How To Peel & Devein Shrimp

(Image credit: Kimberley Hasselbrink)

I’m a little embarrassed to admit how long I avoided buying shell-on shrimp for fear of having to peel and devein them. It just seemed so intimidating, so messy, and so fraught with potential shellfish failure. I love shrimp too much to have it fraught with anything.

Then I went to culinary school, and the day came when I was handed a pile of shrimp and told to get to work. I’ll tell you what I learned that day: Peeling and deveining shrimp isn’t nearly as hard as I thought. Here’s how to do it, exactly the way I was taught.

How To Clean & Devein Shrimp: Watch the Video

(Image credit: Kimberley Hasselbrink)

Anatomy of a Shrimp

Shrimp are little sea creatures that live on or around the ocean floor. They have a very hard outer shell made of segmented pieces, a softer underside, lots of little feathery legs, and a tail. When you buy shrimp at the store, most of the time the heads will already be removed for you (and sometimes the legs, too). You can ask the person at the seafood counter to remove the shells for you, but it’s really just as easy to do it yourself — plus then you get the shells for making into stock!

Once you get the shells off, you can leave the tails on or remove them. Leaving the tails on makes a nice presentation at a dinner party, but removing them makes them a little easier to eat.

Two Easy Ways to Peel Shrimp

There are actually two different ways you can peel shrimp: by hand or with a pair of kitchen shears. Peeling shrimp by hand feels satisfyingly rugged and primal — grab a shrimp, pull off the legs, use your thumbs to crack the shell open along the underside (where the shell is softer), pull off the shell, and you’re done. Peeling with shears is a tad more refined. Just use the kitchen shears to snip through the shell along the top (where it’s hardest), then crack it open, and pull off the shell.

I go into more detail on both methods below — try them both and see which feels easiest to you. Personally, I like using kitchen shears, as I find the shell pops off a little more easily, though it does tend to cut into the shrimp a little more. Peeling by hand can be a bit messier, but you’re left with a cleaner, more intact shrimp.

Do You Need to Remove the Vein?

The “vein” in a shrimp is not truly a vein, but rather its digestive tract. It runs along the back of the shrimp just beneath the surface, and it looks like a thin string filled with dark grit. Sometimes the vein is very prominent, other times you’ll hardly notice it. It all depends on the shrimp and what it was eating right before it was caught.

The vein isn’t really harmful if you accidentally eat one, but they are rather unsightly and can add some grittiness to your delicious bite of shrimp. To remove it, all you have to do is make a shallow cut along the back of the shrimp and then pull out the vein with the tip of your knife. It sounds pretty disgusting and unpleasant, but once you do one or two, you start to get over the gross factor.

Ways to Cook Shrimp

Now let’s get to the good part: eating the shrimp! Here are some of our favorite shrimp-cooking methods and recipes. Please share your own in the comments!

How To Peel & Devein Shrimp

What You Need

Shell-on shrimp, any kind, size, or quantity

A sharp paring knife
Kitchen shears (optional)

Method #1: Peeling Shrimp by Hand

  1. Pull off the legs: This isn’t strictly necessary, and you can pull off the shell without removing the legs, but I usually like to get them out of the way.
  2. Break open the shell along the underside and peel off: Work your thumbs underneath the shell and crack it open. As the shell cracks, you’ll be able to peel it away from the shrimp.
  3. Pinch off the tail: The tail can often be left on for cooking, but if you’d like to take it off now, pinch the tail where it meets the body of the shrimp and gently pull. The rest of the shrimp should pull cleanly out of the tail.

Method #2: Peeling the Shrimp with Kitchen Shears

  1. Cut along the top of the shrimp with shears: Insert the tip of the shears between the shrimp and the top of its shell and begin cutting the shell along its length. Stop when you get to the tail.
  2. Peel back the shell: Peel back the shell from either side of the cut and discard.
  3. Pinch off the tail: The tail can often be left on for cooking, but if you’d like to take it off now, pinch the tail where it meets the body of the shrimp and gently pull. The rest of the shrimp should pull cleanly out of the tail.

How to Devein Shrimp

  1. Score the shrimp along its back with a paring knife: Gently run your paring knife along the back of the shrimp. You don’t need to cut very deeply — a shallow cut is fine.
  2. Look for the vein: The vein will look like a long, gritty string. You might not find a vein in every shrimp — that’s okay.
  3. Pull out the vein with your paring knife: Gently pull up the vein with the tip of your paring knife, starting near the top and continuing to the bottom. It’s fairly elastic, so it usually doesn’t break. If it does break, just pick it up again and keep pulling.

Recipe Notes

  • Save your shrimp shells! Save your shrimp shells and make a quick shrimp stock by simmering them in water for about 15 minutes.