For those who love shellfish, I've got the scoop for you. Let’s talk about all you need to know when buying shellfish. I’m sure like me, when you first thought about cooking shellfish you have no idea where to start. There’s nothing wrong with that! Unless you grew up in a fishing town or somewhere on the coast then there probably wasn’t many places to get information about shellfish. Don’t worry, I’ll cover some helpful tips and trick to sourcing the best shellfish in your area even if you don’t live near the coasts.
There are several delicious shellfish that we consume regularly, and they are broken down into two separate groups including:
I feel like the most important thing when it comes to buying shellfish is to always buy it fresh. How do you know if they are fresh? Simple, check if they are alive! If they are dead, then you’re already in a bad position. Shellfish are some of the fastest decomposing organisms on Earth, particularly crustaceans. As soon as they die, lobsters & crabs start releasing enzymes into their body to break down the meat. The reason this is an issue is because once an organism starts to decay, bacteria love to grow which ultimately will result in illnesses. So, always make sure your shellfish are alive. This can vary depending on the type of shellfish you are buying. To check, do as follows:
- Check their eyes; they should be clear and not cloudy.
- Check if they are active, the more they move the better (if on ice they may be slow, which is not a sign they aren’t fresh).
- Check their cleanliness; you want your crustaceans to have some dirt on them, this means they ate well and will typically have a bit more meat on them.
- Check their shells; they should be firm and not slimy.
- Check for all the limbs, avoid broken/missing limbs.
- Give it a smell, if it smells off, avoid it.
- Check if they are open, which usually means they are dead (to test, give it a tap on the table and wait 30 seconds, if it closes, it’s still alive).
- Avoid broken shells.
- Should smell clean and not fishy.
- Check the shells which should be clean and not slimy.
These are general rules when inspecting your shellfish. There are a few other factors that can help tell if you are getting fresh shellfish as well. Ask for shellfish tags or when the shellfish came in. The tags will provide you with the info on when they were caught so you can determine if it’s old or not. Usually, you want to be consuming shellfish within 3-4 days of being harvested, if kept on ice a extra day or two can be added but the sooner the better.
Another thing to note is whether the place you are buying from is busy. If a business is busy, it usually means they are selling things quickly and often. The busier a place is, the more the shellfish is turned over (fresh put out for sale).
A final thing to look for is a local store that specializes in shellfish, fish, etc. These stores are known for these products and have the most knowledge. This is great because if you have any questions or need tips on preparation, they will know exactly how to answer them. It also means that they usually are serving the best quality and freshest products. This is a great option if you don’t live near any coasts where shellfish and other fish products must be shipped in.
That covers all the things you need to look for when selecting shellfish for cooking. There are other options like frozen which aren’t ideal but are a good alternative for quick preparation. Pre-made frozen shellfish will typically have less flavor than fresh since most of shellfish flavor comes from the liquid in them. When frozen, this liquid usually melts off during cooking and is lost.
Canned is another option, but I usually don’t recommend it unless you are making something simple like a crab salad but again, this crab will have less flavor than fresh.
If you are interested in how to cook with shellfish like lobster, I recommend checking out our virtual Lobster Rolls class coming up on Friday, June 17, 2022 at 6pm CST or joining us in person for our Hands-On Shellfish on the Grill class on Saturday, July 16, 2022 at 6pm at Lincoln Square.