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What makes a "shrimp cocktail" (or is that a misnomer)?

Is there such a thing as a good shrimp cocktail?

Everytime I've had it the shrimp is rubbery, cold and utterly tasteless. The only thing that sets one shrimp cocktail apart from another is really the sauce.

Is that all there is to shrimp cocktail? The sauce??

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  1. Oh no. The shrimp should be the highlight of a shrimp cocktail.

    First, buy raw shrimp, not the pre-cooked ones. Unless you live at the source, your shrimp will be shipped to the store frozen. The thawed shrimp were shipped frozen and then thawed at the store. Thawed shrimp tend to deteriorate quickly. So, I tend to buy frozen raw shrimp, and then defrost them at home.

    Second, sometimes you may want to brine the shrimp, which means soaking them in salt water (or a salt+sugar water, or a salt+sugar+other flavors water) for about 20 minutes. This lets salt penetrate the meat, gives it more flavor, and helps it stay moist when cooked.

    Third, you might want to try a marinade or rub to boost the flavor of the shrimp. Let the fish side in the rub or marinade for 20 minutes to an hour before cooking. If your rub or marinade has salt in it, you can skip the brine, since they accomplish similar things.

    Fourth, shrimp tend to taste better if cooked in the shell, since the shell has a lot of flavor. The shell also protects the meat from burning. If you cut a slit down the back of the shrimp before cooking (as you would to devein it), the shell will be really easy to peel off after it is cooked. This will also allow your marinade to penetrate more of the meat.

    Finally, do not over cook. The exact timing depends on the size of the shrimp, but they cook fairly quickly. Probably two minutes on high heat for medium sized shrimp. Let them rest off the heat before peeling and eating. I like to grill shrimp or cook them under the broiler.

    Does this help, or would you like more info?

    6 Replies
    1. re: Darren72

      All true, but also an important component: the variety of shrimp. A lot of inexpensive frozen shrimp these days are Southeast Asian tiger shrimp. It's dark grey when uncooked, and relatively flavorless. Better is domestic white shrimp, usually sourced from the Gulf. More delicate flesh and a brinier shrimpier flavor. Make sure that the shrimp is not decaying, especially if they have been defrosted for display -- any whiff of iodine means the shrimp is starting to go bad.

      Also worth checking out are domestic shrimp farmers who can ship fresh whole (head-on) shrimp -- there was some past discussion on these boards about specific suppliers, if you do a search.

      Of course, a good cocktail sauce is essential. Make your own with fresh horseradish and lemon. Not hard at all, and there are several good recipes on the web.

      1. re: Pupster

        Good points. This past weekend I had large pink Key West shrimp (pink when raw, that is). There were about 15 per pound. Excellent!

        1. re: Darren72

          Interesting, I have been mulling over my home prepared shrimp coctail technique recently. Indepdent of this thread I have come up with this strategy:

          Buy only raw shrimp.
          Buy the wild American stuff, not the farm raised imports.
          Boil it with the shells.
          Boil it with some Penzey's crab boil seasoning.
          Do not over cook, do not overcook, do not overcook.

          My preferred dipping sauce:

          Heinz Chili Sauce with added horseraddish and fresh lemon juice.

            1. re: ChinoWayne

              Are you talking about those tiny shrimp. Hard to find those babies other than shelled and precooked.

      2. For me it TOTALLY is!! I grew up on the Mexican Coctel Version which is made with KETCHUP... must be KETCHUP... no cocktail sauce... The way we make it is pretty simple:

        Shrimp that has been boiled in water for a few minutes (We do it in colander, so we can yank out the shrimp as soon as they turn opaque!) and then dumped into an ice bath to cool...

        Then, once chilled, we drain the shrimp and add chopped cucumber, Chopped red onion, chopped cilantro, firm avocado and chopped Serrano Chiles. Then we stir in a mixture of ketchup and lemon juice. Serve with Saltine Crackers or even better... TOSTADAS! And we are in heaven... :)

        --Dommy!

        2 Replies
        1. re: Dommy

          when do the shrimp get shelled?

          1. re: Sharuf

            always cook in shell, then shell the shrimp before presentation. leave tails on.

            oh, always wild-caught florida or gulf coast pink shrimp (OK, i'm biased!).

        2. Darren72,

          Thanks very much for the info - it's very informative.

          But I guess my query was more directed to ordering shrimp cocktail at restaurants -- usu. when I'm out entertaining clients at a steakhouse someone always orders the shrimp cocktail appetizer ...

          6 Replies
          1. re: ipsedixit

            Oh, I'm sorry! :)
            Honestly, I can only remember a few good shrimp cocktails in restaurants, and they were all at places that focused on seafood. The best one I can remember was at Fonda del Mar, a Mexican seafood restaurant in Chicago.

            1. re: ipsedixit

              I can't imagine why anyone would order shrimp cocktail in most restaurants. As you said, the shrimp is usually awful. IMO the sauce is also bad. I would guess these clients have never tasted good shrimp.

              1. re: cheryl_h

                I think it might have to do with either it's just the classic starterd at a steakhouse... surf and turf as it were and it's a throw back to those people who still think shrimp is expensive and a 'luxury' ingredient... :P

                --Dommy!

                1. re: Dommy

                  At $16.96 or more per pound for American Wild Shrimp, they are kind of expensive. But then again, the Wild Copper River Salmon is $30 per pound.

                2. re: cheryl_h

                  I think it depends on the restuarant.

                3. re: ipsedixit

                  I don't know for sure, because I haven't had one lately, but I would guess that a really high end steak house might have very good shrimp cocktail. We had a gift certificate for Ruth's Chris and for my meal I ordered Oysters Rockefeller. It was excellent.

                4. I would add that domestic white/pink shrimp are far superior to nasty farm-raised tiget. Buy them frozen if you can, defrost yourself, cook in the shell, dump them into ice water the moment they are done. I use lots of salt in the water and add almost four times that amount of liquid crab boil that is specified on the jar.

                  And make your own cocktail sauce-- it is much tastier. I like a small amount of brandy in the sauce.

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