A briny bite of cold, tender shrimp wrapped in tart, spicy cocktail sauce is what shrimp cocktail dreams are made of. Well, that and a dry Martini. This classic cocktail-hour appetizer is nothing more than cold cooked shrimp served with a spicy, tangy, tomato-based sauce for dipping.
Making shrimp cocktail and classic cocktail sauce at home (rather than grabbing that deli platter) guarantees that you'll have plump, juicy shrimp and cocktail sauce with just the right amount of pizzazz.
Perfect shrimp cocktail comes down to nailing a few key points: Buy the right shrimp, steam and chill the shrimp quickly, and make classic cocktail sauce (which only requires one extra-special ingredient). Shrimp cocktail looks fancy, but it is a fast and flavorful recipe you'll want to know by heart.
What Is the Perfect Shrimp Cocktail?
Perfect shrimp cocktail is very simply a bite of cool, plump shrimp enveloped in a tangy tomato-based sauce with the zing of horseradish. To make the perfect shrimp cocktail at home, just pay attention to a few things.
- Buy large shrimp with their shells on.
- Steam the shrimp and then chill them quickly to avoid overcooking.
- Make your own cocktail sauce, not only because you can easily customize it to your tastes, but because it also tastes fresher than that bottled stuff.
The Best Shrimp for Shrimp Cocktail
Large, juicy shrimp with their shells on are the best shrimp for serving shrimp cocktail. Choose large shrimp (21/25 or 26/30 count) with their shells still on. This isn't a recommendation we're pulling out of our hat. There are a few key reasons we like this type and size of shrimp for shrimp cocktail.
Why large shrimp? At about three inches long, large shrimp will generously fill your cocktail platter for an abundant presentation while still being manageable enough to eat in one or two bites — just what you want out of an appetizer. Eat two to three shrimp and you'll feel pretty satisfied before dinner.
Why the shell? So much of the actual flavor of shrimp comes from its shells. Sure, it can be a bit of a chore to peel the shrimp as you eat, but the potent, sweet-briny flavor that is concentrated into every seasoned bite of the shrimp is well worth it. And since we're working with shrimp that are fairly large, peeling them isn't nearly as painful as something, well, more of a shrimp!
Fresh or frozen? This is a very personal question. If you have access to fresh shrimp, they are incredible for making shrimp cocktail. You'll taste the nuance of a locally caught gulf shrimp best in a shrimp cocktail. However, if you're landlocked like most of us, frozen shrimp is the best alternative. I tend to keep frozen shrimp on hand at all times, which can be quickly thawed and steamed for shrimp cocktail at a moment's notice. Keep in mind that unless you're in a coastal city, the "fresh" shrimp in your fishmonger's case was likely frozen at some point.
Shop the seafood section like a pro!
How To Buy Shrimp
Preparing the Shrimp for Shrimp Cocktail
Between selecting your shrimp for shrimp cocktail and actually steaming it, there are a few steps that will ensure your shrimp is tasty and pretty.
First, thaw if frozen: Thaw frozen shrimp in the refrigerator overnight or under cool running water in a colander for about an hour. Rinse and drain the shrimp in the colander.
Devein the shrimp, if needed: Depending on the exact size of your shrimp (and more notably what said shrimp was doing when caught), you might want to devein your shrimp. Use a sharp paring knife or a pair of kitchen shears to cut along the curve of the shrimp's back. Without removing the shell, make a small incision along the shrimp's vein and then use the tip of your knife to remove the dark vein from the shrimp. Rinse and repeat.
Read more: How To Peel & Devein Shrimp
What is the shrimp's vein?
The "vein" in a shrimp is not truly a vein, but rather its digestive tract. It runs along the back of the shrimp just beneath the surface, and it looks like a thin string filled with dark grit. It won't harm you if you eat it, but it can cause an unpleasant mouthfeel.
Steaming Shrimp for Shrimp Cocktail
Frankly there is no wrong way to cook shrimp for shrimp cocktail. You can roast it, pan-fry it, or even poach it, but one of the common pitfalls of any of these methods is overcooking. That's why for perfect shrimp cocktail, we go with steaming. Steaming provides gentle, even heat and prevents the shrimp from overcooking. As an added bonus, it requires less liquid than poaching and can be easily done in batches whether you're cooking two pounds of shrimp for an evening at home or 10 pounds of shrimp on your beach vacation.
Perfect Shrimp Cocktail Needs Classic Cocktail Sauce
Because steamed shrimp on its own has a sweet, delicate flavor that can easily be lost between sips of your favorite cocktail, it needs a fiery sauce to balance it out. Enter classic cocktail sauce.
At its very best, classic cocktail sauce can be pulled together from a few pantry essentials and is easily customized to your particular taste. Ketchup as the base for cocktail sauce dates back to the early 1900s, but you could substitute your favorite chili sauce for the base or use tomato purée instead. Adding lemon juice, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, and hot sauce makes for a balanced sauce that is slightly sweet (thanks to the ketchup) but also nicely tangy with some fiery heat from the horseradish and hot sauce. Consider the amount below a basic template.
More ways to dip your shrimp: Five 2-Ingredient Sauces for Shrimp Cocktail
Serving Shrimp Cocktail
Set the chilled shrimp and cocktail sauce out over a bed of ice to keep things at the ideal temperature. Make sure you have a separate bowl ready for discarding the shells and tails!
How To Make a Perfect Shrimp Cocktail with Classic Cocktail Sauce
What You Need
For the shrimp:
2 pounds (26/30 count) uncooked shell-on shrimp
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
Juice of 1 large lemon
2 cups water
For the cocktail sauce:
1/2 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
Measuring cups and spoons
Paring knife or kitchen shears
- Season the shrimp: Rinse the shrimp under cool water and devein using a pair of kitchen shears, if desired. Place in a large bowl, add the salt, and toss to coat. Add the white wine, shallot, and lemon juice, and toss to coat. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the cocktail sauce and set up for steaming.
- Make the cocktail sauce: Whisk all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Taste and add more horseradish or any of the other ingredients to suit your taste. When you're happy with the sauce, transfer it to a small serving bowl.
- Set up for steaming: Bring the water to a simmer in a 4-quart pot with a lid and have a steamer basket ready that fits in the pot. Prepare a bowl of ice water for chilling the shrimp.
- Steam the shrimp: Working in 2 or 3 batches, layer as many shrimp in a single layer as your steamer basket will hold and lower your steamer into the steaming pot. (Don't worry about draining the shrimp from the seasoning liquid first; any shallot slices that cling to the shrimp will rinse off in the ice bath.) Cover and steam the shrimp for 5 minutes. They should be opaque but still tender. Immediately remove the cooked shrimp to the prepared ice bath and repeat steaming until all the shrimp are cooked.
- Chill the shrimp: Once all of the cooked shrimp are in the ice bath, drain the shrimp and cover with more ice. Chill the shrimp for at least 10 minutes and then remove from the ice. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Serve: Serve the shrimp with the cocktail sauce and a bowl for discarding shells and tails.
- Make ahead: The cocktail sauce can be made up to 1 week ahead and kept refrigerated. The shrimp can be cooked 1 day ahead and served chilled.