Whether fresh or frozen, shrimp is the most popular type of seafood in the country. And, according to data from seafood news source IntraFish, the average American consumes over five pounds of the shellfish every single year.
In my mind, this information certainly checks out, as I view shrimp as somewhat of a gateway seafood. For anyone dipping their toes into the world of marine-based cuisine for the first time, shrimp is undeniably a more approachable choice compared to slimy oysters or pungent anchovies. It also has a mild yet buttery flavor and comes in many different forms–giving consumers even more chances of finding something they fancy.
For me personally, the first form I was introduced to was popcorn shrimp. The meal was in my family's weekly dinner rotation for quite some time, and for that reason, it will forever be near and dear to my heart. However, it wasn't long until my sisters and I graduated to cocktail shrimp—a real problem for my parents' wallets—and eventually grew to love the crustacean in all its various shapes and sizes.
Since then, I've had the pleasure of eating shellfish in many of America's top seafood markets, from Maine to Key West to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. At this point, I like to think that I'm proficient in picking out what a good shrimp should taste like. This knowledge gave me a great head start heading into this frozen shrimp taste test. But, I also geared up to tap back into my roots and journey back to the days of frozen fried shrimp at the dinner table.
To start, I gathered up six different kinds of frozen shrimp from my local grocers and got to work cooking up each brand, according to their individual instructions. I was able to throw most into the air fryer. But, two required special treatment and were alternatively cooked in the oven. From there, it was time to get munching.
So, based on my somewhat experienced palette, here are my rankings for the best frozen shrimp brands you can find at the store, ranked in order from my least to most favorite. Time for these brands to sink or swim!
Budweiser Beer Battered Shrimp by SeaPak
I am very familiar with the work of Budweiser, as well as Anheuser-Busch's many other brews. But, it wasn't until recently that I discovered the so-called King of Beers also cooks up a line of frozen foods. I've even been on a tour of the Budweiser Brewery in St. Louis within the past couple of years, and still, I had no idea. The brand mostly focuses on frozen beer-battered appetizers like Cheesy Potato Bites and Cheese Sticks—which happen to be quite tasty. Budweiser additionally teamed up with SeaPak in 2019 to offer a line of seafood favorites, including Beer-Battered Shrimp. I caught a box for $4.99, and was excited to give them a shot.
The look: More circular or oval-shaped, like butterfly shrimp—although the box does not specify that's what it is. Their shape and coloring are also somewhat reminiscent of a chicken nugget. The shrimps' lighter shade is likely thanks to their beer-batter coating. Or, it could be because they were baked in the oven, due to the box's lack of air fryer instructions.
The taste: Like fish masquerading as shrimp. From my first bite, I knew something fishy was going on here—and not in a good way. These battered bites don't taste like shrimp at all but rather pollock or cod that you would find in a fish stick. I even took bites out of nearly every one in the box, hoping for a different result, but those unique shrimp notes were nowhere to be found. The breading does deliver a smooth and buttery taste. But, for me, it wasn't enough to save Budweiser from sinking to the bottom of my list.
Gorton's Beer Batter Shrimp
The Gorton's iconic fisherman mascot has had quite the career. He's been reeling in catches to share with families across the country since the company's inception in 1849. And, to this day, he continues to pad his portfolio with even more marine-based offerings. Just in the category of frozen shrimp alone, the Gorton's brand now boasts nine different products.
You have classic Popcorn Shrimp, Southern Style Shrimp, non-breaded options like Garlic Butter or Shrimp Scampi, and even a new Air Fried Butterfly Shrimp. At my local grocery store, I developed a case of decision paralysis as I took in the selection. But, I ended up with a box of Beer Batter Shrimp in my cart priced at $8.29, but on sale for just $5.
The look: If you asked someone to draw a chicken drumstick, I imagine it would look exactly like these shrimps. Their shape is very odd and with the beer-batter breading, they have a smooth and perfect finish—almost too perfect to the point where it could pass for fake plastic food.
The taste: Palatable shrimp, but much too dry overall. The texture and flavor of the seafood itself are there, so it reads like real, fresh shrimp. But, the coating—which is made with real draft beer—doesn't add much value. It's fairly brittle and extremely dry. I found myself using a boatload of cocktail sauce, as I munched them down.
Trader Joe's Tempura Shrimp
I entered my local Trader Joe's with my eyes on the prize and successfully made my way to the register with the only thing I came for: frozen shrimp (a small victory for me and my bank account). I did, however, end up snagging two different varieties since I just couldn't decide. But, my stereotypically friendly TJ's cashier assured me both were delish.
