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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... :)


        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


                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.

                  1. Tiger shrimp have a higher water content than other varieties and so shrink much more, get tough, and are also less tasty.

                    Wild caught are much tastier than farmed shrimp.

                    Until recently I would agree with other posters about using raw shrimp and not pre-cooked, but the quality of individually frozen (not block frozen) pre-cooked shrimp is getting very good. In a rush I just defrost them in cold water and serve, and they are ok. Preferably I start with fresh or frozen raw shrimp.

                    The way I make them I always get super tender shrimp. I don't actually boil the shrimp. I bring a large pot of water to a boil. (If I am using a boil spice like Old Bay I boil the spice in the water for 5 minutes first.) Then I pour in the shrimp and turn off the heat. I stir the shrimp in the hot water for 1 minute and let them sit 1 more minute. I do not let them sit in the water for more than 2 minutes tops, sometime just a bit more than 1 minute. This short time cooks them completely and is the first part of the technique to fantastic boiled shrimp.

                    I then pour them into a colander and run cold water over them. I then put them immediately into an ice bath to chill them and stop the cooking. That is the second part of the technique for great boiled shrimp, the immediate cooling down to stop the cooking process. They always comes out sweet, tender, and not overcooked this way.

                    This works with shrimp in or out of the shell, but the flavor of shrimp cooked in the shell is a bit better. It's also easier to shell cooked shrimp than it is raw shrimp.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: JMF

                      "Until recently I would agree with other posters about using raw shrimp and not frozen, but the quality of individually frozen (not block frozen) pre-cooked shrimp is getting very good. In a rush I just defrost them in cold water and serve, and they are ok. Preferably I start with fresh or frozen raw shrimp."

                      I think you misinterpreted by point above about raw shrimp. I wrote "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."

                      I was contrasting precooked versus raw shrimp, and suggested going with raw (assuming they have been properly stored). But you can get raw shrimp either frozen or thawad. As I wrote above, unless you live near the source, the shrimp are shipped frozen. The thawed shrimp in your store were shipped frozen and then thawed at the store. Since shrimp decay quickly, I think it is best to buy individually frozen shrimp and thaw at home. I realize you agree with this, but we got there from different paths.

                    2. "Wild caught arre much tastier than farmed shrimp."

                      In general, I would agree with this statement. Except when sourcing from specific farm suppliers who ship direct to you, species is known, and quality is assured. Shrimp decay so quickly that any cutting out of the middleman can only improve the quality. In past discussion, there were a couple suppliers that were mentioned that seemed very promising, recommended by other hounds. (I haven't tried them.)

                      1. Our favorite cocktail sauce is: 1/2 C chili sauce, 1/2 C ketchup, 2-4 Tablespoons fresh grated horseradish, 1 Tablespoon each of Worchestershire sauce, Louisianna Hot sauce, & lemon juice. Stir, chill, & enjoy with shrimp that have been heated in boiling Old Bay Seasoning water and then "shocked" in salty ice water. My DH has been known to put away a pound or more by himself before dinner

                        1. Follow thus recipe and you will always have GREAT SHRIMP COCKTAIL:

                          For 1 lb Shrimp

                          Buy the best quality shrimp you can find, Shells must be on. The Jumbo are not always the tastiest; I like the large 16-20/lb

                          Boil some water , about 1 1/2 quarts, with 1-2 Tbs Crab Boil and 1 Tbs Kosher salt. (Make sure you cover the pot or the fumes will get in your eyes!)

                          When water boils, add shrimp, unpeeled. When water returns to boil, cover, and let stand for 6 minutes. Shrimp will be perfectly cooked.

                          Drop cooked shrimp in ice water bath to stop the cooking and chill the shrimp.

                          When cold, shell and devein.

                          Refrigerate in zip lock freezer bag placed on a bowl of ice.

                          Prepare Cocktail Sauce:

                          1/2 cup Heinz Ketchup
                          1/2 cip Heinz Chili Sauce
                          Grated zest and juice of one Lemon
                          1 Tbs Worcestershire Sauce
                          Bottled Horseradish to taste ( I like to use the Red)...1-3 tsp
                          Mix together and refrigerate

                          8 Replies
                          1. re: Fleur

                            6 minutes seems long to me, but you're using pretty large shrimp, which takes longer. basically, one is just heating the shrimp through till there is a little color change -- barely cooked, as i'd describe it. the covering off-heat method is good to control the gradation of cooking, but would you think the longer time in the water might contribute to a little wateriness (if that is possible....)

