Is Shrimp Cocktail a dish only reserved for expensive restaurants? Heck no! Not only is this symbol of luxury inexpensive to make at home, but it’s also a super easy dish to prepare days ahead of a party.
The Shrimp Cocktail has grown into a luxury dish with an equally luxurious price tag.
Some American restaurants are now charging upwards of $30 for just a few shrimp and a dollop of cocktail sauce. High-pedigree chefs like Alex Stupak even amp up cocktail sauce with “crab innards and [lacing] them with shrimp paste and chiles” to justify the dish’s steep price tag.
Living in Portugal, where cocktail shrimp are viewed like fish sticks, such pricing is a laughable notion. But it’s not just a European thing. It’s possible, even in America, to make Shrimp Cocktail at home without breaking the proverbial bank.
You’re in control when you prepare Shrimp Cocktail yourself. You can buy your favorite shrimp size, you can make cocktail sauce to your preferred heat level and you can plate the dish on your finest china to impress your guests.
In a restaurant, a line cook’s bad day could result in overcooked, mushy shrimp. At home, you’re the boss of your shrimp. Assuming you buy the best product and follow the proper cooking method, your crustaceans will always be perfectly cooked.
There’s no doubt that serving Shrimp Cocktail at a party will impress your guests. But there’s an added benefit when entertaining – you can cook and refrigerate shrimp up to three days ahead of when you plan to serve them. If you do, you’ll be able to serve and enjoy the fruits of your labor while you’re sipping crafted cocktails with your friends. Our Shrimp Cocktail recipe is that easy!
Shrimp Cocktail – A Brief History
There are people with the audacity to claim authorship of the Shrimp Cocktail (or Prawn Cocktail as it’s known in the United Kingdom) recipe but this is bogus.
The idea of serving seafood on ice stretches back at least a couple hundred years and maybe much longer. Humans have been eating raw seafood for as long as they’ve roamed the planet. And sauces? They’ve existed at least since the days of Ancient Rome.
Speaking of sauce, Europeans typically serve Prawn Cocktail with a mild sauce made with ketchup and mayonnaise. In America, where there’s less fear of heat, tabasco sauce and pungent horseradish are used instead of mayo. Confession: We prefer the America’s version of cocktail sauce.
Shrimp Cocktail Ingredients
Since a Shrimp Cocktail is only as good as its shrimp, you’ll want to source the best seafood whether it’s fresh or frozen. As for cocktail sauce, we like it to hit on all cylinders – sweet, pungent, piquant and umami.
You can achieve all of this with just the following simple ingredients:
Aside from the shrimp, you probably have all of these ingredients in your pantry. If not, you should be able to find them at your local market.
In Shrimp Cocktail, the type of shrimp you choose becomes your paint brush.
We recommend using 16-20 shrimp (approximately 16 to 20 shrimp per pound) for a party dish. This amount of shrimp will feel substantial without busting your wallet.
You can opt to buy U-8, U-10 or U-12 shrimp if you want to live large. Those designations mean that you’ll receive a maximum of that count shrimp per pound. If you buy U-10 for example, that means you’ll receive a maximum amount of 10 shrimp per pound.
Fresh or Frozen?
Since we can affordably buy beautiful fresh shrimp sourced from Aveiro, that’s what we like to do. But fresh shrimp isn’t mandatory for this recipe.
Using frozen shrimp is more than acceptable. It only takes a 30 minute soak in cold tap water for frozen shrimp to be defrosted and ready for use. However, if you happen to live close to an ocean, sea or gulf, we say go for fresh shrimp instead.
We’ve noticed recipes where shrimp are cooked in a court bouillon – a simple stock with some aromatic vegetables, spices and lemon. In our opinion, why go to all the fuss?
All you really need for making tasty shrimp is salt. We use a ratio of 18 grams (i.e. 2/3 ounce) per each quart of water. Since quarts are similar to liters, you can use a similar formula in metric.
We like to weigh our salt since salts like kosher salt (light) and sea salt (heavy) vary by weight. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, we urge you to buy one as it’s a cook’s best friend in the kitchen.
Buy a kitchen scale from Amazon if you don’t have one or need an upgrade.
Ketchup is the foundation of any modern cocktail sauce recipe. The base flavors of this tomato-based product provide a nice balance of sweetness, acidity and umami. Like most Americans, we’re fans of Heinz Ketchup so that’s what we use in this recipe.
We like horseradish that has sinus tickling ‘force’. That intensely fragrant piquancy is essential to any great cocktail sauce. The same goes for chili heat.
Hot Sauce (Preferably Tabasco)
Chili sauce, with its capsaicin based heat, hits a different area of your palette than does horseradish. But which hot sauce is best for this recipe?
While you certainly can use hot sauces like Crystal, Louisiana or even Mexican sauces like Cholula, we like to use Tabasco. Since the piquant chili sauce gets good acidity from its high vinegar content, it works well here.
You can use any flavorful hot sauce that you have on hand. Just make sure you taste your sauce and modify it as necessary to achieve your preferred heat level.
When it comes to lettuce, we like to place a beautiful, peacock-like plumage for visual impact. This dish, despite its simplicity, screams extravagance with this flourishing touch.
You can dip the lettuce into the cocktail sauce and eat it if that’s how you roll.
How To Make Shrimp Cocktail
Making Shrimp Cocktail may be one of the easiest things you can do in a kitchen.
