How to Remove the Heads From Shrimp

The Grip and Snap Technique

  • 01 of 07

    Choose Fresh Head-On Shrimp

    Fresh Head-On Carolina Brown on plateShrimp
    Doug DuCap

    If you see head-on shrimp in the market, don’t be afraid to buy them. Removing the heads might seem daunting at first, but the process, known as "heading," is quite easy, although a bit messy. Head-on shrimp retain their natural moisture better, resulting in superior flavor and texture, making the task well worth it in the end.

    Be sure to buy only very fresh shrimp. Avoid shrimp with black dots, as these indicate bacterial growth. Choose shrimp that are firm to the touch, not mushy or waterlogged. If you purchase frozen shrimp, let them defrost slowly in the refrigerator, allowing the water to drain off as they thaw.

    Continue to 2 of 7 below.
  • 02 of 07

    Handle With Care

    Fresh Shrimp Rostrum and Telson
    Doug DuCap

    You need to use caution when handling head-on shrimp. In addition to the sharp point at the tail (the telson), there is an even longer point at the head (the rostrum). They’re easy enough to avoid if you’re moderately careful.

    Pick up the shrimp one at a time—don't try to grab a handful all at once or your chances of getting poked increase. If you do get stuck, clean the site well as any puncture wound easily can become infected.

    Continue to 3 of 7 below.
  • 03 of 07

    Dominant Hand Position

    Dominant Hand Position holding shrimp
    Doug DuCap

    Before you begin, choose your work area; setting a colander in the sink is ideal. You may also want a paper towel or dish towel handy.

    Begin by taking a shrimp firmly in your dominant hand, with the body curving toward you and your thumb and bent forefinger just behind the gill plates on opposite sides.

    Continue to 4 of 7 below.
  • 04 of 07

    Other Hand Position

    Other Hand Position gripping shrimp head
    Doug DuCap

    With your other hand, grip the shrimp head firmly with your thumb and forefinger on the gill plates on opposite sides. The tips of your thumbs and the knuckles of your forefingers should almost be touching.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Snap Upward Quickly

    Removing the shrimp head
    Doug DuCap

    In one quick movement, bring your forefingers up and your thumbs apart in a snapping motion. Remove the head and pull out the black digestive tract, if visible. Repeat with the remaining shrimp.

    Once you learn the process and exactly where your fingers need to go, you can keep a paper towel in your hand while snapping the heads off. This gives you a better grip on the heads, minimizes some of the mess, and aids in the removal of the digestive tract.

    Continue to 6 of 7 below.
  • 06 of 07

    Rinse Shrimp Well

    Shrimp rinsed in colander
    Doug DuCap

    Dispose of the heads (or save them for making shrimp stock) and rinse the shrimp in cold water.

    Your shrimp are now ready to go! You can cook them in the shell, peel and ​devein them, or freeze them for later use.

    Continue to 7 of 7 below.
  • 07 of 07

    Alternative Method

    If the gripping and snapping technique is not doing it for you, you can simply cut off the heads. Place the shrimp on a cutting board, angling it so the head is toward your dominant hand. Using a sharp knife, cut through right behind where the head meets the body. Without lifting the knife, push the head to the side. 

    Continue with the remaining shrimp, discarding the heads (or saving for stock) and rinsing the shrimp in cold water before using or freezing.