The Basics Of Storing And Preparing Shellfish

If you don't know how to prepare shellfish, it's time to learn. Lobster, crab and oysters are among the delicacies that can make a special occasion even more memorable. While preparing shellfish may seem intimidating, it's not nearly as difficult as you might imagine. Once you understand the various types of shellfish and a couple basic preparation techniques, you'll be well on your way to delivering up delicious seafood dishes to your family and friends.

Types of Shellfish

Under the umbrella of shellfish, there are three categories of seafood. Each has distinct characteristics that affect how you prepare and present them.


These are invertebrate animals with a skeleton or shell. Crustaceans are, for the most part, saltwater animals although some species, such as crayfish, live in freshwater. The crustacean family includes:

  • Lobster
  • Spiny lobster
  • Rock lobster
  • Crab
  • Shrimp
  • Prawns
  • Crayfish


Mollusks can be further divided into two categories: bivalves and univalves. Bivalves are saltwater creatures with two shells whereas univalves have only one shell and can live in saltwater or on land. The most common edible mollusks include:

  • Oysters
  • Clams
  • Mussels
  • Snails
  • Winkles


Cephalopods are somewhat inverted -- they have a muscular exterior mantle on the outside of their shell. They move by expelling water from a siphon under their heads. Cephalopods can also eject ink from an ink sac as a means of defending or hiding themselves from predators. Cooks are most likely to prepare the following cephalopods:

  • Squid
  • Cuttlefish
  • Octopus

How to Select Good Shellfish

When you go shopping, you want to buy the freshest shellfish possible. Follow these tips to be sure you're getting the best quality.

  • Most crustaceans must be alive and vigorous when purchased.
  • When buying shrimp, the meat should look springy and moist.
  • Lobsters should feel heavy and full with all claws and feet intact.
  • Mollusks should be alive when purchased.
  • Look for mollusks with tightly closed shells. If a shell is partly opened, tap the shell to see if the mollusk snaps shut. If it doesn't, the mollusk is dead and should be bypassed.
  • All shellfish should have a pleasant ocean smell. Avoid specimens that have an unpleasant odor.

Storing and Preserving Shellfish

Shellfish can go bad quickly so you should plan to prepare and cook your purchase as soon as possible. However, in the meantime, use these tips on how to store shellfish and keep your seafood fresh for up to three days.

  • Refrigerate live crustaceans on a bed of seaweed or damp newspaper.
  • Mussels should be buried in ice while clams and oysters should be placed on a bed of ice and covered with a paper towel so they don't dry out. Place the ice and mollusks in the fridge in a container that will allow water to drain.
  • Shelled shrimp and shucked scallops may be stored wrapped in plastic
  • Cephalopods can be rinsed with water, placed on a plate, tightly covered with plastic wrap and kept in the refrigerator.

How to Prepare Shellfish for Cooking

The final step before cooking is preparing shellfish. How you do this will depend upon the type of shellfish as well as the cooking method you're using. However, here are some general guidelines.

  • Crustaceans, such as lobster and crab, generally need no preparation beyond rinsing prior to cooking.
  • Remove the shell and vein from shrimp. You can use a deveiner or do this manually by finding the dark vein in the middle of the shrimp and pulling it out. Rinse to remove any remnants.
  • Soak mollusks for 20 minutes to remove sand. Then scrub them and remove the beard by pulling it back toward the hinge of the mollusk.
  • Cephalopods generally need to be tenderized before cooking. This can be done by pounding them gently, scoring the flesh or marinating in milk.

Now you're ready to cook. Check out the other articles in this series for details on which cooking methods work best for cooking shellfish.

Or if you want to take your technique to the next level, contact one or more of the culinary schools below for information on cooking classes in your area.

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