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If you have ever eaten shrimp, you probably have come across a variety of styles: butterflied and sauteed, breaded and deep-fried, boiled, broiled, seared, grilled, roasted, and more.
You may not realize this, but there may be a few things missing when they arrive on your dinner plate.
Very often when presented with this kind of seafood dish, the shells and digestive tracts will be removed prior to serving to make the dining experience more convenient and enjoyable for the eater.
The digestive tract is a dark, unattractive line running down the back, which is removed to make this cool crustacean both presentable and edible in a delicious array of dishes.
Some people don’t mind the digestive tract – which some mistake for or refer to euphemistically as a vein – and others insist that it be removed.
“Deveining,” or removing the guts, is also beneficial as they often have a gritty texture.
If you want to start making and serving your own shrimp dishes at home, we’ll give you our expert advice on how to prep them properly before cooking.
In the following guide, we’ll explain exactly how to clean, peel, and devein raw shrimp. All of these prep steps will also be the same if you are using prawns.
Once you get over the anxiety of facing the deveining process, you’ll see how easy it is.
With this step-by-step guide, complete with five simple steps, you’ll be comfortable with this kitchen prep procedure in no time.
How to Peel and Devein Shrimp
Step 1 – Prep
The first thing you want to do is grab a few clean dish towels or a good supply of paper towels, because your hands are going to get pretty messy.
If you prefer, you can also wear disposable gloves for this process.
I also like to keep a small bowl next to my work station for easy tossing of all the scraps. And we advise placing the scraps in a trash bag and bringing that directly to the garbage can right away when you’re done!
If they are left in an open kitchen trash can that you may not take out every day, the waste will get stinky – fast – and may attract flies or other nasty critters.
Note that some people like to preserve the shells to make stock.
You should also have a separate large bowl or plate to place the seafood on as you are working so you don’t overcrowd and clutter the cutting board.
Step 2 – Wash
Next, remove the crustaceans from their packaging and briefly wash them thoroughly under cool running water.
If they are frozen, transfer them to a colander and place it under cool running water until they are just slightly defrosted.
Step 3 – Remove Heads (Optional)
The heads and legs will usually be removed already if you purchase your shellfish from the grocery store.
However, if you visit your local fishmonger or seafood specialty store, they may still have the heads and/or legs on.
All of the legs will be removed simultaneously in one fell swoop as you remove the shell around the body in the next step, so they can be left intact – no use trying to individually remove each one!
As for the heads, you can remove these with a quick slice of your knife, or leave them attached, depending on your preference and the presentation you are trying to achieve with your specific dish.
The heads also make a great addition to a homemade seafood stock.
When you have finished, place the prepped shellfish on a plate or in a bowl.
Step 4 – Peel
Your next step is to decide whether or not you want to leave the tails on.
Since you are going to be peeling off the shells, you may opt to remove the tails as well.
For a nicer presentation, I suggest keeping the shell around the tails intact. Keeping the shells on around this area is especially helpful if they will be served as finger food, like for a shrimp cocktail appetizer or a large mixed seafood boil.
It really doesn’t matter where your starting point is for peeling. But if you are new at this process, I recommend starting at the top, or the head end – working in this direction will be easier.
Remove the shell and the legs up until the point where you reach the tail. Stop now to keep the shell around the tails on, or continue peeling. You get to decide.
Discard the shells or save them for stock. This is a perfect opportunity for you to repurpose your food scraps in a creative and sustainable way.
And be sure to transfer the prepped units to your bowl or plate to set the finished ones aside as you work.
Step 5 – Devein
Now we’re ready for the actual deveining process!
Once the shells are removed, make an incision straight down the back, following its natural curvature, using your knife.
I would say “spine” instead of “back,” but I know one of you wiseacres will probably call me out, letting me know that invertebrates don’t have spines… Ha!
You want to make the cut deep enough to expose the digestive tract.
Use the tip of your knife to carefully lift it out. Secure the tract with your thumb, and pull downward until it is completely removed.
Repeat this process until all of the shellfish are clean, wiping off the prepped seafood and your hands as needed with paper towels, or rinsing under cool water.
Now that I’ve explained the traditional way, I’ll also recommend a product that makes this process so much easier and faster.
OXO Good Grips Shrimp Deveiner, available from OXO
Rather than fooling around with peeling and then slicing each crustacean with a knife, and then hoping that you don’t break through the black digestive tract, this OXO Good Grips device allows you to peel and devein in one swift stroke.
Simply insert the sharp, stainless steel blade between the shell and flesh at the top end of the shellfish and move it in a downward motion along the curve of its back.
I find that this tool allows me to process and prep my seafood about three times as quickly as I could if I was using the traditional method – and that’s saying a lot if you’re preparing pounds upon pounds of seafood for a large party!
Done with Deveining? Let’s Cook!
Once all the shrimp have been peeled and deveined according to the steps in our tutorial, cook according to your recipe’s instructions.
Do you prefer buying fresh shellfish and deveining it yourself? Or do you prefer to use frozen? Let us know in the comments below!
Not sure what you want to make? Now that you have your crustaceans prepped and ready, here are a few shrimp recipes to inspire you:
Photos by Felicia Lim, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photo via OXO. Originally published on September 3, 2014. Last updated on June 21, 2023. With additional writing by Felicia Lim and Allison Sidhu.
About Nikki Cervone
Nikki Cervone is an ACS Certified Cheese Professional and cheesemonger living in Pittsburgh. Nikki holds an AAS in baking/pastry from Westmoreland County Community College, a BA in Communications from Duquesne University, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University. When she's not nibbling on her favorite cheeses or testing a batch of cupcakes, Nikki enjoys a healthy dose of yoga, wine, hiking, singing in the shower, and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.