How to Make a Perfect Shrimp Cocktail
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, 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, an experience 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.
Making the Cocktail Sauce
First, make your own cocktail sauce. 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 and easy peel, but uncooked. Whether they’re peeled or not already doesn’t matter. If they’re not peeled, you can either peel them while raw or you can cook them and then peel them. 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 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.
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). Put the 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 this way? The less intense heat is gentle on the shrimp. They don’t tense and curl up as much but retain something close to their uncooked size and shape. 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.
Serving Shrimp Cocktail
There are no real rules here. If you’re doing individual appetizers, 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 outside rim as before.
There you go! The perfect shrimp cocktail at home. Enjoy!
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.)
This post originally appeared in December 2017 and was revised and republished in April 2020.