There are many types of shellfish in North America, but most people stick to the standard favorites: clams, crab, shrimp, or lobster. Broaden your horizons, and you’ll be delighted with the variety and flavor of some unexpected treats from the sea.
Here is a representative sampling of the more popular shellfish species, identified by their most common names.
Abalone: This mollusk grows wild in waters along the California coast. But because commercial fishing of abalone is prohibited, wild abalone must be pried off underwater rocks by sport divers, who legally can’t sell their catch. Farm-raised red abalone from California are widely available, however, and are often found in Asian markets. Red abalone average about 3 inches in shell length. You get about six abalone meats to the pound. Abalone can be purchased fresh, frozen, or dried. It’s also available by mail order from growers in California.
Clams: For the most part, clams are caught in local waters. Easterners eat Atlantic clams, and Westerners enjoy Pacific varieties. Clams are harvested by digging them from the sand at low tide or are scooped from beds in deeper waters. They are similar on each coast. Clams may be hard-shelled or soft-shelled. In general, clams are sweet and a bit chewy, though flavor and relative tenderness depend on the size and species.
Conch: Harvested from southern waters, conch is particularly popular in Florida and the Caribbean. The white meat of the conch is encased in a beautiful, brightly colored spiral shell. As with abalone and whelk, it is the conch’s foot-like muscle that is eaten, either raw or cooked. Conch can be purchased fresh or frozen in specialty seafood stores and is often found in Chinese or Italian markets. It is sometimes mistakenly referred to as whelk, which, though related, is an entirely different species.
Crab: Crabs belong to a broad spectrum of crustaceans (animals with a shell). They have many legs—10!—the front two of which have scissor-like pincers. Although crabs have historically been associated with cranky dispositions, perhaps because they fearlessly brandish their pincers at humans and are all too happy to take a nip out of an innocent swimmer’s toe, they are a prized seafood. There are freshwater crabs and saltwater crabs, the latter being the more plentiful and commercially available.
Crayfish (crawfish): Crayfish, also known as crawfish or crawdads in the South, can be found wild in any variety of fresh water. Because most crayfish are aquafarmed, there is less risk of inadequate supply, despite heavy demand in Creole and Cajun-style Southern cuisine. Like lobsters, these tiny reddish-brown creatures turn bright red when cooked. Crayfish are typically shelled and eaten with the fingers. Sweet and succulent, crayfish meat tastes somewhat like that of lobster, though less dense and rich. Most of the meat is found in the tail, with smaller amounts also found in the body and claws.
Lobster: American lobsters can be found in saltwater along the East Coast, from Newfoundland to the Carolinas. The king of shellfish, the American lobster is a hard-shelled creature with a jointed body and five pairs of legs. Lobsters have the fascinating ability to regenerate lost limbs, The foremost of a lobster’s ten legs is a set of heavy claws. The claws—as well as the tail and body cavity—contain a sweet, firm, succulent meat that is considered a delicacy by many. Although lobsters come in a variety of colors, including light yellow, greenish-brown, blue, grey, and pale orange, when they are cooked they turn a vivid red. Hence the expression “red as a lobster.”
Mussels: These slender blue-black bivalves are found on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. In their natural state, they attach themselves to surf-washed rocks and spend half the time submerged and half the time in the air as the tide comes and goes.
Octopus: Possibly the strangest-looking sea creature used as food, the purplish-black octopus is caught primarily on the Pacific coast and is also imported. It is usually sold frozen or thawed and already cleaned. Octopus provides an extraordinary amount of vitamin B12.
Oysters: Long valued as a culinary delicacy, the oyster is a shellfish that is harvested wild from natural beds or, more often, from cultivated grounds. Within its rough, hinged outer shells rests the soft, edible body, which can vary widely in taste and texture. In the United States today, dozens of different types of oysters are available.
Periwinkles: There are more than 300 species of this conical, spiral-shelled univalve, also known as winkles or sea snails. The most common edible varieties are the Edible Periwinkle, Gulf Periwinkle, and Southern Periwinkle, available in specialty seafood stores and Asian markets. Edible Periwinkles grow to only about 1 inch in size, so you’ll need plenty to make a meal. The snails must be simmered briefly before the meat can be picked out, a process best done with a toothpick.
Scallops: The scallop is named for the handsome, fluted fan-shaped shells that surround the nuggets of tender-firm meat inside. Many people who aren’t particularly fond of fish or shellfish enjoy the mild, sweet flavor of this bivalve mollusk.
Sea urchin: These tiny creatures in spiny hard shells are members of a large group of marine animals called Echinodermata, which also includes starfish and sand dollars. Live sea urchins can be purchased at quality seafood purveyors or Asian markets. The spines should move when touched. To get to the edible roe (uni to sushi fans), which clings to the top inside part of the shell, you cut a circle in the bottom of the shell with scissors and scoop it out with a small spoon. Be sure to wear gloves when doing so. Sea urchin roe is also packed and sold in trays for the retail market. Look for firm roe that is bright yellow or orange, not too dark or discolored. Because it is highly perishable, you may want to ask for a taste before buying.
Shrimp: Shrimp is a crustacean that ranks Number 1 as Americans’ favorite seafood. Like chicken, its dense white meat has a fresh, mild flavor that marries well with a variety of ingredients. Unlike its close relatives, lobsters and crayfish, shrimp are primarily swimmers rather than crawlers. They swim forward by paddling the legs on their abdomens, but they can move backward quickly by using their fanlike tails. Shrimp are found in warm coastal water from Virginia on south, but the largest shrimp-fishing area is the Gulf of Mexico. The shrimp that are caught are usually frozen right on the boat, or sometimes packed in ice for shipping “fresh.”
Squid: More streamlined than its relative, the octopus, this 10-armed cephalopod is netted on both coasts and is sometimes marketed as calamari, its Italian name. Squid has a firm, chewy texture and a mild flavor. It is sold both whole and dressed, and is available fresh or frozen. The squid’s hollow body, also called the mantle or tube, is perfect for stuffing or may be cut crosswise into rings. The tentacles can be chopped into pieces and eaten as well. Squid contain a sac of brownish-black ink used as protective camouflage in its ocean habitat. Some recipes call for the ink to be used in cooking the squid.
Whelk: Harvested from cold waters from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico, the common northern whelk (Buccinum undatum), is notable for its thick spiral shell and flavorful meat. As with abalone and conch, it is the foot-like muscle that’s eaten. Whelk meat is blotchy white, streaked with black. Whelk are mainly sold in Asian and Italian markets.