Supermarkets have taken strides to make cooking easy and convenient for everyone by offering a variety of pre-chopped vegetables and marinated meats and seafood. But we hardly ever go this route; while cutting into your prep time may sound appealing, you’ll lose out on freshness and overall flavor. Never is this losing trade-off more apparent than when dealing with peeled and deveined shrimp.
Buying shell-on shrimp affords the shellfish a natural layer of protection from the freezing and thawing process. Do you think that submerging shrimp under cold running water brings out their best flavor?
Shell-on shrimp also allow for plenty of options come dinnertime. Without shells, the prospect of peel-and-eat shrimp is literally off the table. Most importantly, shrimp shells are free flavor. Collect enough of them — and toss 'em in the freezer — and you can make a rich shrimp stock, which is ideal for enhancing your gumbo or making a bloomin’ tasty shrimp and grits.
To do this, you’ll need a bit of technique to harvest the shells and clean the shrimp while keeping as much of it intact as possible. Below, I’ll demonstrate how to do this proficiently and the tools you’ll need to have the freshest, cleanest shrimp on your dinner table in a flash.
Organization is the key to effectively peeling your shrimp, so be sure to have your tools ready before you get started. First, you’ll need a cutting board, secured to your countertop with a wet dish towel. Next, aside from your bowl of shrimp, you’ll need two additional medium bowls: one for the shells and one for the cleaned shrimp. Set your work station immediately beside the sink if you can, in case you need to rinse your knife or hands. Finally, you’ll want a sharp paring knife as your weapon of choice. A paring knife fits easily in your hand, and the small blade minimizes your chances of cutting yourself.
I would avoid any of those specialty shrimp deveining tools. Unless you’re working in a professional kitchen where peeling upward of 50 pounds of shrimp at a time is commonplace, stick with a paring knife. You’ll have more control of a short knife than you would a longer shrimp deveiner, plus the tool tends to tear the flesh of the shrimp. You paid good money for those!
Here’s the easy part: simply buy the best quality shrimp available to you. Fresh always trumps frozen; however, unless you live near coastal waters, fresh shrimp may not be available to you. Atlantic shrimp are more desirable than Gulf shrimp, but American wins out over imported shrimp, due to more stringent domestic shrimping regulations.
This would be a good time to address the scatological details of our kitchen task. While the term “vein,” is thrown around colloquially, what you’re removing from the shrimp is actually a digestive tract. The next time you’re at a restaurant and bite into a shrimp with a slightly gritty sensation, you can curse the name of the cook who neglected to properly discard your crustacean’s poop chute.
To start, grip the paring knife with your dominant hand and the shrimp in the opposite hand.
Carefully insert the knife with the blade pointing upward underneath the top part of the shell.
Gently run the knife up the back of the shrimp all the way to the tail. Depending on your presentation, you can choose here whether to remove the tail or not.
Set the knife down and peel the shell outward, removing the shell in one piece. If the digestive tract did not come off with the shell, you can use your fingers or the tip of your knife to remove and discard it.
Place the cleaned shrimp in one bowl and the shell in another. Repeat with the remaining shrimp.