of the shears. Saveur  has a great video that shows you how to do it. Also check out Consumer Reports' guide to how to prep and cook shrimp safely to avoid food-borne illness.

Recipe

Sautéed Shrimp with Jalapeño, Garlic and Coriander

Sautéed shrimp are one of the easiest and most flexible weeknight meals - serve with a seasonal salad and some crusty bread or Jasmine rice and you're good to go. And the variations are endless - here, I've used jalapeños, because fresh chiles are just appearing in my garden and I'm always looking for a way to use them up. You could try a chopped plum tomato, shallot and basil, instead. Or give Serrano chiles, mint and ginger a go. Really, any combination of fresh herbs and seasonal vegetables taste fantastic with shrimp. The recipe also doubles easily, although you may have to cook the shrimp in batches.

Ingredients:

1 pound fresh (or defrosted frozen) 21/25 or smaller shrimp, de-veined, shells and tails left on
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 jalapeno, seeds and ribs removed and finely minced
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
Fresh lemon or lime juice, for serving

Method:

  1. Thoroughly pat dry the shrimp with paper towels. (Do not skip this step or your shrimp won't brown properly.) Season with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.
  2. Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Heat until the oil just shimmers, then add the shrimp. Cook, without disturbing, for a few minutes, or until the shrimp just starts to look opaque. Stir and continue cooking until the shrimp are almost cooked through, a few seconds more (or longer, depending on the size of the shrimp).
  3. Turn the heat to high. Add the jalepeno, coriander seeds and garlic and continue to cook and stir until the coriander and garlic are fragrant and the shrimp is cooked through and lightly browned, about a minute more. Add the butter and swirl to coat. Turn off the heat and gently stir in the cilantro. Transfer to a serving platter and squeeze fresh lemon or lime juice over the shrimp. Serve immediately.