Shrimp Cocktail

5 from 5 votes

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Learn the secret to successfully making a classic shrimp cocktail from scratch. Follow my easy, step-by-step tutorial (complete with photos) to create succulent, flavorful poached shrimp, and you won’t be tempted by ready-made trays ever again!

Why you’ll love this recipe:

Plump and juicy jumbo shrimp dunked in a zesty cocktail sauce is a crowd-favorite! It’s a staple at my Christmas dinner, especially since I’ve mastered the art of perfectly poached shrimp. 

Learning how to make shrimp cocktail was so much easier than I expected it would be. Now that I’ve developed a failproof recipe, I’ll never go back to the bland and rubbery store-bought stuff!   

  • Quick – After prepping the shrimp, it cooks in just 10 minutes! 
  • Flavorful – Shrimp is cooked in the shell in a flavor-infused lemon thyme poaching liquid, enhanced with a dash of Tabasco sauce. 
  • Make-ahead – Shrimp cocktail is easy to prepare in advance and is best when served cold. 

Serve shrimp cocktail alongside other impressive, easy-to-make appetizer recipes, such as smoked salmon crostini and baked brie

What is a shrimp cocktail?

Shrimp cocktail is a classic appetizer made with poached shrimp and cocktail sauce for dipping. The shrimp are served cold, and the cocktail sauce is made primarily with horseradish and ketchup. 

Key Ingredient Notes:

  • Jumbo shrimp – You’ll need shrimp with the shells on, either frozen or fresh. High-quality shrimp will appear firm and have a clean, briny scent. Avoid any shrimp that looks mushy or slimy and smells fishy. And be sure to keep those shells on! They add a ton of extra flavor! 
  • Aromatics – Fresh thyme, bay leaves, salt, and peppercorns infuse the poaching liquid with flavor, which passes on to the shrimp while they cook. 
  • Lemon juice – Adds a bright, citrusy flavor to the shrimp and cocktail sauce.
  • Chipotle Tabasco sauce – We use Chipotle Tabasco, not plain Tabasco hot sauce. Chipotle infuses a unique smokey taste into the poaching water and cocktail sauce for a flavor you’ll love.  
  • Ketchup – Forms the base of the cocktail sauce, adding sweet flavor and rich red color. 
  • Horseradish – Arguably the signature ingredient in cocktail sauce. It gives the = sauce its strong, punchy flavor and spicy heat. You’ll need prepared horseradish from a jar, not whole horseradish root.  
  • Worcestershire – Provides a savory element in the dipping sauce and adds extra depth to the flavor. 

Shrimp Count

Shrimp comes in many different sizes! For shrimp cocktail, I recommend jumbo shrimp. Look for the label that says 21/25, which means there 21-25 shrimp per pound.

How to make shrimp cocktail: 

If you’re making shrimp cocktail with frozen shrimp, plan on at least 30 minutes for the shrimp to thaw. You’ll also need an ice bath ready to cool the shrimp.

1. Prepare the poaching liquid

  • Combine the thyme, bay leaves, salt, and peppercorns with 3 cups of water in a large saucepan. 
  • Cut the lemon in half, squeeze the juice into the water with the aromatics, and toss the lemon halves into the water as well. 
  • Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Then, turn off the heat, and let it sit for 8-10 minutes. This further infuses the water with flavor. 
  • Remove the lemon halves, and stir in the Tabasco.

2. Poach the shrimp

  • Add the shrimp to the prepared poaching liquid. 
  • Simmer the shrimp over medium heat for 5-8 minutes or until cooked through.  
  • Remove the shrimp from the hot water, and immediately place them into an ice bath to stop them from cooking any further. 
  • Once the shrimp are chilled, remove the shells, and arrange them on a serving platter. 
Four images showing the process of steaming shrimp for shrimp cocktail.

Avoid overcooking

Do NOT allow the water to come to a boil. This will cause the shrimp to overcook and become tough and rubbery. Keep an eye on the water to ensure it maintains a gentle simmer, and adjust the heat as needed. 

3. Mix the cocktail sauce

  • Combine the cocktail sauce ingredients (ketchup, prepared horseradish, lemon juice, Worcestershire, Tabasco, and salt) in a small mixing bowl.
  • Whisk until all the ingredients are well combined and smooth.  
  • Refrigerate the cocktail sauce until serving time. 
A bow of cocktail sauce with a spoon sticking out.

How do you thaw frozen shrimp for shrimp cocktail?

  • Fill a large bowl with cold water.
  • Transfer the shrimp to a sealed plastic bag. Then, submerge the bag of frozen shrimp in the bowl of water water. 
  • Let the shrimp sit in the water, fully submerged, for 30-45 minutes.
  • After that, your frozen shrimp cocktail should be thawed and ready to use!  
A bowl of shrimp cocktail with cocktail sauce and two shrimp dipped into the sauce.

Tips for Success:

  • Keep the shrimp shells on! Shrimp shells are loaded with savory umami flavor, which will transfer to the shrimp while it poaches. They’ll also prevent the shrimp from curling into a C shape. 
  • Don’t skip the aromatics. Plain old boiling water will do the job, but you’ll be left with plain, boring, unseasoned shrimp. Aromatics are the secret to a flavorful shrimp cocktail! 
  • Devein your shrimp. Even though the vein is edible, I don’t recommend leaving it in. It can add a gritty texture and be visually unappealing. 

