What Are Shellfish?

Shellfish are not a specific type of fish, but are rather a category to classify spineless invertebrate with an exoskeleton that live in the water. These sea creatures have been harvested and consumed throughout history for their delicious taste, soft texture and strong flavors. There are two main types of shellfish: crustaceans and mollusks.


Though there are fewer sub-species of crustaceans than mollusks, they have an incredible commercial demand and are a favorite of seafood enthusiasts, though they are often high in price. In terms of gobbling up these delicious creatures, the three most popular crustaceans in the world of cuisine are lobsters, crabs and shrimp.


grilled lobster tails on a white plate
Olga Lyubkin/Shutterstock

Lobsters are considered a luxury food and generally top the menu in pricing, and for good reason This delectable sea-dweller is the tastiest item on any seafood platter. While lobsters can be cooked and served whole, the tails, legs and claws are preferred because they are the areas with the most meat. Lobster can be served warm or chilled, and the tender meat has a delicious, fresh flavor. When served with butter, lobster has a succulent, melt-in-your-mouth quality that many can't resist.


crab legs on a white plate

Crab is a versatile ingredient found in sushi, crab cakes and various other seafood dishes. But when it's served on its own, the ocean-dweller is just as delicious. King crabs are a commonly consumed type of crab, and the meatiest parts are often found in their legs and claws. Crabs can be prepared by boiling, roasting, steaming or grilling. Just like lobster, the flavor of crab can also benefit from creamy sauces and butter, which makes the tender meat even more juicy and delicious.


grilled shrimp with lime wedges on wooden board

Shrimp is perhaps the most versatile of crustaceans because there are numerous ways to season and cook it. While shrimp is delicious on its own, it is a popular add-in to hundreds of recipes. From pasta dishes such as shrimp scampi to seafood jambalaya to cold melon shrimp soup, this tiny creature packs a punch of rich flavor and texture and can add a fresh, fishy taste to any recipe. When consuming it as a stand-alone dish, shrimp is great with garlic sauce, cocktail sauce, and other boldly flavored dressings.


This group of shellfish covers a broader range of edible undersea creatures, falling into three main categories: gastropods, cephalopods and bivalves.

Gastropods: Snails And Slugs

plate of escargots on white background

Gastropods are a group of snails and slugs of which there are over 60,000 species of -- and this incredibly diverse group is more popular than one might believe. While land snails are usually found more in recipes than sea snails are, utilizing these underwater creatures for dishes such as escargot (cooked and flavored snails) is not impossible, and sautéeing these shelled animals by themselves in flavorful sauces can make for a yummy dish.

Cephalopods: Squid And Octopus

Cephalopods are the largest type of mollusks, including two creatures with subtle yet rich flavor and bold textures: squid and octopus. If you've never laid your tongue on either of these delicious dishes, you're missing out.


fried squid calamari with dipping sauce on white plate and blue wood background

Squid is a popular add-in to dishes that benefit from a bit of subtle seafood in the mix. The flavor of squid is relatively mild, and its soft, squishy texture makes it a highly enjoyable addition to a variety of meals. Squid can be cooked in a number of ways, such as frying, stewing, or even sticking it straight into the oven. The most popular dish that is associated with squid is calamari -- squid that is fried and often served as an appetizer or starter at the beginning of a seafood feast. It has a sweeter taste and is served with lemon and cocktail sauce for extra zest. Squid also shows up in pasta and salad dishes, and when served alone it is often stuffed with vegetables, cheese and herbs.


grilled octopus arms with lemon on white plate
Andrey Starostin/Shutterstock

Octopi are served in a variety of unique ways. When it's presented as a stand-alone dish, the parts of the octopus that are generally consumed are its long, squishy arms. They retain a juicy, slightly tender texture without overwhelming you with flavor. One of the special qualities of an octopus is that the creature can be served cooked by means such as frying, boiling or grilling, or raw. Much like squid, octopi can be added to a variety of dishes, such as salads, linguine, soup, sandwiches and more.

Bivalves: Oysters And Clams

Bivalves include a number of creatures that protect themselves inside of hinged shells, yet the two which are most widely consumed in the culinary world are oysters and clams.


fresh oysters on a plate around a lemon

Oysters have a gooey texture that is nearly mushy. The taste varies by location, as ocean oysters will taste more salty and sea-like than those gathered from other bodies of water. Oysters are generally served cold, sitting in half of their original shell for slurping and are flavored with lemon, butter and salt. They are generally a meal in themselves, and ingredients such as fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, pesto and more are often added on top of them to boost their flavor.


clams and noodles dish on white plate

Clams have a texture similar to oysters, but , have an extremely strong, semi-sweet and rich flavor. Clams are often steamed and served in half of their shell, also similarly to oysters. They show up in a variety of yummy, strongly-flavored recipes centered around them, such as clam chowder, clam fritters and clam dip.

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