                            1. re: alkapal

                              Funny, I was thinking the same thing about the 6minute time frame.

                              1. re: alkapal

                                If you drop the Shrimp into the boiling water and turn off the heat and cover, the Shrimp will be cooked all the way through, turn color, and curl up. It works for me every time, and the Shrimp are never watery, I make this all the time and have never had a problem or a complaint.

                                  1. re: alkapal

                                    Sorry, I have to disagree. How do you let them sit? I put them in a medium boil just to they start to curl and turn pink, remove and let cool. Never ever let them sit in water for that long. Sorry

                                    1. re: kchurchill5

                                      you don't think sitting in water is good either? i thought so, too, but if fleur likes it, i thought it might be worth a shot to try.

                                      1. re: alkapal

                                        Never heard of it, but who knows, I am open to something ... just thought it was too much, but new ideas are good.

                                  2. re: Fleur

                                    Above you state that you bring the water back to a boil after adding the shrimp but here you stay add the shrimp and turn off the heat. The latter is what I do. Which is the way you actually do it?

                              2. First of all, I live on the MS Gulf Coast where fresh shrimp are brought in daily off the shrimp boats. Place the shrimp (heads and shell attached!) in a large pot of salted water with Zatarain's or other southern-based crab boil. It comes in a bag, powder, or liquid - doesn't matter which. Add cloves of peeled garlic, celery, 1-2 coarsely chopped onions, 3 or 4 halved lemons, and hefty dashes of cayenne and black pepper. Bring the shrimp to a rolling boil AND TAKE THEM OFF THE HEAT. Cover and let steep for 15-20 minutes, then peel and eat. For a meal, add red potatoes and cob corn to the mix and cook with the shrimp. We pile the shrimp on a platter and dust with Old Bay. We made a spicy red sauce and a creole mayo to go with them. WONDERFUL!!

                                1. Seems the shrimp cocktails you're used to getting have been overcooked (which will make them rubbery - same with lobster and crab) and probably a non-gulf coast US variety. I have found the ones from Asian countries to not have any flavor except an off-tasting saltiness. That being said, when I'm able to find any domestic shrimp, I'd (respecfully) never consider brining or marinading them. At most, I'd use a good quality crab/shimp boil (such as Zataran's) with 1 or 2 halved lemons and a halved onion thrown in the pot. Definitely leave them in the shell to cook. Boil/simmer the shrimp just until they turn pinkish/orange, remove, chill, and serve w/the cocktail sauce as provided by bouncy55 (altho I've never included the chili sauce). Serve w/saltines and butter.

                                  (Omit the lemon and save/freeze the water (now shrimp stock) for your next pot of gumbo. Head on shrimp make the broth especially rich)

                                  bayoucook - I grew up on the MS coast - LB. Sure do miss those shrimp right off the boat!

                                  5 Replies
                                  1. re: CocoaNut

                                    ooh yeah, i forgot to mention to save the stock. you can also cook pasta in it, like perciatelli (my little experiment, once....)

                                    1. re: CocoaNut

                                      Yes, it was hit and miss for a while after Katrina, but this season has been really bountiful. Got 35 lbs. of 20count shrimp for 3.50 a lb! And the oysters this year are the saltiest/yummiest in years, too. Bought a sack of 100 for 35.00 at the Gautier seafood store. I would really really miss the coast if I moved away!!

                                      1. re: bayoucook

                                        I'm so jealous - particularly about the oysters! My parents and brother are still there, but even so, I've only been back once since Katrina - too depressing, although I understand it's greatly improved in the last year and a half. My only saving grace is there is a long standing resto in Dallas that gets their seafood fresh (shrimp, oysters, snapper, flounder) from a distributor in Houma. Used to be from Biloxi, but I guess it got blown away?

