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Expert Tips on How to Choose and Prepare the Freshest Shellfish

With summer around the bend and many people running out of quarantine meals, it’s time to take a moment to remember that the bounties of the ocean is now, more than ever, appropriate to pick up and learn to cook. When it’s fresh and cooked right, it’s a transformative experience. When it’s not fresh … well, you know how that goes — you spend hours in the bathroom regretting every life choice ever.

It’s one thing if you’re going out and gathering your own shellfish (here’s how to do that), but if you’re not near the ocean (or just don’t have the time), then you’re going to have to rely on your local fishmonger for fresh shellfish.

Types of Shellfish:

  • Clams
  • Oysters
  • Mussels
  • Crab
  • Lobster
  • Shrimp

To know what to do upon rolling up to the seafood counter, we turned to the experts at Mitchell’s Fish Market Seafood Restaurant & Bar in Edgewater, New Jersey, because they’re known for a delectable raw bar selection and expert seafood preparations. If you’re looking for tips on how to choose, prep, and present your favorite types of shellfish, heed this advice from executive chef Joe Lopez.

seafood paella mussels shrimp
Seafood paella. Image used with permission by copyright holder

First things first: You actually have to choose the shellfish you want to prepare. This can be a daunting task, especially if you’ve never hit the fishmonger or your local farmers market in search of the stuff before. According to Lopez, it’s actually quite simple, as long as you use your senses and ask the right questions.

How to Choose Fresh Shellfish

  1. Give the shellfish a sniff. It should have a nice, clean ocean smell. The briny smell of saltwater is good, but avoid anything that smells sour or overly fishy.
  2. The fish should be a bright, clean color. If it doesn’t look appealing, pass.
  3. Talk to the fishmonger and ask about the catch or harvest date. If it wasn’t caught that day or the previous day, ask him or her to suggest something fresher.

Now that you’ve purchased the freshest shellfish possible, it’s time to go home and prepare it. Whether you went for lobster and crab or plan on putting together a raw spread of oysters and clams, Lopez has experts tips for the most popular types of shellfish.

How to Prepare Shellfish

Clams and Oysters

Image used with permission by copyright holder

These bivalves are the easiest of the shellfish to prepare. Simply rinse them with cold water to remove any sand and shuck immediately before serving for the freshest possible flavor. If you don’t know how to shuck, we’ve got you covered with a helpful video guide. While often enjoyed straight, you can also put these on the grill.


Image used with permission by copyright holder

First, make sure your mussels are alive. To check, give open mussels a little tap on the side of a plate — they should close when you do this. Next, rinse them under cold water and remove the beard (the small string-like piece hanging out of the opening in the shell) by tugging it lightly. Keep the mussels chilled on ice before cooking or serving. To prepare, Lopez suggests sautéing mussels with white wine, garlic, and shallots, then steaming them until the shells pop open. Remember to discard any mussels that don’t open because that means they were dead before they went in the pot.


Image used with permission by copyright holder

Wash all types of crab in cold water before cooking. Then score the legs down the middle and split in half. Store in the fridge and serve within 24 hours. If you’re dealing with king crab, use a knife to remove the spikes on the outside of the shell. For soft shell crab, the process is a little easier: here’s a guide and a tasty recipe you can try at home.


Image used with permission by copyright holder

Steam and chill the lobster immediately. If you’re not serving right away, split the lobster and pull the meat out slightly so it doesn’t stick to the shell. Chill until ready to eat. Unclear on how to steam (or even cook) a lobster? Here’s a more detailed overview of how to cook lobster, including three different methods.


Image used with permission by copyright holder

Peel the shrimp and cut a slit in the back with a paring knife. Rinse under cold water, scrubbing very lightly to remove the “vein,” aka the intestinal tract. (Side note: If the shrimp comes with a head on, twist that sucker off before you do anything.) Here’s a more detailed video showing how to peel and devein shrimp.


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After cleaning and prepping your shellfish, you want to present it in a beautiful array. Lopez suggests first filling stainless steel trays with dry ice to keep things extra cold and make the entire tower look baller. Top the dry ice with crushed ice (or go straight to the crushed ice step if you want to skip the dry) and add a little water before serving to create smoke and put on a show. Serve sauces like mignonette, cocktail sauce, Crab Louie salad, drawn butter, and fresh lemon wedges alongside the shellfish.

Article originally published by Amanda Gabriele on May 1, 2017. Last updated by Sam Slaughter.

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