Learn how to make a perfect shrimp cocktail at home, including your own homemade cocktail sauce and how to cook the shrimp so that they’re tender, juicy, and delicious.
I’ve had some amazing shrimp cocktails in my day. They’ve usually been served as appetizers at steakhouses. Cold and tender shrimp. Sweet and spicy sauce. So good. When we want shrimp cocktail at home though, it’s easy enough to buy some precooked shrimp (maybe already arranged in a ring) and a jar of cocktail sauce and set it out for people to munch on. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s tasty and easy.
However, if you want an ultimate shrimp cocktail, like those steakhouse appetizers, you need to do a bit more. Not much more, mind you. Homemade shrimp cocktail is still surprisingly simple to do. Scroll down to read everything you need to know, or click here to jump straight down to the recipe.
Video: How To Make Shrimp Cocktail
Making The Cocktail Sauce
First, to make restaurant-quality shrimp cocktail, you need a great-tasting cocktail sauce. If you buy one that you like, you can use that. I find the ones from the store to be a bit bland so I either make my own, or I add to them with some horseradish sauce and hot sauce.
Making your own cocktail sauce isn’t very hard though. It uses ingredients that you probably already have at home. Ketchup mixed with horseradish and a pinch of salt are the basics. Make sure that you have a good-tasting horseradish sauce. Taste it by itself and make sure you like it. I prefer the prepared horseradish over horseradish sauce, and specifically the prepared horseradish that is sold in jars in the refrigerated section of the grocery store with the refrigerated pickles. It tends to have a spicier and more robust flavor.
After the ketchup, horseradish, and salt, you can also add a bit of Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, and/or hot sauce (like Tabasco). Here’s my favorite cocktail sauce recipe.
Which Shrimp To Use For Shrimp Cocktail
For a really great shrimp cocktail, you want to go with large shrimp. I use a 21-25 count, which means there are 21-25 shrimp per pound. Buy them deveined but uncooked. Easy-peel or already peeled is fine.
If they’re peeled, make sure they still have their tails. Those make the handles for your shrimp cocktail and you don’t want to skip that! If they’re easy-peel, you can peel them before or after they’re cooked, it doesn’t matter. Either way, make sure that you leave the tail on.
Easy-peel shrimp have had the peel cut down the outside to get out the vein and then there is a cut around the tail. This makes it easy to remove the peel while leaving the tail intact. You want the tail because it makes a nice presentation and acts as a handle for your shrimp.
How To Cook Shrimp For Shrimp Cocktail
You’ve got your raw shrimp, now you’ve got to cook them. The best way to cook shrimp for shrimp cocktail is to poach them gently. My preferred method is to bring a pot of salted water to the boil. You can add some aromatics first like some lemon juice and lemon wedges, peppercorns, and a good handful of fresh parsley leaves. Those items are optional though. The only thing that’s required is the water and salt.
Once the water has reached a really good boil, take it completely off of the heat and let the boil subside. Then, with the pot still off of the heat, add your shrimp. Put the lid on the pot and let the shrimp cook in the heat that remains in the water. It will take 4-7 minutes. Check at that point – the shrimp are done when they’re opaque and pink.
The timing depends on how many shrimp you’re cooking and how much water you had. In a 3 quart saucepan 3/4 full of water, you can add 12 shrimp and they’ll cook in about 4 minutes. If you want to cook more shrimp, use a bigger pot and more water.
Sometimes, depending on the size and number of those shrimp, the size of that pot and how much water was in it, it will take a bit longer, 2-4 minutes. The beautiful thing about this method though is that you can’t really overcook them at this point. The water isn’t super-hot anymore and the shrimp are just slowly getting a bit more done as you leave them.
While the shrimp are cooking, fill a large bowl with cold water and a lot of ice. Once the shrimp are cooked, remove them from the hot water (leave the aromatics behind and discard them after). You can use a slotted spoon or pour them through a colander. Then put the drained shrimp into the bowl of ice water and let them chill completely. After that, you can serve them immediately or drain them and refrigerate for up to 12 hours before serving.
