To quote the New York Times, “It’s not a party without shrimp cocktail!”
Popular since 1959 when a Las Vegas casino in the Golden Gate Hotel began serving its patrons the version so familiar to Americans—plump shelled shrimp dangling off the rim of a martini glass, complemented with a ketchup-based cocktail sauce spiced with prepared horseradish, lemon juice, and a few dribbles of Tabasco sauce—this appetizer never seems to go out of style.
There are many ways to make this classic dish better.
Shrimp Cocktail Tips
Start with the best shrimp: Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the U.S. (On average, Americans eat 5.9 pounds of shrimp per person per year, according to the National Fisheries Institute.) But despite rich shrimp fishing grounds in the Gulf states and Southern Atlantic, the majority of shrimp consumed here are imported, most a product of Chinese aquaculture (shrimp farms). Buy wild-caught, if possible. A natural diet in natural waters creates more flavorful crustaceans. If you must buy farmed shrimp, look for Thailand or Ecuador as countries of origin, information required at point of sale by the USDA.
If you’re lucky enough to have a local fish market that is serviced by day boats, buy fresh. Otherwise, purchase shrimp that was frozen right after harvest. Shrimp freezes well—better than other types of seafood. Most shrimp sold as “fresh” at supermarket seafood counters has been previously frozen anyway, then defrosted prior to sale.
Size Matters: Names like “extra colossal,” “jumbo,” “large,” “medium,” or “small” are subjective and may change from store to store. Buy shrimp by the per pound count, not the size—the smaller the number, the bigger the shrimp. For example, U-10s—meaning there are about 10 per pound—are dramatically larger than U-36/40 shrimp. (Be sure to ask if the count is head-on or head-off.) When it comes to grilling, in our book, bigger is better.
Brine: Several years ago, we discovered brining shrimp for as little as 30 minutes improves their succulence, tenderness, poppiness, and sweetness. For each pound of shrimp, combine 2 quarts of cold water with 1/4 cup kosher salt, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and the juice of one lemon. Stir until the salt and sugar crystals dissolve, then submerge the shelled and deveined shrimp in the brine. Drain and dry thoroughly with paper towels before cooking. Alternatively, dry-brine shrimp by tossing each pound of shelled shrimp with 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda; refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes. Again, dry thoroughly as exterior moisture is the enemy of browning.
Note: Do not brine if seasoning the shrimp with a salty rub as the rub will act like a dry brine.
Grill, smoked, or griddle: The classic shrimp cocktail typically uses shrimp that are boiled or poached, yielding shrimp that are often bland and/or overcooked (rubbery). We much prefer grilling, smoking, or griddling the shrimp on a plancha. Not only do you introduce the haunting flavors of wood smoke, but you create a snappier chew. For efficiency in turning and to avoid overcooking, snugly thread the shrimp on bamboo skewers. There is no need to soak them. Grilling or griddling time will be quick—usually 2 minutes per side over high heat. Smoking times at 225 to 250 degrees will depend on the size of the shrimp.
Sexy sauces: Though we know ketchup-based cocktail sauce laced with pungent horseradish is a perennial favorite, consider dunking your shrimp in a mustardy Carolina-style sauce, a spicy chipotle chile barbecue sauce (see below), fire-roasted salsas, chimichurri, New Orleans-style remoulade, or a Scandinavian-inspired lemon dill sauce (see below).
In the meantime, here are several of our favorite shrimp cocktail-worthy recipes. For more inspiration, check out Steven’s book, Barbecue Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades.
Shrimp Cocktail Recipes
Sign up for our Up in Smoke newsletter so you don’t miss any blogs and receive some special offers! PLUS get Raichlen’s Burgers! PDF for free!