When we think of shrimp we don’t really realize that there are many different varieties of shrimp. Most people don’t realize that the variation in quality is quite wide. Mike McGonigle feels that shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico are the best shrimp available. All shrimp turn a beautiful orangy pink color when cooked, but in the raw state, they are labeled roughly according to their color. Pink, white, and brown shrimp are harvested from the Gulf of Mexico by commercial shrimp boats, which venture out to sea for several days or weeks at a time. The shrimp are caught and cleaned and frozen right on the boat.
Gulf Shrimp vs. Black Tiger Shrimp
Of the Gulf shrimp, the browns, which are actually more pink than brown in color are Mike’s favorites because he says they have the best flavor profile and texture. Black tiger shrimp are very popular. They are farm raised in Thailand and tend to be less expensive than the wild caught Gulf shrimp; however, the conditions they are raised in are not monitored very well.
Size Labels Are Not Regulated
People tend to think of shrimp as a commodity item that they can just compare price and buy the cheapest one they find. Not a good idea. At the retail level, there are many different ways that the merchants can deceive us. The first thing to watch for is the size. Shrimp are sized by a count per pound. For example, 21/25 means 21 to 25 pieces per pound. There are no standardized labels for sizes, thus “jumbo” shrimp is a generic term applied at the retail level that gives us no real claim to the actual size. Lots of stores will sell a 36/40 shrimp and label it as jumbo. By Mike’s standards, this is a medium or perhaps large size; not a jumbo.
Beware of STP
A very common practice is for the processors to treat shrimp with a preservative called sodium tripolyphosphate (STP), which they claim extends the shelf life of the shrimp. This is true to some extent, but the real reason they use it is to increase the size of the shrimp. When shrimp are soaked in a solution of water and this chemical, they react like a sponge and take on water, thus increasing their size and weight. When the shrimp are cooked the first thing that happens is that the water gets purged out and what’s left is a smaller, less tender, less flavorful product.
A Variety of Sizes Makes Cooking Trickier
Another trick is to mix sizes. Adding 36/40 to 21/25 creates a 26/30. When you have such a variety of sizes they cook at different rates and that causes problems. Either the smaller shrimp are perfect and the larger are undercooked or the larger shrimp are just right, while smaller shrimp are overcooked and rubbery.
Ask Questions and Experiment with Different Types of Shrimp
When it comes down to it, the best way to purchase shrimp is to deal with someone you can trust. Compare prices by comparing sizes by count, not a size on the label. Ask if the shrimp have been treated. Ask what variety they are. You might try several different varieties and decide for yourself which you like best. Mike thinks you will find that the Gulf browns are the best.
Shrimp Cooking Tips
When cooking shrimp, remember to be careful. They cook quickly and tend to get dry and chewy when overcooked. Boiling only takes a few minutes. I like to use a 21/25 size and boil them in small batches removing them from the pot with a slotted spoon when they float to the top. Use a larger shrimp for grilling. Grill them very gently, peeled and marinated with an olive oil base. Add garlic, ginger, hot sauce and pepper to taste. Skewering them makes flipping an easier task, and you’re less likely to lose any down the gaps in the grate.