04.21.2016

White, Brown, Pink, Red: Learn the Differences in Gulf Shrimp

Common sense tells us that locally harvested seafood will taste fresher (and better) than a cheaper, imported product.

But when it comes to Gulf shrimp, that’s only the beginning of the story.

Unlike Gulf crab and oysters, each of which is harvested and processed prominently as only one species, Gulf shrimp come in different species—and they’re conveniently labeled by color.

“Shrimp are thought of almost as a commodity,” said Chris Hastings, owner and executive chef at Birmingham’s Hot and Hot Fish Club. “But they each have their own characteristics and flavor profiles. I would challenge people to think of shrimp differently, not just as ‘all shrimp are created equal.’ Because they’re not.”

Why does it matter which color you’re getting? Well, it’s the same story as all Gulf seafood: it’s all about flavor.

Brown shrimp, thanks to an iodine-rich diet, have a strong flavor that goes great with robust dishes like gumbo and jambalaya.

White shrimp have a more mild flavor with notes of natural sweetness because they’re found in areas with less salinity, like brackish estuaries and bayous. If you boil or sauté them, they’ll soak in the nuances of the sauces and seasonings quite nicely.

Pink shrimp are also sweet with an even more mild flavor profile, so they pair well with dishes that feature delicate sauces (like shrimp and grits) and they grill up quite nicely (especially with the heads on). They’re also the biggest of the Gulf shrimp species.

And then there are the Royal Red shrimp, the premium Gulf shrimp—and once you taste them, you’ll know why. They pack a rich, buttery flavor that’s often compared to that of lobster, so there’s no need to pair these shrimp with a strong sauce.

Once they’ve been cooked, it’s almost impossible to tell one Gulf shrimp from another just by looking at them (except for the Royal Reds). The trick is to find and cook them when they’re in season.

As Sea Pearl Seafood owner Greg Ladnier explains, white shrimp are in season early spring and late fall when it’s cooler. In between those periods, brown shrimp are most plentiful during the summer months. Pink shrimp are your cold weather species, peaking from late fall until early spring. Royal Reds are off and on throughout the year.

And as far as price goes, you won’t see a huge difference (again, except when it comes to the Royal Reds).

“White and brown shrimp are close in price,” said Ladnier. “Pink shrimp go for slightly higher prices, and Royal Reds have a different market altogether.”

If you’re planning on seeking out Alabama Gulf shrimp soon for a family meal or a large get together, you’re in luck. According to Chris Blankenship, director of Alabama Marine Resources and program administrator for the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission (ASMC), Alabama shrimp are doing well right now.

“The brown shrimp season in Alabama has been above average this year,” said Blankenship. “This was much needed after several years of limited production. We are also seeing a lot of small white shrimp in the marshes and estuaries. We are hopeful that this will lead to a very good white shrimp season this fall.”

So remember, next time you’re in the mood for Alabama Gulf shrimp, think about what kind of dish you’re going to prepare, and check to see what shrimp season we’re in.

And, of course, make sure to ask your server or vendor to make sure it’s Alabama Gulf shrimp. Your taste buds will thank you.

“Gulf shrimp are all very distinctly different and interesting,” said Hastings. “And they’re certainly better than anything you could ever get from the imported standpoint. It’s not even remotely close.”

For more information on the differences in Alabama Gulf shrimp species, check out the Shrimp Academy from the folks at the American Shrimp Processors Association.

And if you need a few suggestions for shrimp dishes to try, flip through our recipes section.