One was this Tempura Shrimp. Since it is tempura, it's slightly different from most other shrimps here. It is battered and is also stretched out and uniquely prepared to give it an elongated appearance. The $7.99 box came with 10 shrimp total and its own soy dipping sauce, for which I am a sucker.
The Look: Similar to the Budweiser shrimp, these did not come equipped with air-fryer cooking directions, so into my oven they went. The skinny sticks took a little longer to cook than expected, and they still ended up flimsy and barely crisped. Plus, they became immensely oily and left a pool of liquid on the baking sheet. Inside the thin breading, the shrimp is similar in appearance to a stick of imitation crab.
The Taste: Firm shrimp inside a squishy, soggy breading. The tempura glaze doesn't offer any sort of snap. And, this problem was aggravated even further after it was dipped into the soy, which reminded me of an eel sauce, only thinner. The batter's flavoring is also a bit mediocre, albeit a tiny bit buttery. A mild shrimp flavor came from within. But, the consistency was more compact, reminding me once again of imitation crab sticks rather than normal shrimp.
SeaPak Jumbo Butterfly Shrimp
SeaPak was in fact the brand of choice in my household growing up (I even contacted my mother to verify this information). But, as mentioned previously, we indulged solely in the company's popcorn shrimp. So, I decided to dive into uncharted waters and instead give the Jumbo Butterfly Shrimp a shot. The box claims that these are "America's Favorite Jumbo Butterfly Shrimp," so naturally I wanted to judge for myself. The pack cost me $7.99 at my local Giant Eagle–discounted $2 from its normal sale price of $9.99.
The look: Not jumbo by any means. The largest shrimp measured in at just about 2 inches wide, just slightly larger than most other options. I'm now curious to see what the brand's regular butterfly shrimp look like. The "jumbo" bites did crisp up well in the air fryer, however, resulting in a browned and sizzling crumb surface.
The taste: Somewhat nostalgic for me, but not as tasty as I remember. The breading is what reminded me most of the popcorn shrimp of my younger days. It's crunchy and salty, but overbearing at the same time. It overtakes the shrimp in each bite—which may have been for the best, given that the actual shrimp was a tad on the mushy side. I think a sampling of the brand's popcorn shrimp is in my near future so I can truly compare notes. But, for now, my childhood favorite sadly earns a spot in the mid-tier of the rankings.
Trader Joe's Gluten-Free Breaded Shrimp
The other Trader Joe's frozen shrimp option I bought happened to be this $9.99 bag of Gluten-Free Breaded Shrimp. The bag says that these are "crispy, tail-off round shrimp with a thin gluten-free breading. Great for tacos, in stir-fries, or atop salads." All great suggestions, but I just cooked them up in the air fryer and served them unadorned and alongside my trusty side of cocktail sauce.
The look: Stereotypical popcorn shrimp. I could actually make out the curved shape of each crustacean. The outer layer doesn't look too thick and comes in a light tan–maybe even slightly orange-ish–shade.
The taste: The first thing I noticed was the breading, which was moist but also the slightest bit crunchy. I wouldn't have been able to place it as gluten-free and my only complaint was that it stuck my teeth and top of my mouth in spots, similar to the way that white bread does. They also earn bonus points for being perfectly poppable, as they are the only option in the taste test sans tails, and for having a short and straightforward ingredient list. I would buy and eat again. Even so, there's one brand that I liked even more.
Aqua Star Butterfly Crunchy Shrimp
Based in Seattle, Aqua Star is a privately owned company, but also one of the largest frozen seafood retail brands in the country, according to its website. I am not personally familiar with the company's products. But, I do know they run the gamut from various fish fillets to crustaceans to seafood medleys of octopus and calamari that look like they're ready to slither right off your plate. Within the crustaceans category, shrimp is a staple. It comes raw, in cocktail form, mixed into meals, or breaded and fried like the Butterfly Crunchy Shrimp I found at my local grocery store for $10.48. It came in a 1.5-pound bag containing 45-50 "large" shrimps.
The look: Sneakily similar to SeaPak. The two share the same shape, shade—everything. I'm glad I didn't eat these back to back because I likely would have confused them. Side by side, these may be just a teensy bit smaller, but other than that, dead ringers.
The taste: Addicting. Aqua Star cranks things up a notch with shrimp that is mildly sweet and also holds true to both its shape and its white and pink coloring, even under its crunchy skin. And, speaking of the golden panko crust, it's also done quite well. It snapped, crackled, and popped upon each bite, leaving me always reaching for the next before I was even done chewing. All of the above chalks up to a perfect frozen shrimp experience. Kudos to Aqua Star for running such a tight ship and making the good kind of waves in the seafood industry.