How To Make Perfectly Seasoned Shrimp Cocktail

Shrimp cocktail is a ubiquitous presence in both restaurant menus and home cooking repertoires. Easy to make and to scale up for large gatherings, the simple pairing of boiled shrimp and cocktail sauce is a universal favorite.

But like all simple recipes, shrimp cocktail is a recipe that is easy to learn but hard to master. From choosing the right size of shrimp to seasoning the cocktail sauce, each decision can impact the taste and texture of your final result. Since the recipe is so straightforward in principle, any small mistakes can be the difference between succulent, juicy shrimp and hard, flavorless pucks. By choosing and preparing the shrimp in advance and poaching them in a seasoned liquid for the right amount of time, you can produce a wonderfully plump and juicy shrimp cocktail every time.

To make a shrimp cocktail, the first thing you need is shrimp, and unless you live near a market where freshly caught shrimp is available, go with bags of frozen raw shrimp in your grocer's freezer. In terms of size, each bag is calculated by the number of specimens per pound. Therefore, the higher the number, the smaller they are. The ideal size for a shrimp cocktail is 16-20 count per pound. If possible, select packages of deveined shell-on shrimp (sometimes labeled easy-peel). Otherwise, buy them unpeeled and clean them yourself.

Season the shrimp twice to be extra nice

Once the shrimp are brought home and thawed, it is time to prepare the shrimp for cooking.  While you are cleaning the crustaceans, prepare the poaching liquid. Instead of cooking your shrimp in plain water, season the water (or stock for additional oomph) to boost its flavor by adding salt, sugar, and lemon juice — along with the rest of the lemon after juicing.

Bring the liquid to a boil and add in your shrimp. Cover and remove the pot from heat and let the pot sit for two minutes, then drain with a colander and plunge the shrimp into an ice bath and then chill them in the fridge. It may seem pointless to season the water so thoroughly when you'll be serving the dish with a strong, hearty sauce, but it makes sense. The meat itself will become extra succulent, with a new depth of flavor that really makes the dish stand out. 

Now, as the shrimp cools, make a cocktail sauce with ketchup, chili sauce, horseradish, lemon zest, lemon juice, ground pepper, and hot sauce to taste. Peel the chilled shrimp and arrange them on a plate with a bowl of cocktail sauce and serve.

Spice it up with sauce and broth

Given its simplicity, many cooks have developed their own formula to make a shrimp cocktail. For example, you can make a court-bouillon by simmering carrots, onion, celery, garlic, parsley, lemon halves, thyme, and bay leaves in water and white wine to use as a poaching liquid for the shrimp. A classic French broth for poaching foods, court-bouillon is mild and flavorful, and it can be used to cook all types of proteins, including filets of fish and even chicken. While it takes more ingredients and time to make than adding sugar, salt, and lemon to plain water, you can make this ahead of time and store it in the fridge. After poaching your shrimp, let it cool — and you can freeze the liquid for future use, which will last for months in the freezer.

Another variation of shrimp cocktail is to prepare a different type of sauce for dipping. Try making a thousand island sauce, a creamy and tangy concoction made by mixing mayonnaise, ketchup, pickle relish, minced onion, vinegar, salt, and paprika. Not only is it delicious with poached shrimp, but it is also a fantastic salad dressing and an essential part (alongside pastrami, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut) of a Reuben sandwich.