Eating Shrimp Shells [ Safety & Benefits]

Anyone that eats shrimp found themselves wondering if you can eat shrimp shells and if so, what are the benefits? Is it even safe to eat?

Generally speaking, you should eat shrimp shells for their full flavor, to add interesting and complex texture to your dish, and even boost your protein. Keeping the shells on shrimp is more common in Asian cuisine than Western dishes, but most shrimp dishes can be made with shrimp in their shells.

There are quite a few benefits to eating shrimp in their shells, both for you and for the chef preparing your meal if you are eating at a restaurant.

First, eating the shrimp shells adds an interesting and complex texture to your dish. They are crunchy while the meat inside remains tender and juicy. They are also great at soaking up sauce, ingredients, and flavor. Yum!

Second, shrimp shells add protein to your meal. This helps to build muscle and can round out your nutritional needs, especially if other parts of your dinner include fats and carbohydrates.

Finally, it takes less time to prepare shrimp with their shells on. The chef will not need to take off the heads, shells, and tails before cooking. You will not need to remove them before digging into your food. It’s a win-win!

What Shrimp Shells Are Made Of

Shrimp shells are mostly made of chitin and protein. Chitin is similar to cellulose (the stringy part of plants). It functions much like keratin, the same thing that makes up hair and nails, in the body. In shrimp shells, it also combines with calcium carbonate, which makes it tough but still flexible.

What does all of this mean? Due to their chemical makeup, shrimp shells are an additional source of protein with compounds that work well in the human body.

Parts Of The Shrimp

In Western cuisine, shrimp meat is the most popular part of the shrimp to eat. But there are other parts that are not only edible but delicious!

Shrimp shells can refer to the heads, the outer shell of the body, the legs, and the tail. You can find shrimp available with some or all of these parts included. For a true shell-on cooking and eating experience, look for shrimp that is complete and freshly caught.

Eating Shrimp Heads

Sometimes shrimp heads are included on a shell-on shrimp. This can be the case when you order shrimp directly from the seafood counter at your grocery store.

Shrimp heads make an impressive visual addition to your dish. They have a good amount of meat available behind the exterior structure. The shrimp organs are also in this section, making the whole bite full of flavor and very rich.

Some people actually prefer shrimp heads as a tasty, juicy delicacy. They tend to be the juiciest parts of the shrimp, which contrasts nicely with the crunchy outer shell.

Most chefs remove the two longest antennas even when they do serve head-on shrimp. The antenna is edible but doesn’t offer much for a boost of flavor or benefits.

You may need to search for shrimp sold with their heads still intact. Your local seafood counter likely has them available or can put in a special order for you.

Can You Eat Shrimp Legs?

The crunchiest bits of the shrimp are the legs. They are very small, usually just a centimeter or two. When you cook the shrimp, the legs absorb a ton of spices, sauce, and flavor.

Shrimp legs are not available by themselves, but come attached to shell-on shrimp. You can remove them before cooking or eating, but why would you? They are the perfect crunchy-crispy addition to the sweet and juicy shrimp.

When you purchase shell-on shrimp in the freezer section of your grocery store, chances are that they have the body shell, legs, and tail still intact. This is the most common preparation for shrimp with their shells.

Shrimp meat is by far the most popular part of the shrimp. It is juicy, tender, and tastes amazing in a variety of dishes or by itself. Most people who like shrimp refer to this part of the crustacean when they talk about how delicious they are.

Most of the shrimp meat is in the body section. The shell is a thin layer over this portion that is great for locking in flavor and juices while the shrimp meat cooks and provides a crunch when you eat.

Using Shrimp Tails As Handles

When you buy shrimp with shells that are already frozen, they will most likely come with the tail still attached. This can be a helpful addition but many people have strong preferences about eating (or not) the tail.

The tails are one of the least popular parts of the shrimp shell, but they can still be crunchy and taste great. They are the thinnest part of the shrimp and can get a great crunch and absorb flavor and sauces during preparation.

Shrimp tails make a fantastic “handle” to eat your shrimp easily. Deep-fried shrimp in particular benefit from being prepared with the tail as a handle. If you prefer to use a knife and fork, you can spear the tail of the shrimp to cut and prepare bite-size portions to eat.

Most chefs leave the tails on shrimp, even if they take the rest of the shell off. This helps with a nice presentation and can make it easier to hold and handle shrimp. You can leave the uneaten tails on your plate without worrying about offending the chef since they do not usually expect them to be eaten.

Health Benefits Of Shrimp Shells

Eating shell-on shrimp provides some health benefits in addition to adding taste and texture to your food. If you are looking to add shrimp to your diet, consider including the shells as well to really get the most benefit from this food.

Shrimp Shells Add Protein

The chitin-protein structure in shrimp shells is a good source of protein for your body. While not a lot of protein compared to some other foods due to the smaller size and thinness of shrimp shells, it is always a good idea to get extra nutrients that your body can use to stay healthy when they are available.

Concerns For Those With Allergies

Be wary if you have a shellfish allergy! These allergies can be very serious and you should use extreme caution when eating any food that you do not prepare yourself or see prepared.

