Perfect Shrimp Cocktail

Perfect Shrimp Cocktail

There’s a secret (don’t worry—it’s simple) for perfectly cooked shrimp.

Prep: 20 mins

Cook: 11 mins

Shrimp Cooling Time: 10 mins

Total: 41 mins

Servings: 4 servings

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.


  • 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.

    Perfect Shrimp Cocktail

  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.

    Perfect Shrimp Cocktail

  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.

    Perfect Shrimp Cocktail

  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.

    Perfect Shrimp Cocktail

  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.

    Perfect Shrimp Cocktail

  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.

    Perfect Shrimp Cocktail

  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.

    Perfect Shrimp Cocktail

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

    Perfect Shrimp Cocktail

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

    Perfect Shrimp Cocktail

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.
Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4
Amount per serving
Calories 253
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 3g 4%
Saturated Fat 1g 4%
Cholesterol 299mg 100%
Sodium 2748mg 119%
Total Carbohydrate 22g 8%
Dietary Fiber 2g 6%
Total Sugars 9g
Protein 33g
Vitamin C 16mg 80%
Calcium 153mg 12%
Iron 1mg 6%
Potassium 462mg 10%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.


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