We learned this when we cooked a whole bunch of shrimp a day ahead and brought them to party. They were a huge hit! We’ve never seen people so impressed by such a simple dish.
In retrospect, we could have cooked the shrimp up to three days ahead. All we would have had to do was seal them in an airtight container and they would have tasted great. The same goes for the cocktail sauce.
While some chefs prefer to brine their shrimp, we’ve found that boiling shrimp in well-salted water performs the same function without the extra step. Additionally, there’s a risk that your shrimp may end up overly tough if you brine them before you boil them.
In this Shrimp Cocktail recipe, the first step is to clean and devein the shrimp.
Have two bowls standing by for this step – one filled with ice and another with water.
If your shrimp has heads, twist to remove them. Using a scissors, cut open the back of the shrimp.
Peel the shrimp to the last shell segment to create a handle on the shrimp for eating. When you do this, the back of the shrimp will split open.
Remove the shell and legs from the top to the start of the tail and remove the dark vein from the back of the shrimp. After you place the shrimp on ice, remove the heads, shells and veins. We have info on preparing frozen shrimp if this process is new to you.
If you freeze the discarded heads and shells, you can use them later to create fish stock.
Place a 3 to 4 quart saucepan or pot on the stove, add salt and bring to a boil. Have an ice bath standing by. Boil the shrimp for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes or until the shrimp feel firm to the touch of a spoon.
Buy a 3-Quart All-Clad saucepan from Amazon if you need one or want an upgrade.
Cook the shrimp for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes in well salted water.
Once they’re cooked, immediately remove the shrimp and place them in an ice bath. Let them cool for 10 to 15 minutes.
You’ll want to make the cocktail sauce while the shrimp is cooling.
To do so, mix the ketchup, horseradish and hot sauce in a bowl. Adjust for taste as needed
Place the shrimp and cocktail sauce in separate airtight containers. Place both in the refrigerator.
Serve with a couple fresh leaves of curly lettuce. The lettuce adds both color and crunch.
Shrimp Cocktail FAQs
Shrimp cocktail is a cold seafood dish. The dish pairs cooked shrimp with a tomato-based cocktail dipping sauce.
Despite its fancy reputation, you don’t need special utensils to eat Shrimp Cocktail. Instead, pick up a shrimp by its tail, dip it into cocktail sauce and take a bite.
While people have been eating cold or raw seafood for as long as recorded history, the modern version gained popularity in the middle of the 20th century.
Shrimp Cocktail is a low-calorie starter. Shrimp are relatively high in cholesterol but are relatively low in saturated fat, which some people consider to be a good thing. You should check with your medical provider if you specific nutritional issues or questions.
Although the Shrimp Cocktail recipe includes cooked shrimp, the seafood appetizer is served chilled.
No! You can serve Shrimp Cocktail in or on any vessel of your choice. We encourage you to be creative.
No. The traditional Shrimp Cocktail recipe does not contain any alcoholic ingredients.
We recommend serving classic cocktails like the Gimlet or Gibson with your Shrimp Cocktail.
It’s safe to store cooked shrimp in the refrigerator for up to three days.
Shrimp Cocktail Recipe
- 1 pound large shrimp (16/20 preferred), peeled to the tail and deveined
- 2/3 ounce (18 grams) salt per quart/liter of water for the shrimp boil
- 3 quarts water or more if needed
- 2/3 cup ketchup
- 1 tablespoon plus a teaspoon hot horseradish or to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon tabasco or other chili sauce or to taste
- Bring 3 quarts or 3 liters water to a boil. Add salt
- Add shrimp to the boiling water. Boil shrimp for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes until shrimp are firm when touched with a spoon. Transfer shrimp to an ice bath to cool.
- While the shrimp is cooling, make the cocktail sauce by mixing together the ketchup, horseradish and tabasco sauce until well combined
- Serve over ice with lettuce leaves as the garnish.
- Refrigerate the cooked shrimp for 2 hours if you choose not to serve your Shrimp Cocktail over ice.
- You can refrigerate the cooked shrimp up for to 3 days.
- Either frozen or fresh shrimp is acceptable for this recipe. If you go the frozen route, defrost the shrimp in room temperature water for 30 minutes before peeling and cooking the crustaceans.
- Feel free to garnish your cocktail sauce with fresh parsley or another green herb.
- Boil the shrimp in a six-quart pot if you double the recipe.
- Feeling spicy? Make our zesty Mexican shrimp cocktail instead.
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HOLY SCHMITTS Horseradish, 8 OZ
Heinz Tomato Ketchup (38 oz Bottle)
Tabasco Hot Sauce, Original Red Pepper, 12 oz
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OXO Good Grips 11-Pound Stainless Steel Food Scale with Pull-Out Display
JoyServe Deli Food Containers with Lids - (48 Sets) 24-32 Oz Quart Size & 24-16 Oz Pint Size Airtight Food Storage Takeout Meal Prep Containers with 54 Lids, BPA-Free, Dishwasher, Microwave Safe
KitchenAid Plastic Colander/Strainer, 5-Quart, Red - KC166OSERA
KitchenAid KC351OHGSA Shears with Soft Grip Handles, One Size, Storm Gray
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About The Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on their website 2foodtrippers. Since launching the site in 2012, they’ve traveled to over 40 countries in their quest to bring readers a unique taste of the world.
Original Publication Date: May 16, 2023