Shrimp cocktail is a quick and easy appetizer. Succulent pieces of seafood are gently poached to prevent overcooking and then served with a tasty dipping sauce.
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Are you looking for a simple and healthy appetizer to share with friends and family? This shrimp cocktail recipe has a squeeze of lemon juice and a spicy, tangy sauce that adds a ton of flavor to each serving. The dish is straightforward to prepare, but properly cooking the delicate crustaceans is key to preventing tough and rubbery bites.
I poach the shrimp to heat the proteins evenly. It only takes a few minutes. The gentle heat preserves the sweet and salty flavor, and immediately chilling them in an ice bath halts the cooking process. Whisk together a homemade cocktail sauce, and you’ve got a gourmet appetizer that will disappear fast!
A two-bite size is perfect for a shrimp cocktail. Look for a 16-20 count at the seafood counter of your local market. Otherwise, if buying frozen, look for packages labeled extra jumbo. The count is how many pieces you will get per pound.
I typically use brown shrimp. They have a slight mineral taste and turn bright pink when cooked. Alternatively, white shrimp have a slightly sweeter flavor. You can also buy them pre-cooked, but make sure to rinse and dry before serving.
Defrosting and cleaning
If using frozen shrimp, place the pieces in a colander and run them under cool water until no longer solid, about 10 minutes. Alternatively, you can defrost them inside the refrigerator for about 24 hours before cooking.
To peel and devein the shrimp, use kitchen shears to cut through the shell, then use a paring knife to cut a shallow line down the back and remove the dark digestive tract. This technique also gives a butterflied appearance once cooked. Remove the shell, but leave the tail end intact, making it easier to grab and dip.
Gentle cooking method
Poaching uses mild heat at 160 to 180°F (71 to 82ºC) to prevent overcooking. There should barely be any bubbles forming on the surface of the liquid. I heat to the higher end because the cold shrimp brings the temperature down about 20 degrees.
I use a submersion technique to completely cover the shrimp in seasoned water with salt, lemon zest, and bay leaves. Once the appearance turns from translucent to opaque, and the thickest part reaches 140ºF (60ºC), they’re done cooking.
Immediately stop the cooking process
After poaching, shock the shrimp in an ice water bath to halt the cooking process immediately. If the pieces continue to curl into a tight “O” shape, the texture will get too harsh, so you want to stop any more heat transfer quickly. This appetizer is usually served cool, so this also helps to chill the pieces right away.
Serve with a dipping sauce
Making a shrimp cocktail sauce is easy! It’s a tomato-based sauce combined with bold ingredients to add depth and a little bit of heat. I use concentrated tomato paste that I dilute with water and vinegar. The heat comes from Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, and creamy horseradish.
Just whisk everything together and adjust the seasonings and heat level to your liking. The sauce can be made 2 days in advance and stored in the refrigerator.
How to serve
- For a larger party, I recommend placing them on top of crushed ice in a larger shallow bowl. It’s an elegant presentation, but it also keeps everything chilled and safer to eat if left at room temperature for over an hour.
- If eating right away, you can lay them out on a serving platter on top of large lettuce leaves like romaine, butterhead, or little gem with a small bowl of the sauce.
- You can also add some of the sauce into large or small cups (like a margarita glass with a wide rim) and hang the tails over the edge. This works great for individual portions.
- Serve with freshly sliced lemon wedges to squeeze on top. The acidity brings out the sweet flavors of the shrimp.
Keep an eye on appearance change
The shrimp’s muscle structure is similar to lobster, resulting in a more substantial chew than flaky fish. The proteins bind tightly together in a matter of minutes due to their small size. Look for a slight “C” curled shape and opaque appearance. Some varieties will turn pink due to the natural pigment called astaxanthin being released at 120ºF (49ºC). They’re ready at 140ºF (60ºC).
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- 2 pounds shrimp, 16/20 count
- 12 cups cold water, divided
- 4 cups ice
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 pieces lemon peel, 2-inches long
- 2 bay leaves
Cocktail Sauce (makes about 1 cup)
- ½ cup tomato paste
- ⅓ cup water
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 5 teaspoons honey, or pure maple syrup
- 4 teaspoons horseradish, cream style
- 1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
- 2 teaspoons hot sauce
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon onion powder
- ½ teaspoon apple cider vinegar
- lemon wedges, to serve on the side
- If using frozen shrimp, defrost in the refrigerator overnight, about 24 hours. For quick-defrosting, place them in a colander and run cold water over until no longer icy, about 10 minutes.
- If not peeled and deveined, use kitchen shears to cut through the top of the shell. Remove the shell but leave the tail on. Use a paring knife to cut a shallow line down the back of the shrimp and remove the dark digestive tract. In a colander, wash and then drain.
- In a large bowl, add 4 cups of cold water and 4 cups of ice. Set aside.
- In a large pot or dutch oven add 8 cups of water, salt, lemon peel, and bay leaves. Heat over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the salt. Heat until the surface is just beginning to move, but not bubbling, the temperature should be about 180°F (82ºC), about 10 minutes.
- Add the shrimp to the pot, stir and cook until opaque, loosely curled, and the thickest part reaches 140ºF (60ºC), about 2 ½ to 3 ½ minutes. Immediately transfer to the ice water bath. Chill until cool, about 5 minutes. Drain using a colander.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the tomato paste, water, lemon zest, lemon juice, honey, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, and vinegar. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Transfer to a bowl for serving.
- To serve, place the shrimp on top of a bowl of ice or serving platter (no ice if eating immediately). Garnish with slices of lemon zest and a bowl of cocktail sauce.
- Serving Size: 1 shrimp plus about 1 teaspoon sauce
- Make ahead: Cooked shrimp can be and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 day in advance. The sauce can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
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