How to make shrimp cocktail like a fancy bastard

Graphic: Karl Gustafson

When I make shrimp cocktail at home, I feel like... an asshole? It doesn’t seem like a dish I should be eating in my studio apartment. Shrimp cocktails are reserved for weddings, steakhouses, and family gatherings. You get in your car and drive somewhere to get a shrimp cocktail, unless you have a butler. I always picture somebody with perfect posture serving it in a white glove.

That said, I think the reputation attached to this hors d’oeuvre isn’t earned. There isn’t anything fancy about boiled shrimp and hot ketchup. Shrimp are mostly farmed now and ketchup is ketchup. They’re both sitting at any Middle America grocery store right now.

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The aesthetic to a shrimp cocktail, though, is non-negotiable. The shrimp must be boiled. The cocktail sauce must be made of ketchup. The ketchup must be in some sort of glass vessel, and the shrimp must be hanging off the rim. Heed my method for making shrimp cocktail and you too will feel like the King of England as you eat shellfish atop your Craiglist-purchased futon.


Photo: MSPhotographic (iStock)

Step 1: Peel and devein 

I bought Gulf shrimp with the shells still on, sized 16/20s (that indicates you’ll get 16 or 20 shrimp per pound, smaller shrimp would have a higher number). Take the shells off with your hands—I save the shells for making seafood stock—but leave the tails on. Now take a paring knife and make a small slit towards the back of the shrimp and pull out the brown digestive track. To be honest, I don’t have really have a problem with eating shrimp that haven’t been deveined; peel-and-eat shrimp are boiled with the shells on and the poop still inside, and that hasn’t killed me yet. But, for the purpose of a classy shrimp cocktail, let’s remove the poop, shall we?

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Step 2: Boil something more flavorful than water

Here’s the recipe for the liquid I use to boil my shrimp:

  • 8 cups water
  • 2 cups ginger ale
  • Bay leaf
  • 1 tsp. coriander
  • 3 cloves

All you’re doing is combining these ingredients in a large pot to boil the shrimp. Cocktail shrimp should taste and smell lightly aromatic, not just like shrimp; if they don’t, it’s a missed opportunity. I think the ginger ale reinforces the natural sweetness of the shrimp, while the bay leaf, coriander, and cloves add some extra fragrance. If you find the ginger ale off-putting, you don’t have to use it, but it’s only 20 percent soda to 80 percent water, so try to be open minded. It’s not going to overpower. I don’t add lemon here, either. I think lemon is best served with shrimp cocktail on the side.

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Step 3: Ready an ice bath

Always have your ice bath ready to rock. A steel bowl with a tray’s worth of ice cubes and about a half-gallon of water will be good for a pound of shrimp. Bring your liquid to a boil, then shut the heat off completely and dump the shrimp in. Keep stirring gently. The shrimp will cook in about a minute. You’re looking for a thorough, pink exterior. Also—and this is because I have had to explain how to cook shrimp to many, many idiots—they should look like C’s not O’s. That is to say, when the shrimp are overcooked, they will start to form a full circle; they should look more like the letter C. You follow?

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Photo: Danny Palumbo

When they look like C’s and have a pink exterior—and I’m talking after one single minute—strain and immediately transfer to your ice bath. Let them cool, and one by one take them out and pull away the little “beards” you see on the side of the shrimp. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, see the picture at right. The texture of that portion is stringy and I think it’s good form to remove this part. One by one, take the shrimp and pat them dry on a paper towel.

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Step 4: Make your cocktail sauce

  • 1/2 cup Heinz Ketchup
  • 1/2 cup Heinz Chili Sauce
  • 1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 3 Tbsp. horseradish
  • 1 tsp. hot sauce (Sriracha or Tabasco)
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh ground black pepper

Combine all.

This is, of course, not a definitive recipe for cocktail sauce. I will say, there is one ingredient that I find completely necessary and that is freshly ground pepper. Cocktail sauce is almost always horseradish and ketchup, we know that, and those are the two flavors you’ll always taste, but the pepper adds another dimension of heat to tag-team with the horseradish and hot sauce. Squeezing half a lemon and adding Worcestershire also help add acid. Remember, the whole goal of cocktail sauce is to start with ketchup, and then get it to not taste like ketchup as much as possible. I know, it’s weird.

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Ta-da, I’m fancy.
Photo: Danny Palumbo

Step 5: Present with a flourish 

I put my single shrimp in a glass normally reserved for Peruvian pisco, and ate it like the saddest, most dignified bachelor in Los Angeles. As long as the cocktail sauce is sitting in some sort of martini glass, ramekin, or rimmed bowl, and shrimp is curled up around the edges, baby, you’ve got a shrimp cocktail.

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About the author

Danny Palumbo

Danny is a comedian and writer living in Los Angeles. Instagram @palumbros