Why It Works
- Using a court bouillon (a flavorful, aromatic broth with white wine and lemon juice) produces deeply-flavored shrimp.
- Starting shrimp in a lower-temperature cooking liquid, then raising liquid to no more than 170°F (77°C), produces the plumpest, most evenly cooked texture.
- Shelled shrimp absorb more flavor from the broth than shell-on ones.
- A dry brine of salt and baking soda makes the shrimp even plumper.
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.
Big Flavor, Little Shrimp
Let's start with the main event: the 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 extra-plump texture.
- Next, poach the shrimp in a simple mixture of water and citrus juice until they're cooked through, starting 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've perfected that too.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How to Make the Best Shrimp Cocktail
For the Shrimp:
2 pounds (900g) large or jumbo shrimp, shells removed (except for tail portion) and reserved, deveined if desired (see note)
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (28g) kosher salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 quarts (1.9L) water
2 cups (480ml) dry white wine
2 ribs celery, diced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 fennel bulb, diced (optional)
3 medium cloves garlic, smashed
1 (2-inch) knob fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
2 sprigs fresh tarragon (optional)
2 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
Fresh juice of 1 lemon
For the Cocktail Sauce:
1/2 cup (120ml) ketchup
2 tablespoons (30g) store-bought or homemade preserved horseradish, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon (15ml) fresh juice from 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed (optional)
1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic (optional)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Shrimp: In a large bowl, toss shrimp with 1 teaspoon kosher salt and baking soda until evenly coated. Transfer to refrigerator until thoroughly chilled, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a medium pot, combine 2 quarts water with white wine, celery, onion, fennel, garlic, ginger, tarragon, parsley, lemon juice, and remaining 2 tablespoons salt. Add reserved shrimp shells. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then lower heat and gently simmer for 20 minutes. Strain out and discard solids and return broth to pot.
Fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside. When shrimp are chilled, add to pot with broth. Set over medium-high heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until temperature reaches 170°F on an instant-read thermometer and shrimp are just cooked through; adjust heat to make sure temperature does not go over 170°F.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer shrimp to zipper-lock bags, making sure not to crowd too many shrimp into each bag. Seal bags, removing as much air as possible, and submerge in ice water, moving shrimp around in each bag, until cooled. Transfer zipper-lock bags to refrigerator until shrimp are thoroughly chilled, at least 30 minutes.
For the Cocktail Sauce: In a medium bowl, whisk together ketchup, horseradish, lemon juice, and ground coriander and garlic if using. Season cocktail sauce with salt and pepper.
Spoon cocktail sauce into a small bowl and serve with the chilled shrimp alongside.
Instant-read thermometer, zipper-lock bags
Devein the shrimp if you prefer by slicing along their backs and removing the vein (see the video here for step-by-step instructions).
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 1g||2%|
|Saturated Fat 0g||2%|
|Total Carbohydrate 8g||3%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||2%|
|Total Sugars 4g|
|Vitamin C 11mg||56%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|