A Very Good, Very Crunchy Reason to Not Peel Shrimp

September  7, 2017

I first learned to eat shrimp whole, with the shells on, from a Brazilian friend, one snowy winter. We were visiting Maine during the (once-abundant) Maine shrimp season. Before, I had always fiddled about before with peeling the shells off these small beasts. Once I recognized the outside skin as a crunchy textural addition to the overall dish, I never looked back.

From there, it was an easy step to eating larger-sized gulf shrimp, or the fabulous shrimp from South Carolina, with the peel and even heads on. Cooking the shrimp whole in the shells also protects the sweet shrimp inside, keeping the flesh moist and tender. It’s easy to flavor the shells with aromatics in the cooking oil (in other words, without much fuss).

You don't need to fry shrimp for it to be crunchy. Photo by Julia Gartland

While there are plenty of variations to be made on this simple technique, I always return to this savory Mediterranean combination of garlic and rosemary. Frying the shrimp in hot olive oil quickly crisps the shells up and seals in the juices, and throwing the salt on hot shells just as they come out of the hot oil really bonds the salt on to the shell, granting plenty of flavor. I like to squeeze a little lemon over everything for the acidity, and also because it softens the texture of the shells.

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Of course, I really love to make this dish with head on shrimp, but those are not easy to come by if one is not in fresh shrimp country. Plus, it does work just as well without heads. I like to use what’s called 16/20 shrimp, meaning there are 16-20 shrimp per pound. I generally steer clear of farm-raised shrimp from other parts of the world, as they are often the product of environmentally dubious situations. I much prefer wild or farmed American Gulf, Florida or Carolina shrimp. They are usually frozen aboard the fishing boats as soon as they’re caught, and thus tend to be really fresh. Unlike a lot of fish, the texture of shrimp is strong enough to stand up well to freezing.

This is a really easy quick dish that tastes delicious and—okay, okay—works even if you insist on peeling off the shells after cooking. But I hope you will trust me and give the whole shrimp a try. You might find yourself keeping it on for other recipes, too.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Ann Smyth Horton
    Ann Smyth Horton
  • juzybcn
  • LisaDarling
  • cary Wade
    cary Wade
  • Deborah
chef/owner of Nina June Restaurant,


Ann S. September 16, 2017
Legs, too?
Sara J. September 18, 2017
if you wish! think of it as another variation on soft shelled crab....
juzybcn September 16, 2017
Here in Barcelona, the best fresh shrimp come from Palamòs and are best grilled whole with just a sprinkling of salt at the end. Although most people peel the shrimp before eating (using your fingers for eating is not frowned upon here ;-) may people consider the head to be more of a delicacy than the tail; my daughter will trade her tails for heads any day. Regardless, most people agree that the heads are definitely to be sucked. Frozen shrimp are best left for stir frying or for other prepared dishes.
cary W. September 16, 2017
juzybcn, do we take the heads off then suck from the neck part? We don't pop the whole shrimp in our mouth head and all? thanks!
juzybcn September 16, 2017
Just as there are people who eat chicken bones, there might be people who eat the whole head, but no, after grilling, you carefully separate the head from the body, so that you don't lose any of the wonderful juices, and then suck up what you can.
LisaDarling September 15, 2017
I've been eating the tails on deep fried shrimp for a while now. Yum! I'm definitely going to give this a try. It's so funny what we do out of habit and without questioning. There's a lot of nutritional value we're missing out on by skipping the shells. I don't know why I hadn't thought to do this before.
cary W. September 13, 2017
did some searching and found the recipe…
Tara Z. September 13, 2017
Thanks, Cary! I tried searching and couldn't find it.
Deborah September 13, 2017
this looks great. will try. i've had something similar at our dim sum tea parlor Nom Wah in Chinatown NYC called salt and pepper shrimp, heads on. So so tasty. surely they're not using rosemary/garlic but the taste with the shell on leaves one licking their lips.
cary W. September 12, 2017
cool :) so I guess you're munching on the heads too? When do you know they're done? When they curl?
Tara Z. September 12, 2017
I'd love to try this! But I don't see a recipe...
Gw M. September 11, 2017
Really ??? Should I leave scales on fish too ???
Sara J. September 11, 2017
no fish scales aren't generally edible, but my point with this recipe is that not only are shrimp shells edible when cooked right (hot fried in oil or on salt of on the grill) the shells become a delicious textural component
Joseph K. September 9, 2017
Where is the recipe?