This recipe will show you how to make shrimp cocktail, a timeless and elegant dish with perfectly boiled or poached shrimp that take center stage in a classic presentation that never fails to impress. The dish is paired with a zesty cocktail sauce, creating a refreshing balance of flavors.
This post contains affiliate links. Please read my full disclosure here.
Whether you’re celebrating a special occasion or simply craving a refreshing appetizer, this is a go-to choice that promises to elevate any gathering.
What is Shrimp Cocktail
Shrimp cocktail is a popular appetizer or starter dish that typically consists of cooked shrimp served with a tangy cocktail sauce. It is a classic and refreshing seafood dish often enjoyed at parties, seafood restaurants, and especially for Christmas and New Year’s.
What Type of Shrimp to Use
It is common to use large or jumbo-sized shrimp that have been peeled and deveined. The size of the shrimp can vary based on personal preference and availability. The shrimp are typically boiled or poached until they turn pink and become firm and tender.
When shopping for shrimp refer to our Shrimp Size Guide and Counts Per Pound, 21-30 count will work well.
I recommend grabbing shrimp that has already been deveined so that you can save time skipping this step. Deveining in the process to remove the digestive tract or “vein” that runs along the back of the shrimp.
I prefer wild-caught shrimp. Farm-raised shrimp are raised in captivity on a shrimp farm. These farms can be located in ponds or in tanks on land. The shrimp are typically fed a diet of fishmeal, soy, and other ingredients, and are sometimes given antibiotics or other chemicals to prevent disease. Those chemicals are then passed into the food you eat.
Poach the Shrimp
Poaching involves cooking food in gently simmering water that is heated to a lower temperature compared to boiling. The water is typically kept between 160 and 180 degrees, below the boiling point.
Poaching the shrimp in water that is cooler than the boiling temperature will prevent the shrimp from overcooking.
Simmer the shrimp for approximately 3-4 minutes until they are cooked through.
How to Make Shrimp Cocktail
Full detailed instructions are below in the recipe card.
- Fill a wide saucepan or pot with enough liquid to fully submerge the shrimp. Add Old Bay, salt, and pepper.
- Place the pot on medium heat and bring the liquid to a gentle simmer.
- Add the raw shrimp to the pot.
- Allow the shrimp to cook.
- Using a slotted spoon or tongs, remove the poached shrimp from the pot and transfer them to the ice bath.
- Cool before serving.
Do You Leave the Tails on?
This is a matter of preference and is up to you. The tails are typically left on cocktail shrimp when serving. Leaving the tails on makes it easier for guests to pick up the shrimp and dip them into the sauce. The tail provides a convenient handle for grabbing the shrimp, preventing fingers from getting messy.
The tails also add visual appeal to the presentation of the dish. Keeps it cute!
How to Tell When the Shrimp Are Done/Overcooked Shrimp
- Color change: Raw shrimp are translucent, but as they cook, they turn opaque and take on a pinkish color. When the shrimp have turned pink and opaque, they are cooked through.
- Firmness: Gently press the shrimp with your finger or a fork. Cooked shrimp should have a firm texture, yet still be tender. Overcooked shrimp may feel rubbery or excessively firm.
- Shape and Curling: Cooked shrimp tend to curl into a “C” shape. As they cook, the proteins contract, causing the shrimp to curl. When they are tightly curled in an O shape they are typically overcooked.
- Internal Temperature: Use a meat thermometer and insert it into the thickest part of the shrimp. The internal temperature should read between 120 degrees and 140 degrees.
You can also check out my guide on How to Tell if Shrimp is Cooked here.
How to Serve the Dish
Shrimp cocktail is traditionally presented on a chilled platter to keep the shrimp cool and fresh. For an extra touch, you can create a bed of crushed ice or arrange some lettuce leaves on the serving dish. This helps keep the shrimp chilled. Make sure to drain any excess water from the ice before placing the shrimp on top.
Can You Prepare it in Advance?
If you plan to assemble the dish ahead of time and chill it, make sure to keep it covered tightly to prevent the shrimp from drying out or absorbing unwanted odors from the refrigerator. You can place the assembled shrimp cocktail in an airtight container or cover the platter tightly with plastic wrap.
Properly cooked and chilled shrimp can be refrigerated for up to 24 hours before serving.
You can use frozen shrimp, but thaw them first.
The shrimp are traditionally served with a flavorful sauce known as cocktail sauce. It is a tangy and slightly spicy sauce made from a combination of ketchup, horseradish, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, and other seasonings. The sauce complements the sweet and delicate flavor of the shrimp
Be sure to pair it with our Homemade Seafood Shrimp Cocktail Sauce recipe.
Additional Sauce Pairing Ideas
- Remoulade Sauce: A tangy and creamy sauce made with mayonnaise, mustard, pickles, capers, herbs, and spices. It adds a zesty and slightly spicy kick to the shrimp.
- Aioli: Aioli is a garlic-infused mayonnaise-based sauce, which adds extra depth of flavor to the shrimp.
- Avocado Sauce: A creamy avocado-based sauce can be a refreshing and flavorful option.
- Sweet Chili Sauce: Provides a combination of sweet and spicy flavors. The sweet and tangy profile pairs well with the shrimp’s natural sweetness.
- Tartar Sauce: It adds a slightly tangy and savory note to the shrimp.
- Pineapple Mango Salsa: For a tropical twist, consider serving the dish with fresh mango salsa.
- Cilantro-Lime Sauce: This sauce adds a refreshing and citrusy element to the shrimp.
Pair With These Recipes
More Shrimp Recipes
Spicy Shrimp Tacos
Seafood Stuffed Mushrooms with Crab and Shrimp
Seafood Pasta Salad with Crab and Shrimp
Shrimp Egg Rolls
Pan Seared Shrimp with Lemon Butter
Steak and Shrimp Surf and Turf
How to Make Shrimp Cocktail
- 1 pound raw shrimp Peeled and deveined. I keep the tails on.
- 1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
- salt and pepper to taste
- Fill a wide saucepan or pot with enough liquid to fully submerge the shrimp. Add Old Bay, salt, and pepper. This is optional, but will add additional flavor to the shrimp.
- Place the pot on medium heat and bring the liquid to a gentle simmer. The liquid should be hot but not boiling. As a reference, you should stick to around 160 to 180 degrees. You don't want it to reach boiling because you risk overcooked shrimp.
- Add the raw shrimp to the pot. Ensure that the shrimp are fully submerged in the liquid.
- Let the shrimp cook for 3-4 minutes or until they turn pink and opaque. The exact cooking time may vary depending on the size and thickness of the shrimp. Be mindful not to overcook them, as they can become tough and rubbery.
- While the shrimp cooks fill a large bowl (large enough to hold the shrimp) with ice and water to create an ice bath.
- Using a slotted spoon or tongs, remove the poached shrimp from the pot and transfer them to the ice bath. This will cool the shrimp and stop the cooking process so they aren't overcooked.
- Allow the shrimp to cool before serving.