a.k.a.: There are thousands of varieties of shrimp. They can be divided into four major categories: Warm Water (Tropical), Cold Water, Freshwater, and Sand Shrimp. The vast majority of shrimp are either Warm or Cold Water. Shrimp are often identified by their color; this can often be misleading as a "brown shrimp" could be known technically as a pink shrimp or a white shrimp. To make matters worse, many people call all but the tiniest of shrimp "prawns," when in fact prawns are an entirely different species from shrimp. The good news is that most of these shrimp vary little in taste. A brief breakdown by type is provided below.
Gulf of Mexico White (a.k.a.: white shrimp, Mexican whites)
Gulf of Mexico Pink
Gulf of Mexico Brown (a.k.a.: brown shrimp, northern browns)
West Coast White (a.k.a.: Ecuadorian, Mexican white, white leg)
Northern Pink (a.k.a.: popcorn shrimp)
Giant Spot (a.k.a.: prawns, Alaska spot)
Giant River Prawn (a.k.a.: Hawaiian Blue Prawn)
One variety, called crevette grise in France is called brown shrimp. In England a similar variety, called gray shrimp, was called bay shrimp in the San Francisco bay area
Waters:Tropical/Warm water shrimp are, not surprisingly, found in warmer waters, primarily the Atlantic waters off the Carolinas, Florida, Texas (particularly Gulf of Mexico browns), and in the Gulf of Mexico. Chinese whites are found in waters near China. Shrimp are now farmed the world over and come to the U.S. from countries as diverse as Indonesia, Taiwan, and Ecuador. Shrimp also grow wild from Japan to East Africa. Cold Water shrimp are found in northern waters anywhere from Alaska and Canada on the Western coast to Cape Cod clear to Greenland and across to Norway on the East coast. Rock shrimp are also found off the coast of Florida. Freshwater shrimp are usually caught and sold locally; one major exception to this is the giant river "prawn" which is found wild in Malaysia but now farmed around the world. Sand shrimp are more popular in Europe but some varieties are found on the California coast.
Description (in water): Shrimp range in color from red to pink, brown to white, green to gray. They also range in size from less than an inch in length to as much as 13 inches long (the Black tiger).
Description (in market): Shrimp range in color but are usually brown, grey, or blue-tinged when raw, and pink and white when cooked. Shrimp meat is firm and delicately flavored.
Sold as: Shrimp are sold by the pound, usually with their heads removed. Larger shrimp are generally more expensive than smaller shrimp unless the smaller shrimp happen to be of a rare type. Shrimp are further broken down by name according to how many of that type it takes to make a pound. The range is from Colossal at ten per pound to Miniature at around 100 per pound. Shrimp can be purchased raw and unshelled (green shrimp), shelled, and frozen. Shrimp are also available in a myriad of different products ranging from shrimp paste to frozen breaded and fried shrimps. Cooked shrimp are sold wither shelled or unshelled.
Best cooking: Shrimp can be cooked in any number of ways: broiled, grilled, boiled, pan fried, and breaded and deep fried. Shrimp can also be added to all kinds of dishes including sautes, soups, pastas, and stews. Shrimp cocktail, where shrimp are boiled for approximately 5-7 minutes and then chilled and served with a dipping sauce, is a popular way to enjoy this tasty seafood.
Buying tips: Buy your shrimp fresh if you can get them that way, or properly frozen and thawed (lest the shrimp become mushy). They should smell of the ocean and not of ammonia. Watch out for black spots on your shrimp if you buy them fresh. They indicate the beginnings of deterioration and tell you that your fishmonger has been letting his/her fish, whether previously frozen or not, sit out for too long.
Substitutes: lobster, scallops, tuna chunks, crawfish tails
a.k.a.: Ray, rajafish
Waters:Atlantic and Pacific coastal waters
Description (in water): Two triangular, tapered "wings" (technically pectoral fins) give this unusual looking steel-gray fish, which is related to shark, graceful mobility as it seeks prey along the sea floor. A large fish, skate often exceeds 100 lbs.
Description (in market): Only the wings (fins) of the skate are edible; in each, a thin layer of translucent cartilage separates two sections of firm, lean, delicately flavored white meat. The cartilage is edible only with young, small skate. The skin is tough and not edible.
