How To Tell If Shrimp Is Fresh

It's all about the shells!

IMAGE Shutterstock

Did you know that there's a difference between a shrimp and a prawn? In fact, did you know that there are shrimp that are big and prawns that are small? It's true!

To find out which is which, you'll have to take a closer look at other physical characteristics to determine the differences. However, the differences are subtle and sometimes do not matter too much when it comes to cooking them. Both are treated the same way despite what you have. What can matter is the size and how long it takes to cook. 

Before you even start cooking shrimp, you need to get your hands on some fresh shrimp. This is where your suki at the palengke or your trusted supermarket fishmonger comes into play. You can blindly grab shrimp by the claw-full and be done with it, or you can be more meticulous in choosing the shrimp you take home. 

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How can you tell if the shrimp are fresh? If you're choosy, here are all the signs you need to know to pick out the freshest shrimp in the pile: 

1 The head is attached firmly. 

It's a warning sign when the head is no longer attached to the body. If you visit a fresh wet market, most of the shrimp you will find should have the heads still on. If the head is loose and basically hangs off the body, release that one and grab another one. This is because the heads of the shrimp will deteriorate faster than the rest of the shrimp, so if it's been removed, there is a chance that it's no longer fresh.

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However, there is an exception to this rule about headless shrimp: frozen shrimp. 

This is a great prepping tip if you want to store the shrimps for longer: remove the heads and freeze the bodies for longer-term storage. This will prevent the shrimps from deteriorating along with the heads. 

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If the shells stick to the body when cooked, you know the shrimp was not fresh when cooked.
Photo by Patrick Martires

2 Shell is hard and thick. 

You might think an indicator of freshness is that the shells are still hard and thick. If you encounter shrimps at the palengke with soft shells all over, these are shrimps that have not fully hardened their shells after molting. Think of soft-shell crabs, and you get the idea.

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This just means that the shrimp was still growing and had shed its old shell for another one that would fit it better. It was just caught before the shell could harden. It's actually a delicacy in some parts of the country where the shells are so soft that the entire shrimp, including the still soft shells, are eaten whole. 

However, there is a difference between naturally soft shells of the shrimps and shrimps that were frozen, thawed, and then frozen again a number of times. This freeze-thaw cycle makes the shrimps deteriorate faster with every thaw and reduces their freshness significantly. This can make the shells soften over time. This is also what makes it hard to peel as well since the shells will basically cling to the body instead of being easily removed.   

3 It's neither slimy, mushy, nor smelly. 

Just like most seafood, shrimps should not have any indicators that are evident in other seafood that is no longer fresh. This means that the shrimps should not be slimy to the touch, should not be mushy in texture before it's cooked, and nor should it have an unpleasant aroma or smell. 

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Instead, shrimp should be glossy in appearance, be firm to the touch, both the shell as well as the meat, and it should smell like the ocean or otherwise smell like it came from where it was caught. 

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