Great shrimp cocktail recipes are all about the little things. Namely, guidance on the right shrimp for the job, how to cook them perfectly, and how best to achieve the classic balanced but zingy sauce. This one gets the details right. (Catch former BA staffer Molly Baz making shrimp cocktail here.)
You’re looking for big, fat, just-cooked shrimp for this classic appetizer, so size and precision matter—the size will be printed on the bag of frozen shrimp at the grocery store, or ask your fishmonger about fresh, raw shrimp. We think 16–20 per pound is best for this recipe. (Otherwise, follow these guidelines: For 26–30, poach 1½ minutes; for 21–25, poach 2 minutes; for 13–15, poach 4 minutes; for 8–12, poach 5 minutes; read more in our guide to cooking shrimp.)
No matter the size, shrimp cook best with their shells on. The shells flavor the cooking liquid and prevent the seafood from overcooking. As soon as the shrimp have turned opaque, get them into a cold water bath, fast; dropping ice into the cooking liquid makes that simple. (If your pot is too small, use a slotted spoon to transfer the shrimp to a separate bowl filled with salted ice water.) Serve the chilled shrimp tail-on, scattered over more cracked ice, and garnish with lemon wedges alongside a cocktail sauce kissed with tomatoey chili sauce, which gives the dip more oomph than ketchup ever could.
For a completely different feel, serve the poached shrimp with aioli or guacamole with lime juice, cilantro, and tortilla chips. For more shrimp-spiration, check out this riff on Panamanian ceviche that can be made with frozen, deveined shrimp.
Cocktail Sauce and Assembly
Scoop 8 cups ice into a large bowl; set aside. Combine ¼ cup Diamond Crystal or 2 Tbsp. plus 2 tsp. Morton kosher salt, ¼ cup sugar, and 6 cups water in a large saucepan. Cut 2 lemons in half, squeeze juice into pot, and toss in lemon halves. Bring liquid to a boil, stirring to dissolve salt and sugar, then remove pot from heat. Add 1 lb. shell-on jumbo or large shrimp, deveined, and poach, uncovered, 3½ minutes.
Immediately add reserved ice to saucepan to rapidly chill the liquid and stop the cooking. Let shrimp sit in ice bath 10 minutes. Drain, pat dry, and peel. Pat dry again. Cover and chill until ready to serve.
Do Ahead: Shrimp can be poached and peeled 1 day ahead. Keep chilled.
Cocktail Sauce and Assembly
Mix 1 cup chili sauce (preferably Heinz), ¾ tsp. finely grated lemon zest, 2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice, 2 Tbsp. prepared horseradish, 2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, and ¾ tsp. hot sauce (preferably Tabasco) in a small bowl. Cover and chill until ready to serve.
Serve peeled shrimp on cracked ice with lemon wedges and cocktail sauce alongside.
Do Ahead: Sauce can be made up to 1 day ahead. Keep chilled.
Editor’s note: This recipe was first printed in our July 2018 issue. Head this way for more of our best shrimp recipes →
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Reviews (41)Back to Top
Barely, if even, three minutes are all that are needed to poach the shrimp. Great "non-spicy" brine. Perfect every time I have made them. I never have gotten around to making the cocktail sauce here though...
A cook from Buffalo
Excellent classic shrimp cocktail recipe! Fool proof and always a hit when served. Have tried many others- my search has ended with this keeper!
We love this cocktail sauce… I just made a double batch and used 5 TBS of horseradish!!!! Merry Christmas!
This cocktail sauce is a total game changer. This whole process is so easy, and the outcome is so delicious.
This is the best shrimp cocktail I've ever had. I've been making it since the recipe came out. Thank you!
Hey there, J V again. I decided not to remake the cocktail sauce. I let it sit out for about an hour-ish, and the volatiles in the horseradish escaped from the sauce. It was delicious after that.
J V (again)
I've never had cocktail sauce before, so maybe it's supposed to be overwhelmingly composed of horseradish, but I couldn't eat this without wincing with each bite. Why do we use 2 tablespoons?