How to Clean Shrimp

This quick and easy how-to for cleaning and deveining shrimp is used by caterers and culinary professionals for a very good reason. It always results in gorgeous, luscious shrimp for all your best recipes.

Whip up some crunchy Coconut Shrimp or marinated Grilled Shrimp Skewers to reward yourself for learning a new skill. Or poach the biggest shrimp you can find and make a shrimp cocktail to end all shrimp cocktails. When it comes to prawns, nothing even comes close, I totally get it. Better pick one of my all-star shrimp recipes and satisfy that craving!

Raw shrimp in a clear bowl.
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This shrimp devein hack is actually very easy to do, and the results are 100% better than what a processing plant is capable of. I promise.

Below, I’ll cover all the bases: buying shrimp, thawing shrimp, and especially the down-and-dirty, nitty gritty details of how to clean shrimp. Also, when to clean shrimp, because not all recipes require it.

Why do it? Cleaning and shelling prawns and shrimp at home is a great alternative to buying bags of EZ-peel or pre-peeled shrimp. Chances are you’ll have more sizes to choose from and better quality shrimp for the price. In my book, that’s one of the best reasons to do it yourself.

I've also included a super simple recipe for shrimp stock, so save those shells!

Is cleaning shrimp really necessary?

Technically, no. The little black line on the bottom of the shrimp, also called a “vein,” is just a digestive tract. Depending on what the shrimp ate before it was caught, it could be darker than the rest of the meat. It could have some sand in it, or algae. But, is shrimp poop safe to eat?

While some people consider it unsightly or are turned off by it, it really isn’t harmful to eat. It just looks better without it.

Peeling shrimp before eating them, on the other hand, makes for a better experience, texture-wise. But even that isn’t entirely necessary. I know lots of folks who love their spiced, in-the-peel boiled shrimp sold in seafood markets on the East coast.

When do you clean shrimp?

You can clean shrimp when they’re raw or previously cooked. Here are some guidelines:

How to clean and devein a shrimp:

This method works with any size shrimp, raw or cooked, peel-on or peel-off. Cleaning and peeling frozen shrimp? Read how to thaw shrimp below before you begin.

All you need is a pair of sturdy kitchen shears or a sharp paring knife. Work one shrimp at a time.

  1. Using the knife (or shears) make a shallow slice (or snip) right through the shell on the shrimp's back, from its head to its tail. (I start at the fattest part of the shrimp and cut towards the tail.)
    Someone taking the tails off of raw shrimp with some in a clear bowl.
  2. Then carefully pick out the black or green vein that runs along the back and discard it.
    Someone taking the tails off of raw shrimp with some in a clear bowl.
  3. If you want to devein a shrimp with the shell on, that’s all there is to it—you’re done. On to the next shrimp! Otherwise, remove the shrimp shell using the instructions below.

Peeling and shelling shrimp:

You can peel shrimp before or after cooking—it’s up to you and the recipe.

  1. To take the shell off a shrimp, start by pinching off the tail, then the rest of the shell should peel off fairly easily.
    Someone taking the tails off of raw shrimp with some in a clear bowl.
  2. To leave the tail on shrimp, break off the shell at the base of the tail, and remove the shell and legs, if they’re attached, leaving the tail in tact.

Figuring out shrimp sizes:

What are the numbers next to shrimp, and what do they mean?

On the boat and at the factory, shrimp are sorted by size and given a number. This number lets you know about how many shrimp come in a pound.

For example, the numbers 16/20 tells you that there are anywhere from 16 to 20 shrimp per pound.

Other times, you may see a letter U before a number, like U10. That means that there are approximately 10 shrimp (or under) per pound. For example…

  • Extra colossal shrimp= U10 shrimp= under 10 shrimp per pound
  • Colossal shrimp= U15 shrimp= under 15 shrimp per pound
  • Extra jumbo shrimp= 16/20 shrimp= 16 to 20 shrimp per pound
  • Extra large shrimp= 26/30 shrimp= 26 to 30 shrimp per pound

You may have guessed this already, but the higher the number, the smaller the shrimp. The lower the number, the larger (and pricier) the shrimp.

Don’t be afraid to go small. Tiny shrimp are delicious choices for shrimp salad, stir-fry, or a big batch of fried rice. Save the biggest shrimp for making big impressions. (Think super fancy shrimp cocktail or shrimp skewers.)