Sold as: "Wings" (fins), skinned and unskinned; whole (less common)
Best cooking: Before further preparation, skate--like its relative, shark--must be soaked in a vinegar-and-water solution; this process rids the meat of a natural ammonia odor that develops after capture.
Skate is delicious simply poached and served with a butter-based sauce. Skate with brown butter (raie au beurre noir) is a French favorite. Many cooks prefer to poach skate before further preparation (eg. sautéeing, frying), but the meat can also be steamed, broiled, or grilled.
Buying tips: Look for meat that has already been skinned, as skinning the wings yourself is extremely difficult. The wings should smell sweet and fresh. Beware of flesh that smells strongly of ammonia, which usually indicates that the fish has been sitting too long in the market (a faint trace is O.K., it will disappear after the soaking process or after cooking).
Notes: U.S. coastal waters are well stocked with skate; however, since the fish is not as popular here as it is in Europe, most of the catch ends up exported.
a.k.a.: Sparling, candlefish, cucumberfish, icefish, rainbow smelt, whitebait, eulachon
Waters:Northern Atlantic and Pacific waters (during spawning season smelt migrate to fresh waters)
Description (in water): This slender, nearly translucent silver-green fish averages 6 to 8 inches in length and weighs less than half a pound.
Description (in market): The off-white flesh of the smelt is soft and oily with a mild, delicate flavor. The bones are soft and edible (they soften more when cooked).
Sold as: Whole, fresh or frozen (usually headed and gutted); canned
Best cooking: Smelt can be filleted, but it is most often cooked and eaten whole (with or without head and viscera). It can be prepared in a variety of ways, but many cooks prefer to dredge the small fish with flour or bread crumbs, then pan-fry (or deep-fry), and serve with a dipping sauce.
Buying tips: These fish are delicate--try to select those with minimal bruising and shiny, unmarred skin. The smell should be fresh. Keep well iced until cooking time.
Substitutes: Anchovy, sardine, whitebait, butterfish
Notes: The season for fresh smelt varies according to region. In most parts of the U.S., you'll to find fresh smelt in well-stocked fish markets from September to May.
These high-fat fish have been put to use in creative ways: American Indians often dried the fish, threaded them with wicks, and burned them for candlelight (notice "candlefish" among the a.k.a.'s above)
a.k.a.: Flatfish, flounder, halibut, fluke, dab, sand dab, turbot, brill, plaice (all of these are members of the flatfish family)
Waters:Atlantic and Pacific coasts
Description (in water): Sole can refer to any member of a species of thin, flat fish that swim on one side; both eyes are located on the side that faces up. Size and color vary depending on the species; the downward-facing side of the fish is always pale and nearly colorless.
Description (in market): In general, sole have lean white or off-white flesh that's fine-textured and mild in flavor. The skin is edible, and usually quite tasty.
Sold as: Whole, fillets, steaks
Best cooking: Whole sole can be broiled or grilled (you'll need to use a grill basket); the scales are small and can be scraped off. You can do almost anything with sole fillets, which are particularly good seasoned, flour-dredged, and pan-fried. Fillets should be cooked briefly (less than 5 minutes)--be sure not to overcook them, or they'll dry out and fall apart. Once the fillet turns opaque white, it's done.
Buying tips: Whole sole should have red, alive-looking gills and bright, unmarred skin. Fillets and steaks should glisten and be free of browning and signs of drying. Make sure to smell for freshness.
Substitutes: The members of the flatfish family are pretty much interchangeable: cod, haddock, and whiting are additional options.
Squid & Cuttlefish
a.k.a.: Squid: Atlantic long-finned squid, Atlantic short-finned squid, California/Pacific squid, calamari Cuttlefish: sepia
Waters:Squid is found in the waters of both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Cuttlefish is not available in North America except when imported from Europe, where it is as common as squid.
