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Exploring Shrimp Cocktail: The History, Original Recipe, and Spin-Offs

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Everything about the shrimp cocktail.

Everything about the shrimp cocktail.

A Saucy Tale

There are many stories of the who/when/where of the first shrimp cocktail. A few of them are so horrifying I won’t mention them here (let’s suffice to say that it deals with drunkenness and seagulls in New Jersey).

Some say it began during Prohibition—hey, the bartenders needed to find something to put in those unused gin glasses.

My favorite tale (and probably the one that’s most believable) takes place in San Francisco, where a gold prospector “ordered a plate of oysters and dipped them in ketchup.”

One might assume that either he discovered that he really didn’t like the texture of oysters and used the sauce as a means of choking them down or, more likely, that the pearls of the sea were a tad bit past their prime and so the ketchup disguised some of their funkiness.

Anyhow, oysters became “any type of seafood,” and, of course, cooked shrimp are just so cute and easy to eat with your fingers. Why not use shrimp?

And Then, Things Got Even Spicier

According to an article written in the Orlando Sentinel (November 12, 1987):

In 1893 the chef at Delmonico's, Charles Ranhofer, compiled The Epicurean, a book described as a ''Franco-American culinary encyclopedia.'' He suggested a mixture of vinegar, hot peppers, garlic, shallots, lemon juice and tomatoes as a relish for cold meats, fish and oysters.

What Are We Waiting For?

Do you want to know what constitutes the perfect shrimp cocktail?

Do you want to know how to actually make that perfect shrimp cocktail?

And, would you like to find out if you can go a bit rogue and create other "perfectly" acceptable alternatives?

Don't touch that dial. I have all of those for you right here.

First, let's look at the components of a perfect shrimp cocktail.

Court bouillon

Court bouillon


This is the poaching liquid that not only cooks but flavors your shrimp. They will spend so little time in there (it’s a quick dip, not a luxurious soak in the tub) that you’ll want to make those moments count. Here’s an easy recipe.


  • 10 cups water
  • 1 lemon, thinly sliced
  • 1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 12 whole black peppercorns
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt or kosher salt


  1. Place all ingredients in a stockpot. Bring to a boil over high heat and then reduce to a gentle simmer. Allow simmering for 5 minutes.
Ice bath

Ice bath

Ice Bath

Hot and then cold. I don't intend to scare you away, but shrimps are somewhat temperamental (think of them as the Kardashians of the sea world). You will cook them in a hot bath (the court bouillon) but then immediately plunge them into ice to stop the cooking process. That's important.

Timing is everything.

You can't cook the shrimp and then fuss around in your kitchen, finding a bowl, filling it with ice, and so on. That ice bath has to be ready and waiting in the wings for the final act.

Find a large bowl. Put some ice in it. (I don't care if it's cubes, rectangles, or whatever shape. Just no popsicles, OK?)




This is the star of the show and the place where you don’t want to economize. Your shrimp cocktail can only be as good as the shrimp from which it is made. Most of the shrimp sold in the U.S. market is frozen. Look for wild-caught (which tends to have much better flavor than farm-raised). Failing that, your next best option is “sustainably farmed.”

If you have access to fresh, for goodness sake, do so (even if it costs more).

By the way, in case you were wondering, size does matter. The little buggers aren’t worth it, and the humongous ones are just too much of a good thing. Look for 16-20 per pound.

Clean them (there’s a video below that shows you exactly how to do that). When they are ready, the next step (of course) is cooking them. Let’s assume that you have prepared the court bouillon (above) and that it has simmered for 5 minutes.

You’re ready to cook your shrimp!

