This post may contain affiliate links which means that if you click them and purchase something, I get a little commission. Thank you for your support.
Shrimp Cocktail is an appetizer that's as old as the hills ... as they say down South! John Mariani in The Dictionary of American Food & Drink (1983) says, "A 'shrimp cocktail' was a variation on the 'oyster cocktail' created about 1860 by a San Francisco miner who dipped his oysters in ketchup." Presumably, because they had gone off!
Classic Shrimp Cocktail has not always been appreciated and is often relegated to the surf-and-turf dinner. In fact, James Beard, the acclaimed mid-20th-century cookbook author, referred to cocktail sauce as the "red menace" in his book James Beard's Simple Foods. He describes it as "a dreadful invention loaded with tomato and garlic and onion that, to my mind, is the worst thing that ever happened to the oyster."
Here's the thing, though ... I love Shrimp Cocktail! And I think most of us do! Especially when it's homemade classic shrimp cocktail made with fresh wild shrimp and homemade sauce. It simply doesn't matter if it's 1860, 1970 or 2021!
Tips on buying shrimp
Buying seafood is a dicey procedure. Living in the Pacific Northwest, it's so easy for me to get wonderful seafood, but there is so much farmed product out there that you should avoid. It's worth exploring where to get the healthiest you can. Check out the Monterrey Bay Aquarium's website app called seafoodwatch ... you can even pull it up at the grocery store before you purchase!
Bottom line ... buy wild, check the harvesting method (avoiding bottom trawls), make sure it smells fresh.
Peel the shrimp. Leave the tail.
One of the things about Classic Shrimp Cocktail that I love most is that handy little tail. You can pick it up easily to dip in the sauce. I recommend you buy shell-on fresh, wild shrimp and shell them yourself. Just hold it just above the tail and pull away the legs near the tail. Then hold it above the tail and peel away the rest of the shell. Finally, use a small paring knife to cut down the back and remove the vein.
How to cook shrimp for Homemade Classic Shrimp Cocktail
The trick to success with Classic Shrimp Cocktail is that you cook the shrimp correctly. The shrimp needs to be tender, but cooked through. Rubbery shrimp is not acceptable.
Cooking the shrimp literally takes 2-3 minutes! Put a bit of water and some lemons in the bottom of a steamer, bring it to a boil, and add the shrimp to the steamer. Stir the shrimp around for 2-3 minutes till the shrimp turn orange. Take them out a bit before because the heat will continue to cook them and you don't want rubbery shrimp because they are overcooked. Refrigerate them till they are fully cold before serving.
What are the ingredients for classic shrimp cocktail sauce?
Classic Cocktail Sauce ingredients are very few. All you need is ketchup, prepared horseradish sauce or jarred horseradish (or fresh horseradish root that you grate), lemon zest, some Tabasco sauce (if you dare!), and some salt and pepper. Just mix it all together and you're done.
How to serve Homemade Classic Shrimp Cocktail
Shrimp Cocktail is usually served as an appetizer and I fully support this! That spicy sauce with a bit of protein is a pleasant way to begin a meal.
A note on this vintage milk glass dish: I'm pretty sure it wasn't intended to be used as a shrimp cocktail serving dish! But doesn't it work out so well?!
Other recipes you might like:
Homemade Classic Shrimp Cocktail
- 1 pound fresh, wild shrimp peeled, tail intact
- water to cover the bottom of a steamer
- 2 lemons juiced into the water
FOR THE SAUCE
- ½ cup ketchup homemade or organic
- 2 Tablespoons prepared horseradish sauce, jarred horseradish, or fresh horseradish root (grated) See notes
- dashes Tabasco sauce optional
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- To prepare the shrimp for steaming, hold a shrimp just above the tail and pull away the legs near the tail. Then hold it above the tail and peel away the rest of the shell. If you keep holding by the tail, it might come off, too, defeating the nifty little handle for eating! Finally, use a small paring knife to cut down the back and remove the vein.
- Bring water and lemons to a boil in the bottom of a steamer. Add the prepared shrimp to the steamer and stir them around till they start to turn orange, 2-3 minutes tops. Take them out before they are quite finished cooking because the lingering heat will finish the job. Cool completely and refrigerate before serving.
FOR THE SAUCE
- Mix the ketchup, horseradish, lemon zest, Tabasco sauce, and salt & pepper. Place in a bowl surrounded by the steamed shrimp. Serve immediately.