Shrimp 101: shopping and buying

  • Fresh or frozen shrimp? Unless you live right on the coast, the best choice is frozen shrimp. I always buy frozen shrimp, no matter what. Really! Here’s why.That’s because almost all shrimp that comes to us has been previously frozen, usually as soon as it’s caught on the boat. When you thaw shrimp at home, you’re getting the absolute freshest shrimp possible. When you buy “fresh” shrimp at the grocery store, someone else has thawed it, but you don’t know when. Maybe yesterday, maybe last week. Better to be safe than sorry, because fresh shrimp tastes so much better than, well, not fresh shrimp.
  • What to look for when buying fresh shrimp. Use your senses when shopping for shrimp. Good quality, freshest-of-the-fresh shrimp should smell briny and even sweet, like the ocean. Go somewhere else if the shrimp smell like ammonia, are slimy, and have black spots on the shells, which is a sign of age.
  • Wild or farmed shrimp? That depends on your and your grocery budget! Wild-caught shrimp have a stronger flavor, but can cost a lot more.I usually choose farm-raised shrimp from a sustainable, responsible grower. If you’re in doubt, read the packaging carefully—shrimp farmers are proud of their sustainability efforts and will advertise it on the label—and look up the latest shrimp news on Seafood Watch.
    Grilled shrimp skewers in a white tray.

How to thaw frozen shrimp:

Very important tip: Always, always, always thaw frozen shrimp before cooking. That's the only way they'll cook evenly.
Here are a couple options for safely thawing shrimp. One takes overnight, and one only takes a few minutes.

  • Refrigerator. Let the shrimp thaw overnight in the fridge, (place the bag on a tray or in a bowl in case the bag has a tiny hole-- and yes, I learned this the hard way.)
  • Sink. For quicker thawing, open the bag and put them in a bowl of cold (not warm) water. Then turn on the faucet and let a thin trickle of cold water run into the bowl, letting the excess water overflow out of the bowl and down the sink drain. Depending on the amount you are thawing, the shrimp should thaw in a few minutes.

What can I use shrimp shells for?

Make a quick and easy shrimp broth and use in recipes like Clam Chowder, Jambalaya, or Shrimp Scampi.

Every time you peel shrimp, save the shells in a 1-gallon bag in your freezer. When your bag is full, make this recipe!

Shrimp Stock Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds shrimp shells
  • Cold water
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and halved
  • 1 carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1 celery rib, coarsely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 sprig of thyme
  • 4-6 parsley stems
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns

Instructions:

  • To a Dutch oven or large stock pot, add shrimp shells, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, thyme, parsley, bay leaf, salt, and peppercorns. Add cold water to cover.
  • Over medium-high heat, bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently (bubbles should barely break the surface at irregular intervals) for 20 minutes.
  • Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth. Chill covered in the refrigerator, then divide the broth into freezer-safe containers (leaving at least 1/2-inch for expansion), label, and freeze.
Raw shrimp in a clear bowl.

How to Clean Shrimp

This quick and easy how-to for cleaning and deveining shrimp is used by caterers and culinary professionals for a very good reason. It always results in gorgeous, luscious shrimp for all your best recipes.
5 from 1 vote
Print Pin Rate
Course: Appetizer, Main Course
Cuisine: American
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 10 minutes
Servings: 4 servings
Calories: 96kcal
Author: Meggan Hill

Ingredients

  • 1 pound shrimp or more

Instructions

  • If shrimp are still in the shell, use a sharp scissors and cut along the middle back of each shrimp, leaving the tail intact.
  • Using a sharp paring knife, cut along the dark vein on the back of each shrimp and remove it. Rinse out the back of each shrimp and pat dry with paper towels.
  • Save shrimp shells in the freezer to make shrimp stock, if desired (see notes).

Notes

How to Make Shrimp Stock:
  • 2 pounds shrimp shells
  • Cold water 
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and halved
  • 1 carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1 celery rib, coarsely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 sprig of thyme
  • 4-6 parsley stems
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
Instructions:
  • To a Dutch oven or large stock pot, add shrimp shells, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, thyme, parsley, bay leaf, salt, and peppercorns. Add cold water to cover.
  • Over medium-high heat, bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently (bubbles should barely break the surface at irregular intervals) for 20 minutes.
  • Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth. Chill covered in the refrigerator, then divide the broth into freezer-safe containers (leaving at least 1/2-inch for expansion), label, and freeze.

Nutrition

Calories: 96kcal
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  1. Lynn

    Thank you so much for this information. So helpful!5 stars

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