The Secrets to Making the Best Shrimp Cocktail

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Gently poaching shrimp in a flavorful broth is the key to the best shrimp cocktail. [Photographs: Daniel Gritzer. Video: Serious Eats Video]

I'm not ashamed to admit my guilty pleasures. I enjoy listening to Katy Perry, I would rather have a margarita-fueled beach vacation than visit the world's greatest museums, and I absolutely adore shrimp cocktail. There may be no other dish in the world that makes me more giddy than plain old poached shrimp dipped in horseradish-spiked ketchup. I even like the really crappy supermarket kind, sold in those round plastic trays lined with pitiful rows of strangely translucent little cooked shrimp.

Shrimp cocktail may not have the adult sophistication of raw oysters or chilled lobster, and it's not an acquired taste, like sea urchin. Nope, shrimp cocktail is easy, accessible, and so commonplace, it's practically passé. And that's exactly why I love it so much. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make the best shrimp cocktail we possibly can. And frankly, given how easy it is, there's really no excuse not to put just a little extra effort in.

Let's start with the main event: the shrimp.

Big Flavor, Little Shrimp

Juicy, plump, flavorful shrimp. That's all we really want from the shrimp in our shrimp cocktail, and it's not asking much. I prefer larger shrimp in mine. In the seafood industry, they're categorized by the number of shrimp per pound, and, in this case, I want at least 26/30s (26 to 30 shrimp to the pound), or preferably even larger ones, like 16/20s, if possible. Still, I won't turn away a shrimp cocktail made with smaller ones, and the method I'm giving here works with all sizes.

As for deveining the shrimp, I'm on the fence. For whatever reason, with shrimp cocktail, I prefer the shrimp to not be split down the back, but if the veins are dark, I'll do it. (Though I've also found shrimp are often easy to devein without splitting the backs—you can just use tweezers to grab the vein where it sticks out at the head of the shrimp and pull it out.)

Kenji recently played with shrimp-poaching methods for a shrimp salad, and he found that the best approach required a few key steps:

  • First, dry-brine the shrimp in a combination of baking soda and salt, which delivers shrimp with an extra-plump texture.
  • Next, poach the shrimp in a simple mixture of water and citrus juice until they're cooked through, starting them cold and bringing the temperature gradually up to no more than 170°F (77°C). By starting cold and not exceeding 170°F, instead of dropping them into boiling liquid, you get the plumpest, most tender shrimp from edge to edge.
  • As a final step, run the shrimp under cold water to chill them, then spin them dry in a salad spinner.

For this recipe, I started by basing my approach on the above,* but revisited a couple of the questions to see if the answer changed for shrimp cocktail. Most important was the question of the poaching medium itself. For his salad, Kenji found that the more traditional method of poaching shrimp in a court bouillon—an aromatic broth acidified with white wine and/or lemon juice—wasn't worth the effort, since the flavor improvement was largely lost once the shrimp were tossed with dressing and other salad ingredients. Instead, he found that a simple poaching liquid of water and citrus juice worked just as well. I wanted to find out if a court bouillon might actually be worth using in the case of shrimp cocktail, where the shrimp are really the main event.

* If you're wondering about cooking the shrimp sous vide, we're working on a recipe now, so stay tuned.

I prepared several batches of my own poached shrimp, using the dry brine and the start-cold cooking method, testing a true court bouillon against just water and citrus juice, as well as comparing shrimp cooked shell-on and shelled.

Just as Kenji found in his tests, I found that the shrimp cooked in a court bouillon were more flavorful than those cooked in just water and citrus. In this case, that flavor held even after they were dipped in cocktail sauce. In the case of shrimp cocktail, a court bouillon is your best bet.

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Shell-on shrimp absorb less flavor from a court bouillon than shelled shrimp.

I also found that shrimp poached shell-on in a court bouillon absorb less flavor than shelled ones, so you're going to want to shell your shrimp here before you cook them. Still, the shells have flavor, and we can use them to make the court bouillon even more rich.

Let's take a look at the rest of the recipe with step-by-step photos.

Shrimp Cocktail, Step by Step

We start by making the court bouillon, a lightly acidic and aromatic stock. In mine, I use diced celery, onion, and fennel, along with sprigs of fresh herbs, like parsley and tarragon. There's some flexibility here: It's fine if you don't have fennel, or if you want to add some leeks either in addition to or in place of the onion. The key is just to have a fresh-tasting, aromatic broth; the exact ingredients aren't set in stone. I like to add some sliced peeled ginger as well, since it has a way of perking up shellfish with a subtle hit of freshness.

Then I add dry white wine (don't worry too much about what type, as long as it isn't sweet) for flavor and acidity, as well as some freshly squeezed lemon juice.

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We've peeled the shrimp, but there's no reason not to capture some of their flavor in the broth as well, so in go the shrimp shells!

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I bring the whole thing to a simmer for about 20 minutes—just long enough to extract flavor from the aromatics and shrimp shells, but not so long that everything loses its freshness. Then I strain out the solids.

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Next, I grab the shrimp, which have been sitting in the refrigerator with their dusting of salt and baking soda, and add them to the broth. They should be chilled enough to drop the temperature of the cooking liquid even more, which is good, since we want to start in cooler liquid and then bring the temperature back up gently.

Use an instant-read thermometer to make sure the liquid doesn't go over 170°F. The shrimp should be just about cooked when the temperature gets there, though it will depend on their size.

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Now, in Kenji's recipe, he chills the cooked shrimp under cold running water, but here, we want to preserve the flavor we've gained from the court bouillon. Because running them under cold water would wash some of that away, we need a different method. So I transfer the shrimp to zipper-lock bags and submerge them in a bowl of ice water. The bags act as insulators, so the shrimp won't cool down quite as fast as they would directly under cold water, but it still works as long as you press them under the surface of the ice water and move the shrimp around inside the bags, to make sure they all get pressed up against the cold plastic.

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I like my shrimp chilled, so once the ice water has cooled them down most of the way, I transfer them to the fridge until I'm ready to serve them.

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For my cocktail sauce, I keep things relatively simple: I mix ketchup with preserved horseradish, along with some fresh lemon juice, black pepper, and salt. If I'm being fancy, I'll also add a little ground coriander seed and granulated garlic, but those are totally optional, as are any other flavorings you can think up. For the horseradish, the store-bought jarred stuff works well, but if you're up to making a homemade batch with fresh horseradish root, that's even better.

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Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be on a beach, listening to Katy Perry and finishing off this plate of shrimp cocktail. Don't judge.