How to Select and Prepare Shellfish

How to Select and Prepare Shellfish

Use this cheat sheet to help determine what’s fresh next time you’re at the market.



By: Elizabeth Stark

Shellfish is a category of seafood encompassing many different choices. Biologically speaking, crustaceans like shrimp and lobster bear little relation to mollusks like oysters, scallops and mussels. However, when it comes to the kitchen, they have a lot in common.

Shellfish are best prepared with minimum seasoning so the mild taste of the sea isn’t overwhelmed, and they all benefit from simple, fast preparations that showcase their freshness. Whichever shellfish you’re making, it’s important have a basic familiarity with the best ways to select and prepare it.



1. Scallops

How to Select
Scallops should smell of the sea –– if they smell otherwise, don’t buy them. Scallops should appear slightly pink or beige. If scallops are bright white, it often means they’ve been soaked in water to artificially boost their size.

Varieties: There are several varieties, with the sea scallop being the most common. Bay scallops are widely regarded as the best, but are rare and priced accordingly. Calico scallops are small and therefore easy to overcook, and also have a weaker taste. Diver scallops are any variety that have been harvested by a diver rather than a trawler. This yields less grit but also increases the price.

  • Although the entire scallop is edible, they’re almost always sold shucked and with everything but the muscle that closes the shell discarded.
  • Like other shellfish, they spoil quickly but should be perfectly safe if you get them from a reputable dealer.

How to Prepare
The most popular way to prepare them is to sear both sides quickly over high heat. They can also be grilled, poached or fried. Scallops cook quickly and are best when still translucent in the middle. Scallops are fantastic with just a squeeze of lemon juice, but are also incredibly versatile, taking on a host of sweet and savory flavors beautifully.

Tip: Scallops can be eaten raw and you’ll often see them this way at sushi restaurants or in ceviche where they are cooked with acid rather than heat.

2. Shrimp

How to Select
Unless you live in a coastal town where shrimp are harvested, the shrimp at your local store will either be frozen or previously frozen and thawed. Buying frozen will ensure the freshest shrimp.

Shrimp should be without black spots on the shell and have no odor when thawed, both of which indicate the shrimp has begun to spoil.

Sizing: When purchasing shrimp from the seafood counter, there should be a range of numbers next to the price. These numbers indicate the size of the shrimp by identifying the number you’ll get in a pound. For example, if they’re marked U10-15, the shrimp will be large as there are 10-15 in a pound. The larger the number, the smaller the shrimp.

Registration

Become a member of P&G everyday and get exclusive offers!

Become a member

Varieties: Shrimp are labeled “farm-raised” or “wild-caught.” While wild-caught is generally considered superior, quality can always vary, so buy whichever looks best. Shrimp can also be sold peeled and deveined; while this makes them easier to prepare, it can lead to a mushy texture when cooked.

How to Prepare
Shrimp tastes wonderful grilled, but you can also boil, sauté or include them in a flavorful seafood stew like jambalaya. With slightly sweet flesh, shrimp takes on a variety of flavors well, but is especially good with citrus, garlic or spicy ingredients like chili paste.

Tip: Learn to select and prepare popular types of beef with our guide.

3. Clams

How to Select
Clams are available year-round but are best in the cold weather months. They must be sold live and should be in a porous bag that’s marked with their harvest date. Be sure to check to see all the shells are closed completely and that the clams smell like the sea, not sour.

Storage: Cook fresh clams within 24 hours. When storing them before use, place them in a bowl covered with a wet cloth in the refrigerator. Do not store them submerged in water or in a sealed bag as they’ll spoil.

How to Prepare
Before cooking fresh clams, you’ll need to clean them thoroughly. First, scrub the shell with a stiff brush under running water.

Cook them gently over medium-low heat for a longer period of time to get the meat plump and juicy. Sautéing and steaming are both perfect cooking methods for clams. When the shells are open, the clams are done. Discard any that don’t open.

4. Mussels

How to Select
Like oysters, mussels are sold live, so you’ll want to look for ones either clamped tight or that clamp themselves tight when you touch them. If you’ve grown up on the West Coast, you may have learned not to eat mussels during the spring and summer when algal blooms make them unsafe to eat; but no matter where you live, a reputable dealer can sell you mussels shipped from elsewhere.

Use them within a day or two of purchase.

How to Prepare
Before cooking your mussels, check them again to make sure none have passed. Mussels are most often steamed as this is the easiest way to cook them, but can also be served in a boiled rich broth, fried or baked. A good indicator to tell when mussels are cooked is watching to ensure all shells have opened.

5. Oysters

How to Select
Oysters can make people nervous about food safety, however federal law regulates who can harvest them and where, and oysters are tagged with their harvest date and location.

Oysters must be sold live but make sure they haven’t passed in transit by checking they are closed tight or close tightly when tapped, and feel heavy like they are full of water.

Tip: You may have heard you shouldn’t buy oysters in a month that doesn’t contain an “R,” but this is not a food safety tip — rather a judgment on the taste and texture.

How to Prepare
The delicate flavor of oysters is best showcased raw, with just a little lemon, shallot and vinegar. They’re also fantastic fried or grilled.

6. Lobster

How to Select
Lobster has a reputation for being a little fancy, but recent bumper crops off the coast of New England have made for great deals on lobster, especially in the spring and summer when prices tend to be lowest.

Because lobsters spoil quickly, they're sold live and must be eaten the day they are bought. When you pick up your lobster, it should curl its tail underneath itself. If it doesn’t, or isn't otherwise active, ask for a different one.

How to Prepare
Lobster is most often boiled, but can also be broiled or grilled. If you’re boiling the lobster, just place the lobster into the boiling water. The lobster is done when the shell becomes bright pink and the tail is curled (about 15 minutes). Lobster is typically served with lemon and butter and needs little else to shine.

Tip: Learn to select and prepare all types of pork with our guide.



Elizabeth Stark, along with her husband Brian Campbell, writes the blog Brooklyn Supper — the story of a family eating with the seasons in Virginia and Brooklyn. They believe strongly that good, local food and wholesome meals should be for everyone.

Complete your personal information

Please fill in the information marked with an asterisk to proceed; if you want to get tailored offers and content, don't forget to fill in the optional fields.

Top Picks Sweeps