How To Cook And Eat Whole Shrimp (Yes, Even Their Heads)

Illustration for article titled How To Cook And Eat Whole Shrimp (Yes, Even Their Heads)

Generally speaking, we like shrimp. Your local supermarket testifies to this: Multiple sizes of shrimp of various provenance on display at the seafood counter; shrimp prepared and flash-frozen in wild variety (OK, maybe not wild variety, but anyway Captain Gorton breads them at least a couple of different ways) over in the refrigerated section; in the ready-to-eat area of the store, the inevitable sad plastic tray of flabby cocktail shrimp for the oh-shit-I-totally-forgot-about-the-company-potluck crowd. Shrimp on shrimp on shrimp, around the corner from shrimp. And: None of them with their heads.


There are of course other reasons why we don't eat a lot of shrimp heads—we don't like getting chitin in our teeth; generally speaking, we just kinda don't eat many heads in western culture; we have been instructed by our nation's Puritan founders to hate and fear things that are good; et cetera—but the primary one is, I mean, holy shit, have you fucking looked at a shrimp's head? Does it particularly look like a thing to eat?

No. It does not look like a thing to eat. It looks like a thing to swat with a broom. It looks like a thing to spray with a black can of poison. It looks like a—

Never mind. The job here is to get you to try to eat these things. Well, goddammit, are they food or are they fucking beauty pageant contestants? A chicken thigh's not exactly the Mona Lisa, either, but we eat the hell out of those, unless we are self-denying nitwits, because what matters is that they taste incredible.

The same should be true of the shrimp head. The entire shrimp shell, really, but especially the head and tail. These are the most flavorful, most texturally exciting parts of the shrimp, and we discard them by the bazillions, and it's all because ew it wooks wike a bug ew ew ew I don't wike it!, and that's goddamn dumb.

Look. As a broad practice, head-eating probably isn't such a good idea. But, dammit, shrimp heads are lovely, once they're cooked: crunchy and briny and shrimpy and exciting. Here's a way to prepare whole shrimp, with their entire goddamn bodies left intact. The general outline of this preparation, with maybe a few minor differences, may seem familiar to you if you've seen whole shrimp served at dim sum; it's salty and hot and pleasingly simple, and by god, you're gonna make it.


Come on. You can do it. We'll hold hands! Let's do it.

To begin, acquire whole shrimp. This can be a bit more of a task than getting your hands on the familiar, headless variety, unless you have the good fortune to live within easy driving distance of a wharf or dedicated dockside fish market. They can be ordered online, although perhaps you will find this distasteful, as it enables people to continue making the bad choice to live far away from the ocean, and maybe you'll prefer not to participate in this morally indefensible behavior. Suit yourself. In any case, by whatever method you choose, get some whole shrimp. A pound of 'em? Sure.


You won't want these to be big, horrifying, forearm-length monstrosities, by the way. Lovecraftian horror-shrimp make for fine eating when peeled and beheaded and, say, poached gently in emulsified butter with bay leaf and lemon and garlic and crushed red pepper, oh god wait, put your pants back on—but, their chitinous bits (the shell and head) are simply too large and hard and pointy for safe consumption. Woe betide the fool who bites into the cooked head of a colossal shrimp, only to come away with some needle-sharp protrusion of shrimp-mouth lanced into the soft space between two of his teeth like a fucking vengeance harpoon from the briny deep.

The point, here, is: Err small when purchasing shrimp whose heads you intend to consume. Your pound of whole shrimp should include absolutely no fewer than a dozen of them; if there are fewer than a dozen shrimp in your pound, that means they are too big, and you're going to end up bleeding from the roof of your mouth. (On the other hand, probably your whole shrimp should be large enough to observe with the naked eye. Feels like I shouldn't have to tell you that, but, hey.)


(A note, here. As a matter of principle, this preparation will proceed as though you are leaving the shrimp entirely intact throughout the cooking process, right up until the part where you bite into them. However! Each shrimp likely has two extremely long threadlike appendages up near the front, and maneuvering these can be kind of annoying, and if you want to cut them off or pluck them off prior to doing anything else with your shrimp, hell, go for it.)

(Don't take this as implied permission to just, like, rip all the shells off your shrimp, though. Dammit we're eating whole shrimp, here!)


So you've got your modest-sized whole shrimp, and man are they ever gross-looking. Set them aside for a second, and heat a pot of oil on the stove. Pot-wise, you'll want a vessel big enough to comfortably fit, oh, a third of your shrimp without having to layer them or forcefully cram them in there like self-congratulation in everything Chris Jones has ever done. As usual, you'll want this to be some sturdy oil that won't smoke as soon as you turn the stove on—canola, vegetable, corn, peanut, you get the idea. Shrimp are pretty buoyant as they cook; they're not going to plunge much when you release them into the oil, so you don't need a ton of it. Just, oh, two or three inches' worth. Bring it along over, say, medium or medium-high heat.

