It's time we got real about one of the most reviled of all kitchen tasks.
Whenever I stop by the seafood counter during a lap around the grocery store, I always grab a pound of shrimp. This crustacean is my go-to weeknight dinner because it defrosts fairly quickly and cooks even quicker. However, the one process that prolongs my time in the kitchen longer than I ever intend to stay is peeling and deveining shrimp. This task tows a thin line between being mindless/therapeutic and being an annoying, time-consuming chore. Most nights, I find myself standing over the sink with a paring knife, cutting a slit down the back of the shrimp, and wondering if this is even a necessary task.
The black, slimy “vein” below the flesh of the shrimp is actually the shrimp’s digestive tract. Sometimes it is easy to see and other times it is barely visible. It is not harmful to the human body if consumed, and the rationale for removing the tract is based largely on aesthetics. Ultimately, deciding to devein shrimp or not boils down to personal preference. You have to take into account the amount of time you are willing to devote to removing the tract and the method of cooking in which you prepare the shrimp.
When You Might Wanna
If the thought of eating shrimp “poo” completely grosses you out, go ahead and commit to removing veins. The tract in extra-large (26/30 per pound) shrimp is typically more visible and can contain more sand particles than smaller shrimp. Therefore, it’s a good idea to devein large shrimp. Also, if you are pan-searing or sauteing the shrimp, most would agree that it’s more visually pleasing if you remove it. The shrimp to opens into a butterfly shape when it’s cooked at a high heat due to the slit down its back.
The best way to avoid having to devein shrimp altogether is to purchase fresh or frozen peeled and deveined shrimp; however, since the work is already done for you, you do pay more for the pre-cleaned shrimp.
When You Shouldn’t Bother
For extra-small (61/70 per pound) to small shrimp (51/60 per pound), the time, labor, and possible hand cramping that deveining would require is not worth it because they’re so tiny. And when you steam, poach, or boil shrimp, it’s better to leave them whole, rather than slicing them down the back. Keeping the shape in tact allows for more even cooking.
Obviously, if you cook shrimp with the shell on, deveining isn't an option. It’s worth noting that if you do choose to cook shrimp with the shell on, this added means of protection locks in moisture and helps prevent your shrimp from becoming a rubbery mess. In some cases, shrimp is fried with the shell on, and you have no choice but to eat the shell and digestive tract. On the upside, when you grill and barbecue shrimp with the shell attached, the tract actually adds a hint of briny flavor.