Description (in water): Like the octopus, the squid and cuttlefish are both cephalopods (meaning head-legs; they all have ink sacs for squirting when in danger). Unlike the octopus, they have ten tentacles instead of eight. Squid range in size from one inch to 80 feet. The body of the cuttlefish is similar to that of the squid except that it is usually larger and fatter. It also has a larger ink sac than the squid or the octopus, containing a much darker ink. The bodies of both are white covered in a translucent, purplish mottled skin
Description (in market): Cuttlefish and squid are sold either cleaned or uncleaned. Cleaned, they are bright white and firm, with their tentacles usually intact and attached. Uncleaned, they have a purple-tinged thin skin covering their bodies, which should be removed. (link to page on cleaning squid. Squid have firm, tender meat that turns chewy only when overcooked.
Sold as: Squid can be found fresh, frozen, sun-dried, canned, and pickled. Squid is often frozen and then thawed; as squid retains its flavor during freezing, this is not detrimental to the taste. Cuttlefish is available in the same forms as squid. Cuttlefish, however, because it needs to be imported, is rare and expensive when you can find it, sometimes as much as five times the price as squid. However, cuttlefish tastes so similarly to squid that they are virtually indistinguishable; they are often substituted for each other in Europe.
Best cooking: Squid and cuttlefish can be eaten raw, pan-fried, baked, stewed, stir-fried or battered and deep-fried (the calamari which most of us are familiar with). Cooking time should be closely watched as squid and cuttlefish turn rubbery and too chewy when overcooked. The ink of squid and cuttlefish are also used to color pasta or used in a sauce to accompany seafood (squid/cuttlefish or other types).
Buying tips: Squid and cuttlefish should smell of the ocean. They should be shiny and firm. It's best to buy smaller squid and cuttlefish as the larger varieties may be tougher. If possible, ask your fishmonger to clean them and remove their innards for you.
Substitutes: one for the other.
a.k.a.: Striper, rockfish, greenhead, squidhound
Waters:Atlantic coast; some Pacific waters. Fish farms in California and other states.
Description (in water): Six to eight longitudinal black stripes run across the long, thin body, which is olive-green fading to silver-gray. Most specimens weigh from 2 to 30 lbs., while some exceed 70 lbs.
Description (in market): Pinkish-white flesh of firm texture, moderate fat content, and sweet, distinctive flavor. The skin is edible.
Sold as: Whole, fillets, steaks
Best cooking: Most any style of cooking will suit the striped bass, which is excellent broiled, poached, steamed, pan-fried, or grilled (since the flesh is firm, you need not use a grill basket).
Buying tips: Look for fillets that smell sweet and seawater fresh and are of uniform color, free of drying and browning.
Substitutes: Blackfish, rockfish, sea bass, grouper, red snapper, swordfish
Notes: Like salmon, the striped bass is anadromous – it migrates to freshwater lakes during spawning season.
A native of the Atlantic, striped bass was introduced to Pacific waters in the nineteenth century.
a.k.a.: Hackleback, short-nosed sturgeon, white sturgeon, green sturgeon, etc.
Waters:Pacific and Atlantic Oceans; Black and Caspian Seas; fish farms in California and Oregon
Description (in water): These enormous marine fish can range from 60 lbs. to several tons; the farm-raised variety usually weighs from 15 to 20 lbs. Sturgeon are long, thin, impenetrable-looking fish with cartilage-plated backs and thick-scaled sides. Most species are pale gray; the green sturgeon has an olive back and silvery sides and belly.
Description (in market): The dense white flesh of the sturgeon is firm-textured and meaty with a high fat content and mild flavor. The skin is tough and not edible.
Sold as: Steaks, fillets, chunks, whole (less common); smoked
Best cooking: White sturgeon, especially the smallest specimens, are considered best for eating. Steaks can be braised, grilled, broiled, or baked. The veallike meat can also be cut into scallops and sautÚed or stir-fried.
Buying tips: Most fresh sturgeon is farm-raised and of good quality, and therefore rather expensive. Expect to pay about $8 per pound for steaks and fillets. Look for white flesh that glistens and is free of gaping, browning, and signs of drying. Its smell should be sweet and fresh (a faint whiff of mud is not a bad sign).
Substitutes: Swordfish, tuna
Notes: Sturgeon meat is fatty and rich--just the right consistency for smoking. The sturgeon is anadromous: During spawning season, it migrates to fresh waters. Sturgeon roe is "true caviar," and prized as a delicacy.