Shellfish, once almost totally confined to the seacoasts, are now, largely through the advent of freezing, available and popular in every section of the country. There are even live shellfish available in the Mountain States and the heart of the Midwest, tanks to air shipment.
Shellfish fall into two main categories, the crustaceans (shrimp, lobster, crabs) and the mollusks (abalone, clams, mussels, oysters, scallops). Shrimp provides the greatest dollar volume of shellfish used in foodservice operations in the U.S. Crustaceans
There are large number of different crustaceans (sea creatures with horny exterior shells [exoskeletons]). Commercially these include shrimp, lobster, spiny (rock) lobster, crab, prawns and langostino (langouste). Shrimp, the Crowd Pleaser
Shrimp rank first in value of all seafood caught in the United States. Some 240 million pounds annually are caught in the Gulf of Mexico and off the South Atlantic states alone, with Alaska contributing as much as 50 to 100 million pounds more. Shrimp are available to the operator as fresh uncooked in shell; frozen uncooked in shell, cooked in shell, cooked and peeled, breaded in batter; and canned.
Several Remarkable Types of Shrimp
There are four major types of shrimp caught in this country, out of more than two dozen. They are the white, pink, Alaska pink, and brown. These color designations refer to the coloring of the raw (known commercially as “green”) shrimp, in shell. Once the shrimp is cooked, they are essentially indistinguishable from one another, being white meat with a pink exterior coloration.
Since fresh and frozen shrimp are commonly sold raw in shell across the country, however, each type should be known by the distributor sales rep, if for no other reason than to answer customer queries about the differences. (After cooking, there really isn’t any that the average person can distinguish. However, many cooks have their favorites.)
The Number of Fresh and Frozen Shrimp
Fresh and frozen shrimp counts are based on the number of green (raw), headless shrimp it takes to make a pound. After cooking, shrimp are available in shell, peeled, or peeled and deveined. The count size listed for all of them, however, are based upon the number of the green shrimp to make a pound. In general, a rule of thumb is that it takes two pounds of green shrimp to make one pound of cooked, peeled shrimp. So if the count size of your cooked shrimp is 16-20 (average count 18), there will be about 32-40 (average 36) in a pound, despite the count on the label.
Size designations, such as jumbo, colossal, large, medium, tiny, have little uniformity from one packer to another. Sell fresh and frozen by count, for that is the standard. Counts (of green, headless shrimp) ranged from “under 10” to “70-80” and even higher, depending upon the species. The most common size range is from “under 15” to “50-60.”
For frozen shrimp, “butterfly” means the shrimp have been peeled, deveined and flattened so they are wide across the fleshiest part. Tails are usually left on butterfly shrimp. “Split” shrimp indicates shrimp with tails left on, which have been sliced up the center, so both sides are separate, connected only by the tail section, to provide a wider, curled appearance, popular with some operators. “Popcorn” shrimp are small, tightly curled, peeled shrimp. Prawns and Langostina
Two other shrimplike crustaceans marketed in this country are the prawn and the langostina.
- The prawn is the common variety, but there are others in the same family) is closely related to the shrimp, but has a differently shaped head and generally grows to a larger size than the average shrimp. Over the past few decades, in this country prawn has come to mean any large-sized shrimp, although true prawns are still harvested off the Gulf Coast and in Alaska. Prawns are usually marketed frozen, cooked and peeled.
- Langostina (langouste) is a small crustacean related to both the shrimp and the lobster. It is lobster shaped, but about the size of a large shrimp. The meat has a lobster flavor. It is generally marketed frozen cooked and peeled.
Lobster to a New Englander means Maine lobster. And Maine lobster is still the preferred lobster in most parts of the country, particularly in specialty seafood operations. In addition, most of the lobster meat available in frozen or canned form is from the North Atlantic lobster.
However, the catches of Maine lobster, which are found in a fairly restricted area along the North Atlantic coastline of the U.S. and Canada, have not kept up with America’s increasing taste for seafood. As a result, the prices have become prohibitive for many operations. (A close relative of the Maine lobster is found off European coasts but is in short supply there, as well, and is only imported in any quantity in the form of lobster meat.)
