The 9 Most Popular Types of Shellfish

published Dec 15, 2022
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Lobster, oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp, crawfish, crab, scallops, and prawns labeled on a surface
Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

The diverse world of shellfish is almost as vast as the oceans themselves. Shellfish as a seafood category encompasses the many species of crustaceans (the varieties with legs that help them swim or crawl, like lobsters, shrimp, and crabs) and bivalves (the hard-shelled and more stationary varieties like clams, oysters, and mussels).

Fun fact: Cephalopods like octopus, squid, and cuttlefish are also technically shellfish despite their lack of external shells, as they fall within the mollusk family.

These nine popular types of shellfish are harvested and grown throughout the United States, so you’ll always have an excuse to indulge in your favorite. When it comes to getting the freshest shellfish, “Find a reliable fish market,” says John Carson, retired commercial fisherman and farmstand owner on the North Shore of Long Island, New York. “Apart from going out and catching it yourself, you’re not going to do any better.”

Types of Shellfish

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen


Shrimp are crustaceans with exterior shells that are flexible and easy to peel off when you’re prepping and eating them. With approximately 2,000 different species of shrimp out there, it’s not surprising that you’ll find these tender-textured swimmers all over the world in both warm and cold, as well as fresh and saline, bodies of water.

In the U.S., most wild-caught shrimp comes from the Gulf of Mexico, and white, pink, and brown shrimp are likely what you’ll be consuming from this region. Historically, “Maine is famous for its red shrimp,” Carson notes, referring to the small Northern shrimp that are found throughout the cold waters off the Northeast coastline. However, commercial fishing of Northern shrimp has been prohibited for a few years because of low population numbers.

Most of the farmed shrimp currently on the market comes from Southeast Asia, where concerns have been raised about regulations and environmental impact. But American shrimp aquaculture is on the rise, with a focus on sustainability.

When you’re in the mood for shrimp, there are so many options. Make a classic shrimp scampi, grill shrimp for tacos, or snack on crispy air fryer shrimp.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen


Scallops are bivalve mollusks featuring a round, saucer-like shell with fluted (or scalloped!) edges. When we eat bivalves like scallops, oysters, clams, and mussels, we’re actually eating the adductor muscle inside the shell that helps it hinge open and closed.

The two most popular varieties of scallops are bay and sea scallops, differentiated by their size and habitat. “There are no bay scallops that live in the ocean and no sea scallops that live in the bay,” Carson said.

Bay scallops are the smaller, popcorn-size variety that are great for tossing into dishes like pasta. Sea scallops are the larger version, typically seared and served as the main ingredient of a dish. Both are very delicate in both flavor and texture, with a briny sweetness.

While the Northeastern U.S. is prime ground for sea scallops, “Bay scallops can grow in warm water,” Carson said, so you’ll find them in the Middle Atlantic all the way down to Florida, where a variety known as Calico scallops are harvested.

Toss bay scallops into homemade fried rice, go old-school with a retro bacon-wrapped scallops appetizer, or sear sea scallops and serve over risotto.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen


Lobster is the crustacean that’s most synonymous with Maine and New England, although various species can be found in oceans all over the world. The hard-shell lobster we know best, which turns bright red when cooked, is Homarus americanus, the American lobster. 

Although lobsters are harvested from their rocky bottom-dwelling habitats all year, the latter half of the year is considered to be lobster season. That’s when the lobsters will be at their largest with the most meat for picking.

Lobsters are most often enjoyed boiled or steamed, then cracked open at the table. You can also go for a whole lobster tail as a less-labor intensive alternative, or pretend you’re at the shore with lobster rolls.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen


Crabs, like shrimp, are crustaceans with a large and diverse population, found in both salt and fresh water. The crabs we love to eat mostly have a hard shell known as a carapace and large front claws, or pincers. (Hermit crabs are indeed crabs!) They can range widely in size, from enormous Alaskan snow and king crab to smaller East Coast blue crabs — perfect for seasoning with Old Bay. 