  1. Retrieve 2 cups of liquid from the stockpot and reserve.
  2. Place the shrimp in the simmering stockpot.
  3. They will cook in just a few minutes. Your first sign is that they have turned bright pink. Take one out and prod it with your finger. If it feels slightly firm, it’s done. If it’s still “squishy,” it needs a moment more. But don’t wait until it is very firm. That’s over-done.
  4. Next, drain and place in the ice bath. If you have just a handful of shrimp, you can easily retrieve them from the stockpot with a skimmer. But if you are cooking quite a few, dump the whole thing into a colander to immediately remove them from the hot water.
  5. And then, just as quickly, place them on the ice and pour the 2 cups of reserved bouillon on top. That is the final step, but it is vitally important. If you merely remove your shrimp from the court bouillon and don’t plunge them in ice, they will hold residual heat and continue to cook. Overcooked shrimp are rubbery shrimp, and no one wants that. So quickly place them in a bowl that is filled with ice (not just ice water), and then ladle in a spoonful or two of the bouillon so that they will continue to soak up those flavorful lemony-herby flavors.
Cocktail sauce

Cocktail sauce

Cocktail Sauce

There are so many recipes on the internet (and in cookbooks, if you're old-school) for cocktail sauce. But this one, from Bon Appetit magazine, is easy and (in my humble opinion), the best.

Now, If You Want Something Different

Other Shrimp Cocktail Recipe Ideas

I really like the classic, original shrimp cocktail. But maybe you want to go outside of the box, explore a new realm, and create a new paradigm. Here are some interesting recipes I found for you.

Spicy warm shrimp cocktail

Spicy warm shrimp cocktail

Spicy Warm Shrimp Cocktail

Years ago, Curtis Stone had a cooking show on the Food Network called Take Home Chef. He was a young, hunky Australian chef (love that accent) who would:

  • Randomly select a home cook at a grocery store.
  • Ask if she had plans for making dinner.
  • Help her select the perfect ingredients.
  • And then go to her home and help her create that amazing meal.

(Insert the swoon emoji here.)

Well, I was always too old for him, and he's now a married man with a beautiful family. But I still think he's cute, and he still is a great chef. Of course, that was always the fascination {{wink, wink}}.

Here is his recipe for a spicy warm shrimp cocktail.

Garlic roasted shrimp cocktail

Garlic roasted shrimp cocktail

Garlic Roasted Shrimp Cocktail

This Garlic Roasted Shrimp Cocktail recipe is bursting with flavors you don’t get in the traditional shrimp cocktail. The garlic and crushed red pepper give it a bit of spice. The homemade cocktail sauce also has a little kick with horseradish.

Asian roasted shrimp cocktail

Asian roasted shrimp cocktail

Asian Roasted Shrimp Cocktail

Heather Christo is a nationally-recognized authority on an allergy-free lifestyle with two published books and two James Beard award nominations. She has had featured articles in major publications and has appeared on national television shows (TODAY, Food Network, Good Morning America Health, Access Hollywood Live, HGTV and DIY networks, Rescue my Renovation, and many regional news shows).

Her blog contains hundreds of delicious and satisfying foods created for those with allergies or who wish to reduce or eliminate meat from their diet. If that sounds boring, please take a moment to visit her page. Her photographs are absolutely stunning. It is said that we first eat with our eyes, and Heather's blog is indeed a feast. Her Asian-inspired roasted shrimp cocktail is a perfect example.

Three-ingredient shrimp cocktail dip

Three-ingredient shrimp cocktail dip

Three-Ingredient Shrimp Cocktail Dip

Tracey's shrimp cocktail dip brings back memories of Thanksgiving years ago at my sister-in-law's house. My SIL always served cream cheese with cocktail sauce and baby shrimp as an appetizer. This dip has all of those flavors combined into one quick-to-fix dish for fresh veggies, crackers or (even) potato chips.

Mexican shrimp cocktail-stuffed avocados

Mexican shrimp cocktail-stuffed avocados

Mexican Shrimp Cocktail-Stuffed Avocados

These shrimp-stuffed avocados make a light meal, perfect for those swelting hot summer evenings when the very last thing you want to eat is something heavy. Thank you to Marzia (LittleSpiceJar) for the wonderful recipe.

Vegan shrimp cocktail

Vegan shrimp cocktail

Vegan Shrimp Cocktail

I could not complete this article without posting a recipe for my younger daughter. Over 20 years ago, she decided that she no longer wanted to consume meat, a dietary choice that was more difficult to embrace two decades ago. There are tastes that she still fondly remembers from her childhood, and a shrimp cocktail is one of them.

Most of the "remembered" flavor comes from the cocktail sauce; the texture of cooked shrimp in this vegan recipe has been replaced here with artichoke hearts.

© 2018 Linda Lum