Crustaceans & Mollusks
There’s not much to shellfish really. The 500 word essay that follows may belie my definition of ‘much’ but don’t be lazy, it’s easy reading.
Buying molluscs: Buy them alive when possible. They should ‘react’, spitting water, or shutting when tapped. The popular place is your better bet. The turnover is higher and the animals are less likely to be old and dead. Animals with cracked shells or ones that seem dead should be thrown before cooking or not purchased at all, especially if you’re eating them raw.
When purchasing scallops, always buy them dry frozen. Wet scallops are pretty disgusting- I don’t know why people continue to buy them. They soak in phosporous milk and leak out that same milk when they cook. If you are lucky enough to live at least fairly close to the ocean, buy them fresh and relish knowing I envy you immensely.
Buying crustaceans: Lobsters should be purchased fresh if you can, but do take a look at the tank. If it seems dingy, or if the crabs or lobsters aren’t swimming around, you should wait for a fresh shipment. Again, frozen at sea is a perfectly fine alternative if you’re putting the seafood in a pasta or salad, or some other sauce. You should really try to avoid canned.
Shrimp, like scallops, are usually sold frozen, and even when they’re not, there’s a large chance they came that way, so you’re better off buying ones that haven’t had a chance to defrost. They should be fairly transluscent. If they’ve turned pink or partly opaque or if you smell that acute fishy smell, stay away.
So now that you’ve carefully picked your seafood and have your prize in hand, you can just throw your animals in a pan or in a pot and boil and fry right? Absolument pas.
Be careful with your timing for done-ness as they cook quickly. Unless you’re making seafood jerky (I’ve heard it tastes like crap), you don’t want to overcook any of God’s creatures. The flesh of any type of shellfish should not be too difficult to cut with a butter knife.*
Its hard for me to give you a standard since quantity, thickness of shell, heat level and cooking medium create myriad combos, but let me try to simplify:
Rely on your recipe. Hopefully you trust its writer. If it’s me, I may write, cook until done. It means I’m not in the mood to pander; I will however, specify if something special needs to be done to ensure you do not overcook them.
If it is a mollusc, cook them until all the shells are open and turn off the heat and you can keep the lid on for about 5 minutes.
For larger grilling-type shrimp cook until either side is a solid, bright pink. Smaller shrimp don’t really require turning and a bright pink color is all you’re looking for. As soon as it turns pink it’s done.
Lobster and crab taste better steamed. If you want to do the boil thing, don’t use a pot full of water. Feel free to throw some lemon in the pot, if you’re having plain lobster. Cook until it turns bright red and then for a little bit more; size matters.
Tip: If you’re using whole pieces for some fancy mancy plating, pull the claws and tail out before they’re completely done (about 6 minutes in with temperatures at high, but leave the head-body in the water to finish) and dunk them in an ice bath to help you be able to handle them. Cut the shells off, they won’t be as hard, and continue cooking by poaching the whole pieces in water.
Level up your shellfish eating: Surprised I didn’t tell you to completely throw away the body? There’s lobster meat in there too, similar to where the meat is in a crab. Also, crab and lobster fat (bright red stuff) is amazing when you find it. Another thing you’re probably missing out on is shrimp heads. If you’re not a simp, try to cook shrimps with their heads on and shell after cooking. They taste better.
Finally, save your lobster shells in the freezer if you have space: they’re priceless when you’re making bisque or lobster stock.
Last, for safety- or How to avoid seafood suicide:
Molluscs open completely when cooked, since they can’t hold their shells together anymore. If the shell doesn’t open, it means that it was dead before you cooked it. Throw them out. Don’t eat raw oysters that you suspect are dead.
*The exception here is monster lobster, which is a little tougher than its average sized cousin. It’s even more important not to overcook monster lobster, because then you’ll have is what the french call, a s**t-ton of lobster jerky.