Classic Shrimp Cocktail Recipe

Certain appetizers and festive bites seem to have been in the repertoire forever, and shrimp cocktail is a prime example. The deceivingly basic dish can pack in far more flavor than you might think, making it a gourmet delight fit for sharing with guests. While it's an excellent option to serve while entertaining, it's also the perfect recipe to whip up if you want to add some glamor and elegance to a simple night at home, as recipe developer Kourtney Paranteau suggests. 

As she notes, the classic American steakhouse starter doesn't show up often enough at events, "despite its ease of execution, slim ingredient list, and crowd-pleasing presence." Thanks to Paranteau's straightforward recipe, there is sure to be more shrimp cocktail in your immediate future. Aside from the iconic combination of flavors (thanks to a zippy cocktail sauce), this easy appetizer can be prepared ahead of time, making it ideal when your hosting plans start to get hectic. 

Gather the ingredients for this classic shrimp cocktail

No shrimp cocktail is complete without a cocktail sauce, so for that you'll need a knob of fresh horseradish, a lemon, ketchup, white sugar, Worcestershire sauce, and chili powder. Next, to season the water for the shrimp you'll need some parsley, whole black peppercorns, half a yellow onion, and kosher salt. If you want, to add more flavor to the poaching liquid, you can use a roughly chopped celery stalk and a carrot too. Finally, the star of the show is 1 pound of medium-sized raw shrimp with the shell on, and we'll garnish it all with another lemon sliced into wedges.

Paranteau notes, "I recommend visiting your favorite seafood counter or specialty market in order to find the freshest prawns [...] since the entire dish centers on their flavor." She also offers some tips on working with horseradish if it's your first time encountering the ingredient: "Every horseradish is a little different as far as potency, and once grated, the root vegetable takes on an almost fluffy, Parmesan-like quality." With this in mind, she suggests, "grating a little extra in case you'd like to amp up the kick after tasting your final cocktail sauce."

Mix the ingredients for the cocktail sauce

First off, prep the horseradish by peeling away the tougher exterior. Then, grate the rest of the knob and set it aside. Juice one of the lemons for the cocktail sauce, and slice the second one to use as garnish when you're ready to serve. 

In a small bowl, add the grated horseradish, lemon juice, ketchup, white sugar, Worcestershire sauce, and chili powder. Whisk the contents properly until the sauce is smooth and uniform. Set that aside, and get ready to focus on the main attraction.

Prep the aromatic bundle

You'll need a cheesecloth to contain the aromatic bundle used to season the water for the shrimp. Lay it out and wrap up the parsley, chopped onion, peppercorns, and celery or carrot (if you're using them). Tie the bundle up with kitchen twine.

Next, grab a large bowl, fill it up with ice and water, and place it within easy access of your stovetop. Paranteau highlights that "remembering to either buy or make a substantial amount of ice before even clicking the heat on your stovetop to on" is pretty much "the key to a restaurant-esque shrimp (or prawn) cocktail."

Boil water and poach the shrimp

Now, fill a large pot with water and toss in the salt and aromatic bundle. Place the pot on the stovetop and bring it to a boil. Once the water starts to bubble, remove the pot from the burner. Add the shrimp into the hot water and cook them for 2 to 3 minutes. Paranteau explains her method of cooking shrimp in hot water off the heat prevents the shellfish from being "rubbery and overcooked." She indicates that you'll know they're cooked when they "turn to a coral, opaque pink hue with a notable curl in the tail."

Transfer the shrimp to an ice bath

Once the shrimp are ready, scoop them from the hot water directly into the ice bath with the help of a slotted spoon. Give the shellfish about 10 minutes in the ice bath before removing and patting them dry.

"Transferring your shellfish from the pot immediately to an ice bath will pause the crustaceans from overcooking and ending up rubbery," Paranteau explains, warning that said undesirable texture can lead to shrimp cocktail that's "store-bought seeming" — pretty much the last thing you want after you've put in the effort to cook shrimp from scratch. 

Peel and devein the shrimp

When the shrimp are nice and cold (and dried off), transfer them to a cutting board. Peel off the outer shells and discard them. Next, to devein the shrimp you'll need a sharp paring knife. Carefully run the blade along the middle of the shrimp's back to pull out the intestinal tract (aka vein). While some people skip this step, it really does make the final result taste better. 

Paranteau notes, "There's an age-old debate on whether to devein your shrimp before or after cooking," though she points out that both methods work. She explains, "I prefer the slightly more arduous cleaning after cooking because the shell acts as a seal and locks the crustacean's flavor inside its meat while it cooks." You may need to rinse off the shrimp when you're done if the process gets a little messy.

Serve the shrimp on ice

Set out a serving plate and cover the surface with crushed ice. Arrange the shrimp and lemon slices to your liking and plate them with a ramekin of cocktail sauce. If you're planning for a future event, Paranteau shares that the shrimp and cocktail sauce can be made up to 2 days in advance. However, she warns that "any longer than that you'll risk dulling the intensity of the fresh horseradish every satisfying shrimp cocktail requires." 

Classic Shrimp Cocktail Recipe
5 from 33 ratings
Shrimp cocktail is a steakhouse favorite, but you can make your own version that's perfect for entertaining friends - or as a treat just for yourself.
Prep Time
Cook Time
shrimp cocktail dish on plate
Total time: 20 minutes
  • 1 (2-inch) knob fresh horseradish
  • 2 lemons, divided
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 2 teaspoons white sugar
  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • ¼ cup parsley, torn
  • ½ yellow onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon peppercorns
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 pound medium-sized shrimp, shell on
Optional Ingredients
  • 1 celery stalk, roughly chopped
  • 1 carrot, roughly chopped
  1. Peel and grate the horseradish, then set it aside.
  2. Juice 1 lemon and slice and reserve the other one for garnish.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together the grated horseradish, lemon juice, ketchup, white sugar, Worcestershire sauce, and chili powder, until smooth.
  4. Make an aromatic bundle by wrapping the parsley, onion, and peppercorns in cheesecloth and tying it shut with kitchen twine. (If you're using celery or carrot, add that too.)
  5. Fill a large bowl with ice and water and place it near the stovetop.
  6. Fill a large pot with water and add the salt and aromatic bundle. Bring it to a boil.
  7. Once the water is boiling, remove the pot from the heat.
  8. Drop the shrimp into the hot water and let them cook for 2 to 3 minutes until pink.
  9. Using a slotted spoon, remove the shrimp from the poaching liquid and transfer them to the ice bath to chill for 10 minutes.
  10. Remove the shrimp from the ice bath and pat dry.
  11. Break the shrimp shells and peel them off.
  12. Devein the shrimp: Using a paring knife, slide the blade down the center of the shrimp's back and fish out the dark digestive tract.
  13. Fill a plate with crushed ice and arrange the peeled and deveined shrimp, along with lemon wedges and a ramekin of cocktail sauce.
  14. Serve immediately or store chilled for up to 2 days.
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