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Effortless Shrimp Cocktail: Master the Perfect Starter
An easy recipe for shrimp cocktail that’s tasty and lovely to look at.
I have never met a “starter” I didn’t love. There are so many great ways kick-off an evening of fun with your friends or family but, for me, there’s just something about a great shrimp cocktail before dinner that sounds perfect. It’s one of the reasons that you’ll find it on every appetizer menu for the big steak houses around the neighborhood. Some restaurants serve them simply prepared and some serve them fancier (like when they serve the shrimp on top of dry ice so that it comes to the table ‘smoking’) but in the end it’s all about the perfectly poached shrimp and the flavors of the sauces the shrimp are served with.
It’s actually much easier than you think to create the absolutely perfect shrimp cocktail every time. One of the significant advantages of poached shrimp is that a typical serving isn’t over-filling. That makes them fabulous to have solo as a light lunch or snack on a late weekend afternoon just before you go out for dinner and a show.
After trying so many recipes in search of the perfect shrimp cocktail, I found this recipe on Bon Appetit last year and tried it out immediately. It’s so easy. It requires NO special equipment other than measuring cups and spoons. The most challenging part is preparing the shrimp for poaching. And, the cocktail sauce is a quick mix-up of six easy ingredients.
Ask at the fish counter or your fish market if the shrimp is fresh. Very often what you will find at the fish counter is shrimp that was once frozen but that the market has already thawed. But, if you can find fresh it’s the best option. Some fish mongers will de-vein them for you but, even if your fish monger will de-vein your shrimp – check them again to make sure that all of the intestine (that dark line along the back of the shrimp) is gone before you cook them. If you can’t find them fresh then IQF (individually quick frozen) can work. Just be sure that you thaw them only ONCE and cook them immediately. Do not refreeze thawed shrimp.
Ingredients for Shrimp
- 8 cups of ice (keep it ready just before you start)
- 1⁄4 cup Diamond Crystal kosher salt or 2 Tbsp plus 2 tsp Morton’s kosher salt (Morton’s Kosher Salt is much ‘saltier’ than Diamond Crystal)
- 1⁄4 cup sugar (I know it sounds strange – trust me)
- 2 large lemons
- 1 lb. jumbo shell-on shrimp, deveined
Ingredients for Cocktail Sauce
- 1 cup chili sauce (preferably Heinz – saves you from having to add a whole bunch of additional spices)
- 3⁄4 tsp finely grated lemon zest (just the yellow part, avoid the white as it will be bitter)
- 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice (this is about the juice of one medium lemon)
- 2 Tbsp prepared horseradish
- 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 3⁄4 tsp hot sauce (preferably Tabasco)
- Place the 8 cups of ice into a large bowl and set aside.
- Combine salt, sugar, and 6 cups water in a large saucepan. Make sure the pan is large enough to hold the water, shrimp, plus the ice.
- Cut two lemons in half, squeeze the juice into the saucepan, then toss the lemon halves into the saucepan.
- Bring liquid to a boil – stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar fully. When everything is completely dissolved, remove saucepan from heat.
- Add shrimp and poach, uncovered, for 3-1/2 minutes. Set your timer so you don’t overcook!
- Immediately add the ice into the saucepan to rapidly chill the poaching liquid and stop the cooking. Let shrimp sit in the ice bath for about 10 minutes. Drain, pat dry, and peel, but leave the tails on. The tails are pretty and are perfect to pick up the shrimp with. Pat them lightly dry again. Place the shrimp in a dry bowl, cover, then let them chill in your refrigerator until you’re ready to serve.
- You can poach and peel the shrimp a day ahead but be sure them keep it chilled.
Prepare Cocktail Sauce
- Mix the chili sauce, lemon zest, lemon juice, horseradish, pepper, and hot sauce in a small bowl.
- Cover and chill until ready to serve.
You can also make the cocktail sauce a day ahead. Personally, I think it tastes better to let all the ingredients settle together in the refrigerator overnight. If you do it all a day ahead you will have the benefit of leaving yourself more time for your main course prep (if you’re having one) or time to just relax before your guests arrive.
Another tip: serve your poached shrimp ON ice. Don’t submerge cooked shrimp in ice water—that just makes them soggy, and soggy shrimp are definitely not appetizing. But, you absolutely want to keep the shrimp cool – therefore serve them on ice. And as a finishing service touch, cut a jumbo lemon into 1/8th wedges or 1/4” half rings and serve with your shrimp.
Watch my video to see the whole process in action.