This Shrimp Cocktail Recipe Has a Secret for Perfectly Cooked Shrimp

This Shrimp Cocktail Recipe Has a Secret for Perfectly Cooked Shrimp

I am an unabashed lover of classic shrimp cocktail. So much so that all my friends associate me with the dish, often coming up to me at parties to exclaim, “Did you try the shrimp cocktail yet?” I would be mad that they associate me with tiny sea bugs, but shrimp cocktail is so iconic and perfect a dish that I take it more as a compliment. My friends just want me to be happy!

What NOT To Do When Making Shrimp Cocktail

There are a few pitfalls with various versions of this dish, though. For starters, don’t even talk to me about buying this at the grocery store. Shrimp cocktail is such a simple dish that some care needs to be taken when making it. Your supermarket is not going to provide that.

Second, anyone who has cooked shrimp knows how quickly they cook (and overcook). Shrimp cocktail is all about the shrimp, with nothing for overcooked (or, cringe, undercooked) shrimp to hide behind. Cooking the shrimp properly is, therefore, three-quarters of the battle.

Finally, there’s the issue of the cocktail sauce. Cocktail sauce does not need to be complicated, but it does need to be snappy. Too-sweet cocktail sauce is the death of shrimp cocktail, so efforts must be taken to ensure no one is dipping shrimp in barely-doctored ketchup.

The Poaching Technique for Perfectly Poached Shrimp Every Time

This recipe solves these issues in the most elegant way possible. To avoid overcooking, you’ll prepare your poaching liquid (the French term for this is court bouillon), cool it down a bit, and then add your shrimp off the heat, cooking them for just a few minutes. Then the shrimp are quickly chilled down in an ice bath to stop the cooking.

However, unlike the usual ice bath situation with shrimp free-floating in the ice water, you’ll transfer the shrimp to a resealable zip-top bag before plunging the bag into the ice water. This keeps the shrimp from becoming waterlogged and soggy, which affects their texture but also waters down their flavor.

The (Not So) Secret Sauce

As for the cocktail sauce? Make things easy on yourself and buy prepared cocktail sauce, but dress it up a bit. You’ll spike the sauce with horseradish, black pepper, lemon zest, and lemon juice. See? It’s easy, just like I promised. You can always tweak the flavor with a few dashes of hot sauce, some soy sauce, or a grated garlic clove if that sounds delicious to you.

Tips for Making Your Best Shrimp Cocktail

  • Don’t skip the salt—While the tarragon and lemon add flavor to the poaching liquid, the most important ingredient is salt. This makes sure your shrimp are seasoned inside and out for the best flavor.
  • De-stress the deveining process—Instead of splitting the shrimp open to remove the vein, you can simply stick a toothpick or thin bamboo skewer through the back of the shrimp and gently pull up. The vein should come right out.
  • All about shrimp doneness—To prevent overcooking, in this recipe you cook the shrimp fully off the heat in hot water. If you want to be doubly assured that your shrimp are cooked, check their temperature with an instant-read thermometer: they should reach 145 F for safety.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons fine salt

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar

  • 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns

  • 4 fresh tarragon sprigs

  • 2 lemons, divided

  • 1 1/2 pounds unpeeled, raw jumbo (13/15) shrimp

  • 1 (12-ounce) bottle (about 1 cup) cocktail sauce

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons prepared horseradish

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

  • Lemon wedges, for serving

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    Ingredients to make shrimp cocktail

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Chelsea Zimmer, Prop Stylist: Shell Royster

  2. Add 10 cups water, 2 tablespoons fine salt, 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns, and 4 fresh tarragon sprigs to a large saucepan. Halve 1 lemon and squeeze the juice into the water mixture; add the spent lemon halves.

    A large pot with water, salt, sugar, whole peppercorns, tarragon sprigs, and a halved lemon

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Chelsea Zimmer, Prop Stylist: Shell Royster

  3. Bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from the heat and let stand for 8 minutes, or until a thermometer registers 180 F.

    A large pot of water, salt, sugar, whole peppercorns, tarragon sprigs, and a halved lemon, with a thermometer reading 180 degrees Fahrenheit

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Chelsea Zimmer, Prop Stylist: Shell Royster

  4. Meanwhile, devein 1 1/2 pounds unpeeled, raw jumbo shrimp by piercing a toothpick or thin bamboo skewer through the back of the shell; use the toothpick to pull the vein from the shrimp and discard.

    A large bowl of jumbo shrimp, with three deveined shrimp on a paper towel next to a toothpick

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Chelsea Zimmer, Prop Stylist: Shell Royster

  5. Add the shrimp to the saucepan and poach (off the heat) until just cooked through, firm to the touch and no longer translucent, about 3 minutes.

    A large pot of seasoned water with lemon, thyme, and peppercorns with jumbo shrimp being lifted out with a giant metal spoon

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Chelsea Zimmer, Prop Stylist: Shell Royster

  6. While the shrimp are poaching, fill a large bowl with ice water. Once the shrimp have cooked through, use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a large resealable heat-proof plastic bag and seal to fully close.

    Submerge the bag in the ice water, moving the shrimp around in the bag with your hands to separate them in order to cool faster. Leave the bag in the ice water until the shrimp are cold, 8 to 10 minutes.

    A lock top sealed plastic bag of poached shrimp sitting in a bowl of ice water

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Chelsea Zimmer, Prop Stylist: Shell Royster

  7. While the shrimp cool, whisk together 1 cup cocktail sauce, 1 1/2 tablespoons prepared horseradish, and 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper in a medium bowl. Zest the remaining lemon and add to the cocktail sauce along with 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice. Transfer to a small serving bowl.

    A small glass bowl of cocktail sauce, with a whisk stirring in lemon zest

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Chelsea Zimmer, Prop Stylist: Shell Royster

  8. Remove the shrimp from the bag and peel them, leaving the tails on.

    A sheet pan of peeled, jumbo shrimp next to a paper towel with shrimp shells

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Chelsea Zimmer, Prop Stylist: Shell Royster

  9. Place the shrimp on a serving platter with some crushed ice and serve with cocktail sauce and lemon wedges.

    A large serving plate with ice, jumbo shrimp, and a small bowl of cocktail sauce next to a sheet pan of peeled jumbo shrimp

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Chelsea Zimmer, Prop Stylist: Shell Royster

How To Store

Leftover shrimp can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days, and leftover cocktail sauce can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

Feeling Adventurous? Try This:

  • Punch up the poaching liquid—You can add all kinds of aromatic ingredients to the poaching liquid for even more flavor. Consider including chopped celery and/or onion, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, and whole spices like allspice.
  • Make your own cocktail sauce—It’s surprisingly easy to make your own cocktail sauce. Or just tweak this recipe by adding dashes of your favorite hot sauce, worcestershire sauce, or soy sauce. You can also substitute lime juice for the lemon juice for a slightly different flavor profile.
  • Use chili sauce—Instead of starting with a base of store-bought cocktail sauce, you can use chili sauce instead. This sauce is sold in glass bottles right next to the ketchup. Don’t confuse this tomato-based sauce with spicy and sweet Thai chili sauce.
  • Try a different dip—If cocktail sauce is really not your thing, serve the shrimp with sweet Thai chili sauce, a garlicky aïoli, remoulade, or comeback sauce.

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