Maine lobsters are sold by the weight uncooked in shell, with “chicken” lobster the weights below one pound. Sizes are by 1/4-pound variations to two pounds, then by half pound spreads above that, although the largest commonly available Maine lobster is the 2-2-1/2-pound size.
Some of Popular Rock Lobster Tails
Lobster tails are not from Maine lobsters, but from the “rock” or spiny lobster. In fishermen’s lingo, “rock” means “similar to.” Thus, rock lobster is a species which is “similar to” lobster. In general, such spiny lobsters are smaller, have only one large claw and one small one, and are sold primarily frozen as uncooked tails in shell.
To a large number of American diners, lobster tails are lobster, and are enjoyed in all sections of the country.
Spiny lobsters are found throughout the world, and supplies seem to be adequate for many years. A vast majority of those consumed in the U.S. are imported, although spiny lobsters are found off both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of this country.
The preferred lobster tail is one which has grown in cold water areas. Leading cold water rock lobsters are those from South Africa and from Australia and New Zealand. Brazilian and Caribbean lobster tails are from warm water areas in the South Atlantic.
The Alaska King Crabs
By far, nationwide, the most popular variety of crab is the Alaska king crab. However, in various sections of the country, generally on the seacoasts, other species are preferred by large numbers of patrons.
The Alaska king crab is a member of the “spider crab” family, a variety with relatively small bodies and long legs. Most of the edible meat is in the legs and claws. It is sold primarily frozen, as cooked in shell (leg sections and claws) or cooked leg (menus) and claw meat.
In recent years, the fishery areas have been depleted and the supply of king crab is limited; as a result, the price is too high for many budget-priced operations which formerly featured it.
To fill the gap, the Alaska snow crab (also imported from Canada as “queen” crab), which is a similar, but smaller spider crab, has been gaining in popularity.
Similar Creature of King Crap
Smaller than the king crab, but with a similar texture and flavor, the snow crab is available frozen, cooked in shell or as cooked meat. The in-shell types are leg and claw clusters (four legs with shoulder meat, one arm and one claw), leg cluster only and claws only. Claws come in three sizes: small, medium and large. One of the most popular items is the cocktail variety claw, which has one-half the shell removed.
- The Pacific Coast
The Dungeness crab is very popular and is caught from California to Alaska. It is available live along the Pacific coast and is shipped cooked and in shell to Midwestern and Eastern cities. It is also available as frozen meat consisting of both body and claw meat. Canned Dungeness crab is usually available in mixed leg and body meat.
- The Atlantic Coast
The blue crab is probably the most popular. It is available live in both hard-shell and soft-shell versions. The soft-shell version is simply a blue crab which has molted and not regrown a hard shell yet. All crabs go through this process, but state laws prohibit marketing soft-shell versions of other crabs.
Frozen, blue crab is packed as cooked meat in several forms: “lump” meat, which are solid lumps of white meat from the body; “flake” meat, small pieces of white meat from the rest of the body; and “claw” meat from the claws. Claw meat has a brownish tint and is usually priced lower than lumpor flake meat. Blue crab is also available in the same forms canned. Mollusks
Mollusks include all of the hard shelled sea creatures, such as abalone, clams, mussels, oysters, scallops and conch.
Single-shelled mollusks, or gastropods, are marketed as meat only. The only two that are marketed commercially in this country are the abalone and the conch. Both are regionally popular, with the abalone popular along the West Coast, where it originates, and the conch most in demand in Florida and in areas where immigrants from the Caribbean have settled.
Abalone has an oval, flattened shell lined with mother of pearl. It is found beneath the water level on offshore rocks. The main muscle is marketed, fresh or frozen raw, generally sliced into “steaks.” Abalone is usually fried, dredged in flour. Before cooking briefly, it must be pounded well to tenderize the meat. (One little known fact is that abalone, once it has been refrigerated after cooking, becomes tough, and must be pounded all over again before recooking.)
Conch (any of several species with spirally coiled shells) is called “snail” in the fish business. It is sold fresh or frozen in slices or by the piece. Like abalone, slices should be pounded flat before frying, but conch is also used in soups and stews, where it is merely boiled, giving it a stringy, chewy texture.
Mollusks with double shells (bi-valves) comprise clams, mussels, oysters and scallops. Clams are found along both coasts of the United States and Canada. There are a number of varieties marketed, some nationally and some regionally only.
