With more than 300 species of shrimp found world-wide and in a variety of flavors. From boil and peel shrimp to shrimp cocktail, to shrimp kabobs, shrimp stir fry, or deep fried shrimp, there are perhaps as many ways to eat it as there are types of shrimp; all, however, have one thing in common -- you simply do not eat the heads. Fresh or frozen, it is a simple process to de-head your shrimp, although it is a little easier when the shrimp is fresh.
Pinch and Pull
Grasp the shrimp firmly, but without squeezing. Place your fingers with the thumb on the upper side of the shrimp, holding it with the tail towards the palm of your hand, and your remaining fingers underneath the body. Your fingertips and thumb should rest about 2/3 of the way up the shrimp's body, near the head, for best control.
Reach over with your free hand and grasp the shrimp head firmly, but without squeezing. Use a twisting motion to break the head free from the body; you may find that slightly pinching or pulling downwards at the same time helps the head come off.
Pull the head away gently until free. Rinse away any black matter present under the head; the long, black line that runs the length of the shrimp's body, attaching to the head, is the shrimp's digestive tract. With very fresh shrimp this often will come out of the shrimp with the head, if done properly.
Off With the Head
Place the shrimp on a clean, flat surface. Position the shrimp so that its head faces your dominant hand to make it easier for you to work with.
Use either a sharp knife or a tin can to chop the head off, cutting through just behind where the head ends; this spot is evident when looking at the shrimp. Scrape the head away without lifting the knife or can, then toss the shrimp aside and place the next in position.
Rinse de-headed shrimp under cold running water. Make sure any black matter -- the shrimp's digestive tract -- that is exposed washes away as well.
The Rest of the Mess
Grab the shrimp legs, all at once, between your fingers and pull firmly away from the shrimp's body to remove the legs. Pull any remaining legs individually as necessary.
Remove the shell, if desired, by peeling it slowly, like an egg. Begin at the top of the shrimp and work your way down the length of its body. Leave the shell on, if desired; shells help retain moisture and flavor in shrimp, and come off readily after cooking.
Pull the tail, pinching as you tug, to remove. Cut the tail, alternatively, just above the tail where it joins with the shrimp's body. Removing shrimp tails is merely a matter of preference and may also be left on for display purposes.
Cut down the length of the shrimp's back, either through the shell or with the shell removed, to eliminate the digestive tract. Use either a sharp knife or de-veiner to perform. Pull back the edges of the incision to help remove the matter, digging it out as needed. Pulling on one end of the digestive tract may also work, depending on how sturdy the tract is.
Rinse, again, with fresh cold water. Swish the shrimp around underneath the water, then toss in a bowl to collect while you clean the remaining shrimp. Cook or freeze as desired.
Clean all work surfaces thoroughly with hot, soapy water to prevent cross-contamination and food borne illness. These same methods work with frozen shrimp, once thawed, but the digestive tract removal is more difficult the older the shrimp is.
Discard shrimp that smell like anything but ocean water; an ammonia smell or any unpleasant odor is a symptom of shrimp spoilage. Likewise with color -- shrimp should have a clear, fresh color absent of black spots or murky coloring. Promptly wash hands and proceed only with gloves if red splotches or hives develop on your hands; some people are allergic to shrimp and should not handle them with exposed skin.