The Skinny on…Shellfish

Here's everything you need to know to enjoy the best shrimp, lobster, crab and crawfish at home.
LobsterThe Skinny On

When it comes to the crustacean branch of the shellfish family, there are four major players: crabs, lobsters, shrimp, and crawfish. These are the culinary stars. People across the globe chow down on almost 11,000,000 pounds of crustaceans a year. Here’s what you need to know to dive in.

At the store
The least expensive choices are whole and still in the shell. You’ll pay more to buy only certain parts: legs, tails, etc. And then prepare to fork over even more to buy the meat taken out of the shells.

Is spending the extra money worth it? The answer depends on your culinary abilities, your time and your overall squeamishness. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, and you can’t make a crab salad without killing a crab — but you can pay the fishmonger at the store to do it for you.

But cheaper can be better. Crustacean shells pump up the flavors of a dish dramatically. Try a shrimp sauté sometime with shell-on, deveined shrimp. Your fingers will be messier, but the meal will be tastier. (Plus, you’ll get to slurp the sauce off the shells!) Crawfish meat, while tasty, just isn’t the same without the shells.

  • Live catch: Look for tanks stocked with living shellfish. Asian supermarkets may even have live shrimp. The tank should be clean; the water, vigorously bubbling. The crustaceans inside should be active with no obvious casualties in the crew. They should come out of the tank flapping and flailing. Crabs are sometimes available live on a chilled tray; look for bubbling around their gills and shells to see if they’re still alive.
  • Fresh today: Laid out on ice, fresh shrimp may occasionally be found in the supermarket. They should be marked as “fresh.” If not, then don’t be fooled: Most shrimp lying on ice was frozen on the trawler and then thawed at the supermarket. To save money, buy bags of frozen shrimp and thaw them yourself at home.
  • Pre-cooked and refrigerated: For the best easiest crab or lobster meat for casseroles and salads, look for refrigerated cans, often close to the fish counter. FYI, those cans have a seriously short shelf life.
  • Pre-cooked and frozen: The freezer case has the best deals. For the highest quality, look for bags or boxes marked “IQF” — that is, “individually quick frozen,” meaning that what’s inside was not frozen in a block of ice but flash-frozen separately. Avoid any bags coated in frost and ice. And stock up during sales.
  • Frozen raw: Some varieties of lobster-tail meat and almost all sorts of shrimp are available raw in the freezer case. To make your work easier, look for already peeled and deveined frozen shrimp, which are ready for the wok or skillet when thawed.
  • Canned and unrefrigerated: Those cans near the tuna on the supermarket shelves should be your last resort. Check expiration dates and be prepared for a much fishier, more aggressive flavor.

Bringing it home
Follow these general tips for transporting and storing:
  • Ask for ice at the grocery store. Get live or even cooked shellfish home while still cold.
  • Bring a cooler for the car on warm days.
  • Make your purchases and go straight home. Don’t make six more stops or see a movie.
  • If you buy live shellfish, plan on cooking them that day.
  • Store all shellfish in your refrigerator at home. If those lobsters or crabs are alive, keep the bag tightly sealed. Otherwise, they’ll try to make a break for it. You don’t need to star in your own remake of Annie Hall.
  • If the meat is frozen, thaw it in a large bowl in the fridge overnight.
  • If you’re pressed for time, thaw frozen in-shell crustaceans submerged in a bowl of cold water, changing the water every 15 minutes for food-safety’s sake.
  • Never refreeze thawed shellfish.

Tools of the trade
Crustaceans cook in no time: only a few minutes in boiling water, in the steamer, under the broiler or on the grill. When the shell turns reddish pink, and the meat is opaque throughout, dinner’s on.

Gear you need:
  • Wooden mallets to smash heavy shells and claws
  • Kitchen shears to cut through tails and legs
  • Picks to mine the meat from tiny crevices
  • Crackers to open small claws
  • Bibs to keep your clothes from looking like a garbage dump
  • Waterproof cloths to keep your table neat if you’re pouring out a pile from the steamer

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