Shellfish Basics


If you’re lucky enough to live in a place with fresh local shrimp, there’s nothing better. If not, the shrimp you’ll see is either wild imported (from abroad or the southern United States) or farmed, mostly likely from Asia (this is the most common).

Almost all shrimp (which is a crustacean) is frozen before shipping. And 99 percent of the time I buy unpeeled frozen shrimp—it’s less convenient than peeled and cleaned, but way more flavorful. You can use any size shrimp in the recipes here. So get the best-quality medium to large shrimp you can find.

Frozen shrimp last in the freezer for about a month before their quality goes perceptibly downhill; thawed you should eat the same day. Defrost shrimp in the fridge for 24 hours. Or submerge them in cold water and change it every 30 minutes until thawed, usually within an hour or two.


Scallops are creamy, briny, and sweet, with an incredible meaty (rather than flaky) texture. These are mollusks but are rarely seen in their shell; sea scallops are the most common.

Often scallops are frozen and sold thawed, usually soaked in a salt solution, which plumps them up and waters down their flavor. Rinse and dry them well. If you see scallops not packed in brine—dry, in other words—grab ’em; they’re far better.


Mollusks—which includes the examples below—should be alive when you buy them raw. Their shells will be shut so tight you can’t wiggle them. When they’re dead, the shells will be open, cracked, or easily moved, and you should not buy them. If they’re gaping a little, tap the shell with your fingers; those that close are fine; avoid those that stay open. Store them in the fridge in a bowl so they can breathe and eat them within a day or two.

Mussels, clams, and oysters can be wild or farmed, from anywhere in the world. Wild might taste better, but farmed can be quite good. Clams and mussels can both be cooked in the same way. For both, just rinse them under running water and scrub with a brush to remove any grit.

The best oysters are raised in cold waters. Shucking can be a bit of a pain but you must at least witness it being done and eat them within hours if you intend to eat them raw, (The one oyster recipe in this book calls for them shucked for cooking.)


Crustaceans are a type of shellfish that includes two of the best-tasting sea creatures: lobsters and crabs. All are easy to cook: You plunge them into boiling seasoned water. What takes a little work is what happens before and after—the shopping and the eating.

When buying lobster, make sure its claws are banded shut and that it’s still lively. Crabs are available with both hard and soft shells and can be bought live, cooked, or frozen (raw or cooked), depending on the variety and where you live. If you’re buying crabs to boil or steam, they should be moving up until the time you put them in the pot. To heat cooked, frozen crab—right from the freezer—put them in boiling water for a few minutes; to serve cold, defrost in the fridge for a day or so. For crab cakes or crab salad, you’ll want cooked lump or jumbo lump crab meat—usually sold in cans or plastic containers. Stick with the fresh stuff unless you’re in a pinch.

Crawfish look—and cook—like mini lobsters. Like crab, you can get them live, precooked, or precooked and frozen.


Squid (a type of mollusk) is shockingly easy to cook. You can buy it frozen and keep it for a month in your freezer or buy it thawed and cook it within a day or two.

Either way, the squid should have white or purplish bodies and tentacles and a clean, sweet smell. Buying it cleaned is more convenient than messing with a squid’s inedible parts.

People always say that you should cook squid for either 1 minute or 1 hour. That’s about right. Anywhere in between and the squid will have the texture of a rubber band. Once it just turns opaque—no more than a minute or two after hitting the heat—it’s done.

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