How to devein unpeeled shrimp:

  • Use a sharp paring knife to make a shallow cut through the shell, down the back of the shrimp.
  • Carefully spread the shrimp open, and look for the dark vein. 
  • Use the tip of your knife or fingers to gently pull the vein out. 
  • Repeat this process until you’ve deveined all of your shrimp. 
Two shrimp dipped into a bowl of cocktail sauce sitting in a bowl of cocktail shrimp.

Make-Ahead Tips:

Why do we love shrimp cocktail so much? Because it can be prepared in advance and is served cold, straight from the fridge!

  • Poach the shrimp as directed, including the ice bath. Once chilled, remove the shrimp from the ice bath, and store it in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 day.  
  • Make the cocktail sauce up to 1 day in advance, and store it separately to allow the flavors in the sauce to meld. 
  • Alternatively, you can just thaw and devein shrimp beforehand, shaving off much of the prep time required when making the shrimp cocktail recipe. 

Storing Tips:

When stored properly, leftover shrimp cocktail can be enjoyed for 3-4 days. Store leftovers in an airtight container or tightly wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator. 

Side view of a platter of cocktail shrimp with cocktail sauce.

Shrimp Cocktail FAQs:

Can I freeze shrimp cocktail?

While it’s possible to freeze poached shrimp and cocktail sauce, I don’t recommend serving a previously frozen shrimp cocktail at a party or special occasion. The ingredients in the cocktail sauce are likely to separate during thawing, and the poached shrimp’s texture and plump appearance may also change.

Is it better to boil or steam shrimp for shrimp cocktail?

It’s best to poach shrimp for shrimp cocktail as it infuses them with water and doesn’t overcook them like boiling shrimp would in this recipe. 

What is the best size shrimp for shrimp cocktail?

When you’re choosing shrimp for shrimp cocktail, the bigger the better! Look for shrimp labeled as jumbo or large. Packages of jumbo shrimp will usually contain 16-20 shrimp pieces per pound. 

A bowl of cocktail shrimp with cocktail sauce in the center.
5 from 5 votes

Shrimp Cocktail

Serve a homemade shrimp cocktail using my easy guide for poaching frozen shrimp and preparing cocktail sauce from scratch. Make it in advance in just 30 minutes!
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 10 minutes
Total: 30 minutes
Servings: 4 servings


  • 5 sprigs of thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorn
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon Chipotle Tabasco
  • 1 lb deveined shell-on jumbo shrimp thawed if frozen

For cocktail sauce:

  • ½ cup ketchup
  • 2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
  • ½ teaspoon lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • ½ teaspoon Chipotle Tabasco
  • ¼ teaspoon salt


To poach shrimp:

  • In a large saucepan, combine thyme, bay leaves, salt and peppercorns in 3 cups of water.
    5 sprigs of thyme, 2 bay leaves, 1 tablespoon salt, 1 teaspoon peppercorn
  • Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice into the pot of water with aromatics.
    1 lemon
  • Throw in the lemon halves into the water as well.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, then turn off the heat and let it sit for 8-10 minutes to infuse the water with aromatics.
  • Remove the lemon halves, stir in the Tabasco and add the shrimps into the infused water.
    1 tablespoon Chipotle Tabasco, 1 lb deveined shell-on jumbo shrimp
  • Turn the heat to medium and simmer the mixture for 5-8 minutes. Do NOT boil the water, or the shrimps will overcook and get rubbery.
  • Take out one shrimp and cut in half to test if it’s fully cooked. If the shrimp is cooked through, remove from hot water into an ice bath to cool completely. Ice bath stops the cooking right away.
  • Once the shrimps are chilled, remove the shells and arrange on a platter, preferably over crushed ice.

To make cocktail sauce:

  • Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve.
    ½ cup ketchup, 2 tablespoons prepared horseradish, ½ teaspoon lemon juice, ½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, ½ teaspoon Chipotle Tabasco, ¼ teaspoon salt

Tips & Notes

Jumbo shrimp: Look for a label that says 21-25 counts per pound.
To thaw frozen shrimp, simply place them in cold water until thawed.
Storing Tips: 
– Leftover shrimp can be stored in an airtight container or covered tightly with plastic wrap in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. 
– Store the cocktail sauce in a separate airtight container. 
– Enjoy cold straight from the fridge! 


Servings: 1 serving
Calories: 128kcal
Carbohydrates: 14g
Protein: 16g
Fat: 1g
Sugar: 8g
Sodium: 2945mg
Course: Appetizer
Cuisine: American

This recipe was originally published on December 15th, 2014.

Hi, I’m Shinee!

Welcome! I’m so happy you’re here! I believe anyone can cook restaurant-quality food at home! And my goal is to help you to become a confident cook with my easy-to-follow recipes with lots of tips and step-by-step photos.

5 from 5 votes (3 ratings without comment)

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  1. 5 stars
    Your recipe has been my go-to for Easter and Christmas the last three years. I always come back to your blog. Sad that we can’t celebrate with our family this year, but I bought just enough shrimp for the two of us to make an appetizer. Thanks for the great recipe (and for turning us on to the Chipotle tabasco- love that stuff!)

    1. Wow, Kathryn, thank you so much for your comment!!! I had no idea this recipe still gets attention. You absolutely made my day! And I agree, chipotle tabasco is pretty bomb! 🙂

      1. 5 stars
        Still making your recipe! Just found out I needed a dish for a last second get-together… I had everything on hand except the fresh thyme. Added the tabasco too early but I am sure this will continue to be as delicious as always. Happy New Year!