Other popular crab varieties include Dungeness in the Pacific Northwest, stone crab (of which we only eat the claws) in Florida and the South, peekytoe or rock crab along the East Coast, and Jonah crab in Maine.

Crab meat is flakier and softer than shrimp or lobster meat, and can be picked out of freshly steamed or boiled crabs or purchased pre-picked for use in recipes. Make classic crab cakes or indulge in hot crab dip.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen


Mussels are another variety of bivalve mollusk. Marine blue mussels, which attach to rocks and other surfaces in the intertidal shallow areas along saltwater coastlines, are the ones with a shiny black oval shell and a very soft and sweet inner edible muscle. (Freshwater mussels are generally more popular with otters than humans!)

Like many shellfish, mussels are found around the world, with two of the most popular growing regions being Prince Edward Island in the North Atlantic and the Pacific Northwest waters around Washington and British Columbia. Although they can be harvested wild, farmed mussels are becoming increasingly popular.

Steamed mussels are quick to prepare and pair well with a number of flavorful sauces, from Thai curry to Italian white wine pasta sauce.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen


Oysters are the bivalve that’s most frequently eaten raw. With their craggy shells and succulent, briny meat, oysters get their flavor from the salt water they grow in. American oysters can be found all along the East and West coasts, most commonly in the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast. However, oysters also thrive in the Chesapeake Bay region, the Gulf Coast, and the Bay Area of California. 

The old adage of only eating oysters in months that end in the letter R came about in the days before mass refrigeration, which also dissuaded people from eating wild oysters during their warm-water spawning season. Now, as oyster farms have proliferated along both coasts and food safety regulations are in place, it’s fine for people to eat oysters year-round, according to Carson.

Oysters don’t need much to make them shine: Once they’re shucked, lemon wedges, mignonette, or cocktail sauce are traditional accompaniments. Or make throwback oysters Rockefeller.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen


Clams are the bivalves that rule the New England coastline, competing with lobster as the region’s most beloved shellfish. However, their territory extends along both Atlantic and Pacific shorelines, where they dig into the sand along many beaches and intertidal zones. Clams are available year-round as a wild harvested food.

“Most people are familiar with hard clams, which have an assortment of different names,” Carson said. Quahogs, littlenecks, cherrystones, and chowders refer to different sizes of the same clam variety. Steamers are slightly larger with softer shells, and surf clams are frequently sliced up for fried clam strips.

On the Pacific coast, Manila clams are tiny with purple-mottled shells, geoducks are characterized by their nearly obscene protruding siphon (often sliced for sushi). and razor clams are the outliers of the clam fam with long, thin oblong shells.

While smaller clams can be served as part of a raw bar tower, “The bigger ones are usually cooked one way or the other,” Carson said. Get your hands on some fresh clams and steam them in white wine and garlic for a simple dinner, or make linguine alla vongole.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen


Crawfish, or crayfish or crawdads depending on where you live, look like tiny lobsters with their chunky claws. These small crustaceans are not genetically lobsters, because they live in freshwater rivers, streams, and ponds instead of saline bodies of water. However, crawfish have a similar taste and texture to lobster when cooked.

In Southern Gulf states like Louisiana, where crawfish are commonly found, the season for peak eating is in late winter through spring. Because they are wild and not farmed, the season varies based on weather conditions.

Crawfish go well with rich and creamy sauces, like in pasta or a party dip, but they’re always fantastic when served on their own as the centerpiece of a crawfish boil.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen


Prawns are very similar to shrimp in taste and texture, altthough they belong to different sub-orders, biologically speaking. Prawns only live in fresh water and tend to be larger than shrimp and won’t curl up into a C shape like a shrimp does when cooked.

The West Coast, from California to Canada, is known for its wild spot prawns, whose season runs from February to November depending on the region. Prawns’ size make them ideal for a main course. Serve them in a Filipino coconut curry or grill them on skewers as you would with shrimp.