Shrimp cocktail is everyone’s favorite party starter and is traditionally served as a Thanksgiving and Christmas appetizer. This classic seafood hors d’oeuvre can be found on the menu of upscale steakhouses and fine dining establishments. But what makes a great shrimp cocktail? It all starts with quality shrimp, cooked fresh! Our classic shrimp cocktail recipe will show you how easy it is to prepare at home in just a few minutes.
Short History of Shrimp Cocktail
Exact details on how, when and where shrimp cocktail was invented are hard to find. This is for a couple of reasons; the main reason is that information and reports are scarce and varied; the other is because most people use the term ‘prawn cocktail’ to mean both shrimp and prawn cocktail. Prawns and shrimp are two different crustaceans, yet it is very hard to find a dish called ‘shrimp cocktail’, while ‘prawn cocktail’ reigns supreme. (Learn more about the different kind of shrimp.)
It has long been said that prawn/shrimp cocktail was invented by British cook Fanny Cradock sometime around 1960s. This is entirely possible as she wasn’t very good with food, and the mixture that makes up a shrimp cocktail is odd enough for her to have done it. Out of one hundred weird mixtures she invented, maybe one did really did not make you ill, and that became shrimp cocktail as we know it today.
An American Legend
Another version takes us to the United States. Apparently in the 19th century, a gold miner went into a bar in San Francisco with his gold nuggets. He had had a good day and wanted to celebrate, so he ordered a glass of whisky and a plate of oysters.
A few whiskies later and the miner looked at the plate of oysters, tipped them into his whisky glass, threw in a little Tabasco, ketchup and a couple of other condiments, and ‘drank them’.
Shocked, the bar owner asked, in an ironic tone, “What do you call that mess?”
The miner with the self-confidence that comes of having gold nuggets in your pocket, replied haughtily, “I call it an oyster cocktail”.
Impressed with this nonchalant display towards the expensive oysters, the owner stuck a sign in his window the following day offering Oyster Cocktails, and he charged ‘by the glass’. Soon other bars copied him.
Over time this seafood was replaced with a more economical type and the sauce refined. The choice of a glass, rather than a bowl, for this dish also comes from America, legend has it again.
During prohibition in 1920s, there was no wine, so no use for wine glasses. Rather than let them sit there unused, these became the vessel of choice for serving, what by then was, shrimp cocktail.
How much of this is true, is a mystery, but it is a fun story, and no proof exists that shrimp cocktail didn’t come about this way. In fact there is no concrete evidence of how it came into being.
One of the earliest records of shrimp cocktail comes from Las Vegas, of all places. In 1959 the Golden Gate Hotel in Las Vegas is credited as being the first place to have shrimp cocktail. It offered the gamblers a glass of shrimp cocktail for 50 cents.
Shrimp Cocktail Pro Tips
- Avoid previously cooked shrimp from the grocery store or seafood market. Why? Because they are not very good and you can cook up fresh shrimp in a matter of minutes!
- Stay clear of defrosted shrimp, so called ‘fresh shrimp’. Unless you’re buying it direct from a shrimp boat captain, you don’t know how long it’s been sitting in the case.
- Buy IQF or individually quick frozen shrimp.
- Pick quality shrimp that are free of chemicals, preservatives, and antibiotics.
For more pro tips see our guide for how to buy the best shrimp.
All successful recipes start with a game plan. Armed with your beautiful shrimp and this easy guide, you will never find yourself reaching for that plastic ring of shrimp again.
For this recipe we are using a modified court bouillon. Court bouillon is commonly used to quickly poach seafood. Filled with fresh aromatics and basic seasonings like salt and pepper it accents the natural flavors without overpowering.
Here is what you will need:
- 1-2 lbs 16-20 count shrimp or go bigger!
- 10 cups of water
- 2 bay leaves
- 2-3 sprigs of fresh parsley
- 1/2 lemon
- 1 tsp fine sea salt
- 1 tsp whole black peppercorns
- Dutch oven or large stock pot to boil your shrimp
How to Make Shrimp Cocktail
Time needed: 20 minutes.
Making shrimp cocktail is a cinch. The key is to use quality, large shrimp and never overcook. Shrimp are categorized by the number per pound. The best sizes for shrimp cocktail are big, colossal shrimp (16-20 per pound) and larger. Learn more about how to choose the right size shrimp.
- Defrost Overnight in the Refrigerator
Allow your shrimp to defrost in a colander placed inside a bowl overnight in the refrigerator. If your in a pinch for time you can defrost them by placing the in a bowl and running cold water over them.
- Peel and Devein Shrimp
Wash the shrimp and peel and devein under running cold water. Using your thumbs, split open the thin shell along the bottom between the two rows of legs. Peel the shell away. Use a small knife to make a shallow slit along the back to expose the dark, veinlike intestinal tract. With a knife tip or your fingers, lift up the vein and discard. Rinse shrimp.
- Add Thawed Shrimp to Boiling Water
Bring a pot of water to a boil over medium heat. Add your aromatics, sea salt, and black peppercorns. Once boiling add your shrimp.
- Cook Shrimp
Use your tongs or strainer to gently keep the shrimp moving. The tails will turn red first and then the bodies will turn pink and opaque. The entire process should take no more than 3-5 minutes. See more on how to tell if shrimp are done.
- Chill Shrimp
Drain immediately and do not allow the shrimp to sit in hot water or they will become tough. Remove quickly and submerge in a large bowl of ice and water to to prevent further cooking.
- Refrigerate and Serve
Remove the shrimp from the ice water when they have begun to cool and set them in a colander to dry or pat them dry with paper towels. Refrigerate shrimp for two hours or even overnight. Serve chilled with lemon wedges and your favorite cocktail sauce.
Why Leave the Tail on Shrimp Cocktail?
First the tail on the shrimp makes a nice presentation. Second, the tail makes a nice handle for picking up and enjoying your shrimp.
To keep the tail intact, do not peel the small layer of shell just covering the tail.
Tip: If you push the shell just above the tail, you’ll push out the last shrimp morsel.
Shrimp Cocktail FAQ
Boiling the shrimp allows the pure flavor to remain while creating that crispy, snappy texture that pairs so well with chilled shrimp.
The shrimp cook fast. It should only take 3-5 minutes. The tails will turn red first and then the bodies will turn pink and opaque. They should feel firm to the touch but with a little spring.
Cocktail sauce and lemon wedges are the most common accompaniments to shrimp cocktail. Marie Rose sauce is also popular in some parts of the world. This is similar to cocktail sauce but with the addition of mayonnaise giving it a pinkish hue.
We recommend using 16-20 count or larger shrimp for shrimp cocktail.
For 16-20 count shrimp plan on each person taking 4-5 pieces each.