perfect shrimp cocktail – with homemade cocktail sauce

Perfect shrimp cocktail. Succulent poached shrimp dipped into a tangy cocktail sauce. Who doesn’t want that? Here’s how to do it right. Every time.

I love a good shrimp cocktail. Firm flavourful shrimp. Dipped into a sauce brimming with horseradish and lemon. One of my absolute favourite appetizers.

You might say old school. Dated. So 1970s. But I say classic. Something that stands the test of time.

Perfect shrimp cocktail every time. Serve it with homemade cocktail sauce.

It doesn’t always have to be trendy. But if you love trendy then I say this is retro. Call it prawn cocktail instead. Does that make it better? Can you sleep at night now?

Try it once before you knock it. If you still don’t like it leave a comment saying it’s boring. I’m game to take that chance.

Shrimp cocktail doesn’t have to be a watery mess

Shrimp cocktail (or prawn cocktail if we are calling it that now) gets a bad rap for one reason. The frozen shrimp ring. That thing is about the worst invention ever.

It’s like they go out of their way to make it suck. Small shrimp. Insipid cocktail sauce. Cooked and then frozen. Throw in some freezer burn and you have one big watery mess. No thank you.

Now think about the shrimp cocktail they serve at fancy steakhouses. Jumbo shrimp. Delicious sauce. White napkins. And a huge price tag. $3 a shrimp. Ouch. Set it down next to that $50 steak and it’s dinner time!

Or you can make it at home. And you can make lots of it. For about the price of good quality frozen shrimp.

shrimp cocktail on a plate

What is prawn cocktail anyway?

That could read what is shrimp cocktail for a good part of the world. Two names. Same thing? Turns out no. They are different creatures altogether.

Shrimp live in salt water. Prawns live in fresh or brackish water. Shrimp are from the ocean. Prawns are not.

I think some parts of the world use the term interchangeably. Doesn’t help clear up the confusion. And to make it worse they call pacific shrimp king prawns.

For this recipe it probably doesn’t matter that much. Get what you can get. The cooking times are tied to weight per shrimp (or prawn) anyway.

Call it shrimp cocktail or prawn cocktail. Nobody cares. What matters is it’s delicious when you do it right.

shrimp cocktail platter from the front

The cocktail sauce is important

The worst thing you can do is take your perfectly cooked shrimp and serve them up with a jar of pre-fab cocktail sauce. You want bright fresh flavours. Not something that was jarred 18 months ago.

That 2 year old bottle of horseradish that has been rattling around your fridge is not the place to start. Go to the store. Buy a fresh jar. When you get home taste the old stuff next to the new stuff. You’ll see what I mean.

Fresh lemon juice is the other key ingredient. Don’t use that stuff from the little plastic lemons. I don’t know why that even exists anymore. Who can’t buy a lemon these days?

shrimp cocktail platter and single serving from above

Perfect shrimp cocktail every time

I cannot take credit for this recipe. I didn’t invent it. What I did do is spend years searching for the perfect, reproducible, absolutely foolproof shrimp cocktail recipe. This is it.

I found it in an old Cook’s Illustrated book. I’ve simplified it some but the base technique is all theirs. In turn, they borrow pretty heavily from classic French technique.

Cooking is about evolution, anyway. There’s very little revolution going on. There aren’t too many people who are inventing something completely new.

A caveman put some woolly mammoth on a fire. That changed everything. Somebody else discovered salt. Huge improvement. And the guy who first decided to eat a lobster. That was something.

Since then it’s been about refining technique. I’m kidding here. But not really…

Shrimp cocktail. Or prawn cocktail. Just really good retro party food. Try it. You’ll see what you’ve been missing.

shrimp cocktail leftovers on a plate

shrimp cocktail platter from above
Print Pin
5 from 6 votes

Perfect shrimp cocktail with homemade cocktail sauce.

Perfect shrimp cocktail makes a truly elegant and delicious appetizer for any party
Course Appetizer
Cuisine American
Keyword cocktail sauce, prawn cocktail, shrimp cocktail
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Total Time 50 minutes
Servings 8
Calories 176kcal
Author romain | glebekitchen


Shrimp cocktail

  • 2 lbs shell-on 16/20 count frozen shrimp
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 5 black peppercorns
  • 5 coriander seeds
  • 1 small bay leaf
  • 1 tsp salt

Classic cocktail sauce

  • 1 cup good quality ketchup
  • 1 tbsp prepared horseradish - don't use the stuff you've had in the fridge for a year
  • 1 tsp pure chili powder - e.g. New Mexican or ancho
  • 1/3 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/3 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice - maybe a bit more to taste


Make the shrimp cocktail

  • Run the shrimp under cold water to thaw. Peel the shrimp, reserving shells. Place the peeled shrimp back into the refrigerator. Place the shells in a saucepan with 4 cups water, bring to a boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes. 
  • Remove shells from the shrimp stock. Add the white wine, peppercorns, coriander seeds, bay and salt. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes. This is a court bouillon.
  • Turn off the heat and add 1 lb of shrimp to the saucepan. Cover and let sit for 8 minutes (set a timer). While the shrimp sits, set up a large bowl of ice water. 
  • After 8 minutes remove shrimp from the court bouillon and plunge into the ice water. When cold remove shrimp, drain and refrigerate.
  • Bring the stock to boil. Turn off the heat and add the second pound of shrimp. Set the timer for 8 minutes and refresh your bowl of ice water. 
  • After 8 minutes remove shrimp from the court bouillon and plunge into the ice water. When cold remove shrimp, drain and refrigerate. See where this is going?
  • Repeat as many times as you want, although you won't need shells for any more than 2 lbs. If you are only doing one pound, reduce the amount of water to 3 cups for the initial stock step.
  • Serve with classic cocktail sauce.

Classic cocktail sauce

  • Combine the ingredients in a small bowl and stir to mix. 
  • Let stand 15-30 minutes to let the flavours come together.


Cook smaller shrimp for less time. For 21-30 count go with 7 minutes. For 31-40 six minutes will do it. Anything smaller, don't bother...


Serving: 8servings | Calories: 176kcal | Carbohydrates: 9g | Protein: 23g | Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 285mg | Sodium: 1555mg | Potassium: 225mg | Sugar: 7g | Vitamin A: 255IU | Vitamin C: 7.2mg | Calcium: 176mg | Iron: 2.8mg

4 thoughts on “perfect shrimp cocktail – with homemade cocktail sauce”

  1. 5 stars
    This recipe is fantastic, up until I made it I had only had store bought shrimp rings…quite the awakening. Also used this technique to prep shrimp for salad rolls and it worked great.

    • Welcome to the converted! This technique works great any time you are adding cooked shrimp to a dish. Pre-cook them perfectly and just warm them through in the final dish. Perfect shrimp every time.

5 from 6 votes (4 ratings without comment)

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