The most common Eastern shore clams are the hard-shell clam or quahog (Venus mercenaria) and the soft-shell clam (Mya are aria). Littlenecks and cherrystones are Eastern dealers’ names for the smaller-sized hard clams, which are generally marketed live or frozen in the half shell or shelled and packed in liquid. In fresh hard clams, the larger sizes are called chowders. The larger sizes of fresh soft-shell clams are known as in -shells and the smaller sizes as steamers.
Eastern clams, generally the hard-shell varieties, are also packed frozen, shucked and breaded, both cooked and uncooked. Breaded strips and muscles are also available frozen.
One of the things which makes clam marketing confusing is that there is a Pacific Coast variety named the little neck, not to be mistaken for the small-sized Eastern hard-shell clams, which are littlenecks–with no space between the words. The Pacific little neck is found from Washington State north to Alaska.
Other West Coast varieties–all hard-shelled–marketed mainly fresh, live in the shell are: the thick-shelled Pismo clam, named after Pismo Beach, California, although it is found along the southern coast of California for more than one hundred miles; the butter clam, found all along the Pacific Coast from northern California to Alaska; the razor clam, harvested in Washington state; and the huge (often over five pounds) geoduck clam–also known as the king clam and the gooey-duck–found off Washington state. Although two varieties of soft-shelled clams are found off the Pacific shoreline, they are not harvested in marketable quantities.
Oysters – A Similar Creature of Clams
Canned clams are not often identified by species. Oysters, like clams are found along all the coastlines of North America. They were a favorite of the Indians long before the white man arrived on this continent. There are a number of varieties, but most are not identified by any label except “oyster.” The exception is the tiny Olympia oyster–harvested extensively off the coast of Washington state, although it grows as far south as Mexico.
Most of those found along the Eastern seaboard are named originally after the sea cost and bays of Virginia, although they are found from Canada into the Gulf of Mexico. A substantial number is harvested off Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
The common Pacific oyster is found from western Mexico to Alaska. The Pacific oyster is also known as the Japanese oyster, having been introduced from that country in 1902, and still is found commonly on the other side of the Pacific, along the Japanese and Korean coastlines. A large proportion of the canned oysters imported to this country are gigas.
Almost 90 percent of the oysters sold in the shell or shucked, either fresh or frozen, or frozen breaded, are Eastern oysters. The rest of them come from the West Coast. Most of the seaboard states have oyster beds, where oysters are cultivated (farmed) and harvested every month of the year.
Shucked oysters are sold by size:
- Extra Large (Counts)–Not more than 160 to the gallon
- Extra Selects (Large)–Not more than 161 to 210
- Selects (Medium)–Not more than 211 to 300
- Standards (Small)–Not more than 301 to 500 Standards (Very Small)–Over 500
Fresh oysters in the shell are generally sold by the bushel, although some fish dealers sell them by the unit.
Oysters are also sold frozen on the half shell, frozen shucked and breaded, and canned and canned smoked.
Three Significant Genre of Scallops
There are three types of scallops harvested in this country, most of them along the Eastern seaboard, off Washington State and in Alaska, although some are found in the Gulf of Mexico. These are the sea scallop, the bay scallop and the calico scalp; however, only the bay scallop, found primarily along the Middle Atlantic States, and the sea scalp found in most of the areas, are marketed nationally in any quantity.
The scalp is a bivalve with two distinctive ridged shells. (A major oil company uses the scallop shell as its emblem on service stations.) Only the adductor muscle (the one which propels the creature through the water) is used as food in this country.
Bay scallops are smaller, sea scallops larger in diameter and thickness. There is a difference in texture and color between the two, with the sea scallop being grainier with a whiter meat, and the bay scallop having a finer texture with a creamy white, tan or slightly pinkish meat. Some processors note on their packages that the bay scallops are “uncut,” since it is not unknown for some packers to trim sea scallops to the size of a bay scallop.
Scallops are available fresh uncooked, frozen uncooked, and frozen breaded. Mussels are mollusks with black, hard, rough shells and grayish or tan meat. They are harvested from the sea or bays along the New England and Middle Atlantic states. Mussels are primarily a regional specialty confined to the East, being sold live in the shell, and fresh shucked in liquid. However, a few packers have begun marketing them frozen shucked, and frozen breaded.