(Another note, here. If you should happen to have the thought that maybe you could use some homemade chili oil for some or all of those two or three inches' worth of oil, I mean, you get it, you know? You understand. Come on in here and get a big ol' kiss. Don't go crazy with the chili oil, though: Your chili oil is a condiment, meant to be used in small quantities, and not as a cooking medium. At least, not by itself, anyway. This is to say that it is very strong, and you want to be able to enjoy your crispy whole shrimp without vaporizing the inside of your body, unless you do want to vaporize the inside of your body, in which case please videotape it. Otherwise, dilute your chili oil at least a little bit with some un-chili oil. OK?)


While that's going on, prep some other stuff. Shrimp first. Haul out a colander, dump your shrimp into it, and rinse them under a cold tap for a minute or two, to dislodge any sand or grit or whatever the hell else they may have secreted away in their spindly face-parts. ("Spindly face-parts"? Gross! Sorry.) Set them aside again to dry off a bit.


Now, while the oil is heating and the shrimp are lounging over there like a buncha goddamn slacker millennials, chop things. Specifically, chop a big yellow onion into strips, and chop some cayenne peppers into, what, maybe quarter- or half-inch rings? Yeah, let's go with that. (If you can't get fresh cayenne peppers—and it may still be too early in the year in many places—you can substitute jalapeños, no problem.) While you're at it, slice a lime or two into wedges. Set all this stuff aside.

One last thing to do before you begin cooking in earnest. Dump a big fistful of cornstarch into a sturdy freezer bag. You're not breading your whole shrimp here, not remotely, so you don't need egg wash or breadcrumbs or any of that—you're just going to dust them lightly with some cornstarch to boost their eventual crispiness. If you want to season your cornstarch with salt and black pepper and maybe some cayenne, well lookit you, all industrious and creative. Go right ahead. It's not going to make a huge difference in the final product, but maybe you'll feel like you expressed yourself or some shit, and that's fine.


Go ahead and chuck, oh, a third of your shrimp into that bag, seal it, and shake it a few times to coat the shrimp with cornstarch.

By now your oil is likely plenty hot for cooking; do the wooden-spoon trick to check. (That's the one where you dip the tip of a wooden spoon into the oil and watch it for bubbles. If it bubbles as though cooking, the oil is ready; if it doesn't, the oil isn't ready; if you can't tell whether it is bubbling or not, please remove the lampshade from your head and try again.) It's time to cook your shrimp in batches, starting with the one in the freezer bag full of cornstarch. Shake each shrimp to dislodge any extra cornstarch before lowering it, gently, into the hot oil. While one batch cooks, toss the next one in the cornstarch bag.


These'll cook quickly—not more than two or three minutes per batch. Their bodies will curl and turn orange; their heads will turn a reddish color with no black parts other than the eyes. With a slotted spoon or some heat-resistant tongs or Chris Jones's justly disembodied hands, remove the shrimp from the pot to a drying rack or paper towel. Repeat until you've cooked 'em all.

So your shrimp are sitting over there cooling. Now you're gonna very quickly cook the onion and peppers you chopped before. If you have a metal basket or long-handled wire colander you can use to keep all this chopped-up stuff in one place, go ahead and dump the sliced onion and peppers into that, and lower it into the still-hot oil for, oh, just a minute or two to get everything fragrant and hot and softened. If that's not an option, move the big pot of oil off the burner, get a tablespoon or two of oil hot in a skillet or pan or flat-bottomed wok, and quickly sauté or stir-fry the onion and peppers in there. You're not looking for caramelization here; you just want to get this stuff hot and softened a tad, and if it should happen to flavor the oil it's cooked in, and if some very small but not insignificant quantity of that newly flavored oil should adhere to the chopped plantlife, all the better.


Once that stuff's hot and the onion has begun turning translucent, remove the chopped plantlife from its cooking vessel with your Slotted Kitchen Implement of Choice, and throw all the food—shrimp and onions and peppers—together in a big bowl. Sprinkle it with a generous pinch of salt and another generous pinch of freshly cracked black pepper, spritz it with one or two of those lime wedges you cut up before, and toss it a few times with a pair of forks. Dump it out onto a big plate or serving platter. Crack open a very cold beer.

There. Now comes the exciting, maybe scary part.

So, during cooking, your shrimp curled in on themselves; their heads and tails likely now point in the same direction, like the letter U or cartoon magnets, only kinda unnerving because they are shrimp with their heads still attached. Grab a shrimp with your fingers (and if a strip of onion or ring of chili pepper or one of each should happen to hitch a ride, even better), and point the two ends of the U toward your face. Take a deep breath. Fire away.


Crunch. Hey—you like crunch! Crunch is good. So are salty and hot and shrimpy, and so is the slight sharpness of the onion, and the flitting, fleeting lime tartness, and hey, this is pretty damn good, and I must have another and why can I not stop eating these and hands off my shrimp or so help me I will stab you with one of them. Simple and primal and complete and satisfying.

And: Eye-opening! What other heads might be fun to eat? (Run to freedom, cats!)


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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at You can find lots more Foodspin at

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