If you have a shrimp allergy, you will almost certainly be allergic to shrimp shells as well. You should be careful when eating any seafood dishes since shells can be used in stock or as a flavor booster when dried and ground. Just because you don’t see large chunks of shrimp in your dish doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.

Tip: Always ask about potential allergens when eating food that you have not prepared. Shrimp allergies can be quite severe, making it crucial to know what goes into your food.

Shrimp can also aggravate gout by allowing acid to build up. Shrimp shells are less irritating than eating an entire shrimp, shell and meat, but can still be a problem for those with this condition. Depending on the severity of your concerns, you may want to skip shrimp dishes all-together.

Safely Cooking Shrimp Shells

Fortunately, shrimp in their shells are just as easy to cook safely as shrimp without their shells. You can cook shrimp with their shells with very little preparation. If you plan to prepare and eat the heads, they come almost ready to go straight from the ocean.

It is generally recommended to devein the shrimp before cooking, even if you are going to eat the shells. The vein is actually the digestive tract of the shrimp and contains the waste.

You can recognize it as a dark “vein” running down the back of the shrimp. Not only does it look unappetizing, but it can also negatively impact the texture of your dish. Eww!

The vein is edible but doesn’t add any health or taste benefits. The texture can be gritty, which most people do not like with their shrimp. To remove it, simply make a small slit with a knife and pull out the vein. You can discard it since it doesn’t have any practical use for cooks.

Once you have deveined the shrimp, there are a number of ways to cook it that are easy and yummy. Popular choices include grilling, sauteing, broiling, or frying. Just make sure that you pay close attention as it cooks because it is very easy to overcook shrimp.

Look for a pale pink color and the edges of the shrimp to start curling to tell you that it is done.

Eating Raw Shrimp With Shells

It is generally not recommended to eat raw shrimp, with our without their shells, due to the high risk of food poisoning. Some fish can be eaten raw in dishes like sushi but shrimp should be cooked before you dig in.

Properly cooked shrimp will be pink in color and curl at the ends into a loose “C” shape. If your shrimp is grey, it is still raw and should not be eaten. Better safe than sorry!

Making Shrimp With Shells

Not sure you should prepare and eat shrimp with their shells on? Aside from the health and flavor benefits, you may want to consider the overall texture and type of dish that you want to make.

Not All Shrimp Shells Are Equal

Shrimp shells are all made of the same components and have a similar texture. But they do vary based on the size of the shrimp. Larger shrimp do tend to have thicker shells, which can be tougher.

If you want to try shrimp shells, starting with small shrimp that have a smaller crunch due to their size is a good place to start.

Shrimp Versus Prawns

While two different species, shrimp and prawns are so similar that they are often referred to together when talking about cooking. The main difference for diners is the size. Prawns are much larger, often two or three times as big.

They have more legs, which means more crunchy bits. Because of their larger size, their shells do tend to be tougher and thicker.

Digging Into Shrimp Dishes With Your Hands

One of the best ways to eat shrimp is with your hands. This makes the dish into an experience rather than just a plain meal. If this is your plan, you can leave the shells on and allow each person to decide for themselves if they want to peel them or not.

Just make sure that there are plenty of napkins available for the delicious mess that will surely be made.

Using Shrimp Shell Powder

Shrimp shell powder is cooked, dehydrated, and ground shrimp shells. While not eaten on its own, it is a great flavor booster in a variety of cooking styles. You can find shrimp shell powder in the spice section of your grocery store or Asian market.

Storing Leftover Shrimp Shells

If you aren’t going to eat the shrimp shells, don’t throw them away! Save them in an airtight container in your fridge to make a seafood stock. You can also freeze them (also in an airtight container to prevent freezer burn) for a few months for future stocks or soups.

1.Garlic Shrimp

Garlic Shrimp

Garlic is one of the best accompaniments to shrimp. The two flavors go so well together and with a little (or a lot) of butter, this is a simple and delicious dish. You can saute the shrimp in butter with plenty of chopped garlic until they turn pink and start to curl. Add a slice of lemon for a citrus burst and you’re in shrimp heaven.

2.Seafood Cioppino

This seafood stew has plenty of delicious ingredients, including shell-on shrimp, mussels, clams, scallops, and plenty of tomatoes and white wine for the broth. Serve it with some crusty bread to make sure you soak up every last drop of broth, which is full of rich, seafood flavors.

3.Deep-Fried Shrimp

I’m partial to fried foods and it’s not surprising that many people join me in loving deep-fried shrimp. The crunchy fried portion blends nicely into the crunch of the shell. The inside of the shrimp remains juicy and tender when prepared this way. You should remove the head before frying the shrimp.

You can leave the tails on to make these bites easier to eat and discard them later.

4.Seafood Stock

Still not sold on eating shrimp shells? That’s okay. You can always peel your shrimp after cooking and save the shells to use in seafood stock. They add a great flavor and richness that you will love in soups and stews.

Final Thoughts

If you love seafood, you should add shrimp shells to your next shrimp night. Your body will appreciate the extra protein and your tastebuds will be dancing with all the rich, delicious flavors. Whether you try the crispy legs and body section or include the rich (although odd-looking) heads, eating shrimp shells is sure to be a culinary adventure you’ll be excited to repeat.

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