South Carolina shrimp are considered among the best in the world and are part of the foundation of lowcountry cooking. The Gulf and South Atlantic are renowned for commercially landed brown (Penaeus aztecus), pink (Penaeus duorarum), and white (Penaeus setiferus) shrimp. The common names do not clearly describe these shrimp since most shrimp change color relative to bottom type and water clarity. Some farm-raised shrimp are considered close in quality to wild caught shrimp.
Although many larger shrimp trawlers that are out of port for a week or more freeze shrimp shortly after being caught—sometimes even cooking them on the boat—most commercial boats sell them fresh. Many South Carolinians catch their own shrimp, usually by pulling a seine or by casting a circular net (which takes training as well as strength). Small creek shrimp caught in shallow, brackish waters are thought to be sweeter than those caught further out in the rivers and ocean. It is rare to find any of these commercially caught shrimp very far off the coast in South Carolina.
The standard practice for most is to purchase shrimp headless. Some lowcountry cooks prefer to cook shrimp with the head on, sucking the juices out of the head as one would a crawfish. Aficionados of the creek shrimp may even eat the softer parts of the shell. The shell may be removed before or after cooking, although it is preferable to cook shrimp with the shell on to get the fullest flavor and a more tender texture. Some prefer to remove the vein along the back of the shrimp (the digestive tract). Shrimp are not eaten raw and are best cooked quickly, a few minutes at most, with the cooking stopped as soon as the shell turns red. Overcooked shrimp are tough and tasteless. The head and shell of the shrimp can be used to make a shrimp stock usable in sauces and broths. Shrimp can be sautéed, fried (without the shell), poached (called “boiled”), grilled, baked, or steamed. In the 1800s shrimp mousses made with butter or cream (also called “shrimp butter”) were fashionable. In the late twentieth century shrimp and grits became popular, as did lowcountry shrimp boil, which is also called many other names.
No laws govern standard market sizes of shrimp. They are usually graded commercially by the number of whole shrimp or shrimp tails there are to a pound. A rule of thumb would be jumbo shrimp, twenty-one to twenty-five shrimp tails per pound; large, from thirty-one to thirty-five per pound; and medium, from thirty-six to forty per pound. However, the grading varies according to the seller.
Davidson, Alan. Seafood: A Connoisseur’s Guide and Cookbook. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Peterson, James. Fish and Shellfish. New York: Morrow, 1996.