Why Poach The Shrimp Like This?
By taking the pot off of the heat and then adding the shrimp to it, you cool the water down a bit. The less intense heat is then more gentle on the shrimp. They don’t tense and curl up as much but retain something closer to their uncooked size and shape, while still becoming cooked through, opaque, and pink. This poaching method also results in very tender and juicy shrimp.
If you prefer step-by-step instructions with pictures, get your poaching shrimp how-to here. You can also poach shrimp from frozen, which is actually my favorite way to cook shrimp for many preparations. I tend to buy my shrimp frozen so this is really convenient, and it works amazingly well.
Serving Shrimp Cocktail
There are no real rules here. If you’re doing individual appetizers, then small bowls, wine glasses, or martini glasses are best. Put about 1/4 cup of cocktail sauce into the bowl or glass and then hang 5-6 shrimp around the glass.
If you’re doing a homemade shrimp ring to serve several people, you can use a dish specially designed for this kind of thing, like this. Put ice in the bottom and then the sauce in the middle and hang the shrimp around the outside rim. If you don’t have a dish like that (I don’t), then use a shallow round serving dish or roasting dish, like this. Put a bowl of cocktail sauce in the middle of the dish. A napkin under it will stop it from sliding around. Put ice cubes around the cocktail sauce, filling the dish nearly to the top. This will make the dish cold and the cold will transfer to the shrimp once they’re in place. Then hang your shrimp around the rim of the cocktail sauce bowl, adding more right on the ice, if you’d like.
If you don’t care whether the shrimp are hanging and arranged in a ring, I have another great idea for you. You can keep the shrimp cold by putting a bag of ice into a bowl, topping the bag of ice with lettuce leaves, and then piling the shrimp into there. The lettuce makes it look pretty, and the shrimp stay perfectly chilled. Here’s a picture to show what I mean, and note that this technique can be used to keep all kinds of cold appetizers and dips chilled until all the ice melts and the water in the bag gets cold.
There you go! The perfect shrimp cocktail at home. Enjoy!
Podcast Episode: Making Shrimp Cocktail
Listen to me explain briefly about how to make this shrimp cocktail, with some great tips along the way, by clicking the play button below:Print
Learn how to make a perfect shrimp cocktail at home, including your own homemade cocktail sauce and instructions for the type of shrimp to use and how to cook them so that they’re tender, juicy and delicious.
- 24 large shrimp (21–25 count per pound, raw, deveined and easy peel, thawed*)
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/2 of a lemon (optional)
- 8–10 peppercorns (optional)
- a handful of fresh parsley (optional)
- 1 cup ketchup
- 2 Tbsp. horseradish
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tsp. lemon juice (optional)
- 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce (optional)
- 1/2 tsp. hot sauce, like Tabasco (optional)
- Fill a large saucepan 3/4 full of water.
- Add salt.
- If using lemon, squeeze the juice of the lemon into the pot and add the peel and flesh once squeezed. Add the peppercorns and parsley if using.
- Bring the pot to a rapid boil over high heat.
- Remove from the heat and let it stop boiling.
- Add the shrimp. Stir. Put the lid on the saucepan.Cover the pot. Let sit for 4-5 minutes, until shrimp are opaque and pink.
- Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath: In a large bowl put two cups of ice cubes and fill halfway with cold water.
- When shrimp are cooked, drain off the hot liquid and transfer shrimp (but not the aromatics) to the ice bath. Let them sit in there for a few minutes to fully cool off before draining.
- Peel shrimp but leave the tails on.
- In a medium bowl, combine the ketchup, horseradish, pinch of salt, and the lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, and hot sauce, if using.
- Taste, add more horseradish if desired.
- Divide sauce among 4 small bowls or wine glasses or martini glasses.
- Hang shrimp from the rims. Serve immediately. (See above in blog post for alternate serving suggestions.)
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*You can make this using still-frozen shrimp. You just need to keep them in the hot water (step#6) for longer, about 10 minutes. See information about cooking shrimp from frozen over here.