                                        1. re: CocoaNut

                                          Quality Seafood is open and bigger and better than ever - don't know if they're distributing yet, tho'. Glad you have a place to go for good seafood. The coast really is coming back after Katrina - getting both bridges up meant a lot. It's still pretty depressing where you come from - from LB to the LA state line, and all those beautiful antebellum homes in PC gone. Really sad. Have you seen the art work some artist made of all the trees on 90 in Biloxi/Gulfport? It's amazing - and touching that we can find such beauty in such desolation....

                                          1. re: bayoucook

                                            Yes, I've seen internet pictures and you're right, such a beautiful tribute to such an otherwise totally destructive force of nature. I hope to come for a visit in April and look forward to seeing my aunt's newly rebuilt home, other coastal progress and of course, eating my fill of freshly caught seafood - namely oysters, snapper and flounder.

                                    2. Here's my advice:

                                      1. Get domestic shrimp in the shells. Fresh is ideal and we in Florida can sometimes get them that way, but frozen are fine and are the way almost all shrimp are sold. Shrimp thawed by the grocery store and then put on display should be avoided. Sometimes they're fine and sometimes not, but you have more control over the frozen ones. Ironically, they seem fresher.

                                      2. Boil the shrimp in saltwater about the same saltiness as the sea (i.e., saline solution, a/k/a "brine.")

                                      3. As you cook the shrimp, after a minute or so, take one out every thirty seconds or so and bite into it. You'll know when it seems right. (I recook the rejects after the main batch is done and eat them myself !)

                                      4. Plunge the shrimp into ice water to stop the cooking. I like my shrimp room temperature or warmer (more shrimp flavor), so I pull them out of the ice bath after about 30 seconds. I just want to stop the cooking, not make them cold. Use your hands. You can tell when they should come out.

                                      5. Peel immediately and serve immediately.

                                      6. I suppose if you're doing a shrimp cocktail, chilling them is almost mandatory, despite what I said above about the flavor of warm ones being better. Anyway, serve it with a cocktail sauce of two parts ketchup, one part horseradish (I use the unpreservered kind that comes in a bottle without oil), and fresh lemon or lime juice sqeezed in to make it the consistency you want. Sometimes I add in some kosher or sea salt, was well. This makes a pretty hot cocktail sauce, so play around with the proportions. A poster above said to use grated fresh horseradish, which I have never done, but sounds like it ought to be good!

                                      1. Quite some years back, the first time I saw Tiger Shrimp at the seafood counter, I asked the counterman why they were blue. His reply: "The water is cold"....they weren't labeled at all, so I wasn't 100% certain he was kidding. I didn't know till some time later what they were called and where they were from, but it was rapidly apparent that they didn't have much taste. Another reason to buy them raw - you can't tell them by the color if they're cooked.

                                        1. Easy to make, as other posters have noted. Keep the shell on, get a big pot of water- I don't use shrimp boil, we like to add salt, garlic, lemon and tarragon to the boiling water. Once the water is boiling, in go the shrimp- watch carefully, as they really only take a miute or teo to cook. Once the first batch is don, into ice water to stop the cooking, and then bring the water back up to a boil for the next batch. I prefer them served with just a squirt of lemon juice, instead of cocktail sauce.

                                          1. We're plain and simple types. I don't like shrimp boil or any spices at all added to the water--simply buy the freshest raw shrimp possible, boil with shells on until just opaque, ice bath to cool, and serve with cocktail sauce made out of ketchup and horseradish. IMHO, all the spices and extras take away from the flavor of the shrimp. But that's why we NEVER make it with precooked frozen, etc.

                                            1. I would chime in being from FL but I'm pretty sure all is covered. Cook in shell; cook with an old bay or seasoning mix, don't over cook, if any undercook and the remove and then finish cooking. leave tail on, peel and put on the glass. A good sauce is key. Make your own or doctor up prebought. I have done both. For a nice dinner or party I would make own. For every day I use a bottled and add a few touches. A nice squeeze of lemon I think also important. Never rubbery, tons of flavor, great sauce.

                                              1. Two words: live shrimp.

                                                Given that you live in LA, you should be able to find an Asian market that has a tank filled with vigorously swimming spot prawns. Bring 'em home and boil 'em alive until just done. Nothing better.