I get a lot of questions about how to properly cook shrimp and seafood.
In a lot of cases, fresh seafood is at its best when it’s prepared simply, enhanced by a few ingredients and spices—not masked by a ton of flavors and heavy sauces.
In my mind, the most important thing to know about cooking shrimp is not really how to cook it, but how to not overcook it. (Which, I guess, amounts to kind of the same thing, but you see where I’m going with this.)
This shrimp cocktail is simmered quickly in a bubbling bath that’s laced with all sorts of herbs and spices. The result is deeply flavorful, moist shrimp cocktail.
Here’s a detailed guide on how to prepare my version of classic shrimp cocktail.
How to buy shrimp
Unless you have a great seafood shop near you, there’s no shame in buying frozen shrimp. Fresh seafood is extremely perishable, and should almost always be consumed within 24 hours of purchase.
Fresh or frozen, shrimp are sold by the “count.” You’ll find this number displayed prominently on the package, and it will look something like “21/25” or “U/15.”
This number tells you how many shrimp there are per pound. So, a package of “21/25” shrimp has 21 – 25 shrimp per pound. “U/15” has under 15 shrimp per pound.
The lower the “count” number, the larger the shrimp. Shrimp always shrink a little when they’re cooked. Buy the biggest you can find/afford for shrimp cocktail. (After all, shrimp cocktial is kinda about the wow factor.) For shrimp that you’re going to chop up or incorporate into a dish (like rice or pasta), smaller shrimp are just fine, and will be way cheaper.
This time, my shrimp were “U/15.” Here’s my paw, for scale.
As a general rule, 1 pound of shell-on, raw shrimp will yield about a 1/2 pound of cooked, peeled shrimp.
Three ways to tell that shrimp is cooked
Shrimp generally only take a couple of minutes to cook. They’re small. When in doubt, cut into one and take a peek.
- It will be opaque, not translucent.
- It will be curled in a loose “C” shape (a tight curl means that your shrimp are likely overcooked)
- It will feel firm, not squishy, to the touch
How to defrost frozen shrimp
Always defrost shrimp by putting it in the refrigerator overnight, or on the counter in a bowl of ice water (this is faster, but you need to keep an eye on the bowl to make sure it stays good and cold. Warm, raw seafood = poison waiting to happen.)
2 lbs. raw shrimp, ideally 15-20 count
a few cups of ice
2 lemons, halved
3 whole bay leaves
1 tsp. ground cayenne
2 tsp. whole celery seed
2 tsp. whole coriander seed
4 tsp. whole mustard seeds
2 tsp. black peppercorns
2 tsp. whole allspice berries
1 tsp. whole cloves
2 tsp. red pepper flakes or Aleppo chili flakes
2 tsp. dried thyme
Cocktail sauce, garnish
Serves 4-6 as an appetizer
Grab your shrimp. If it’s fresh, skip ahead to the cooking step. If it’s frozen, read on.
Thaw your shrimp
Put your frozen shrimp in a large bowl.
Fill the bowl with cold water, and toss in a few cups of ice. Let them sit on the counter like this for a little over an hour, stirring occasionally to break up the shrimp. Like I said, keep an eye on them. If this freaks you out, you can always pop the bowl in the fridge. They’ll just take longer to thaw.
Assemble the spices for the shrimp boil
While your shrimp is thawing, toss all the spices (bay leaves, ground cayenne, whole celery seed, whole coriander seed, whole mustard seeds, black peppercorns, whole allspice berries, whole cloves, red pepper flakes or Aleppo chili flakes, and dried thyme) in a bowl, so you’re ready to go when your shrimp is.
Clean the shrimp
When your shrimp are thawed, you’re ready to clean the little guys. Yank them out of the water.
I always clean shrimp under cold, running water. It makes it a ton easier to remove the vein, etc. (The water helps you get all the guck out.) That said, I’m going to show you how to clean one without the running water, so you can see the steps well.
Grab a shrimp.
Starting at the non-tail end, rip the shell off, feet and all. Remove the shell almost down to the tail. (Leaving the tail on is a matter of preference, but makes for a good handle and a great presentation.)
With a paring knife, make a shallow slice down his back.
In almost all your shrimp, you’ll see the dark “vein” of the shrimp. This is actually the little guy’s digestive track. While it’s technically edible, it’s generally considered in very bad taste (i.e. unappetizing) to leave it in the shrimp.
Pull the vein out. It runs the length of the shrimp. (Like I said, this is a lot easier when done under cold, running water.)
Your clean shrimp will look like this. When the shrimp is cooked, the slice open up and give it a nice butterflied look.
Set your shrimp aside and repeat with the rest of his friends, until you’ve cleaned them all.
If you want to, clean the shrimp a few hours (no longer than 24 hours) ahead of time. Keep the cleaned shrimp in a bowl of ice in the fridge until you’re ready to cook them.
Make the shrimp boil
Whack your lemons in half.
Fill a pot with about 4 inches of water. Set it on the stove over high heat to start to get it boiling. Squeeze the lemons into the water, then drop in the lemon halves (those rinds have a lot of intensely flavorful essential oils).
Toss in all your spices.
Let this boil for a few minutes, to start to extract the flavor from all those spices.
Make your ice bath
Wait, more ice? Yep, more ice. Like I said, it’s easy to overcook shrimp. So, the minute they’re done, you want them to stop cooking—and fast.
While your shrimp boil is boiling, toss a few cups of ice in a large bowl and fill it with cold water. You’re going to shock the shrimp cold, just like when you blanche green veggies.
Cook the shrimp
Ah, the moment of truth. Grab your cleaned shrimp and toss them into your bubbling pot. Keep the heat on high.
Give it a stir. Parts of your shrimp should start to turn pink almost immediately. They’ll cook quickly, so don’t walk away from the pot.
When the shrimp are curled, opaque, and firm to the touch, they should be done. When in doubt, cut into one and look. It should be opaque ALL the way through. If it’s opaque on the edges, but still kind of jelly-like in the center, it’s still a little raw. Leave the shrimp in for a minute or two, then check again. (Cook shrimp like this a few times, and you’ll get a good feel for when they’re done.)
Shock the shrimp to stop cooking
When they’re cooked, fish the shrimp out of the pot with a spider or slotted spoon and transfer them to your bowl of ice water.
Stir the bowl to help the shrimp cool quickly. And…you did it! Voila, one perfectly cooked, flavorful shrimp, just waiting for a quick dip in cocktail sauce.
When the shrimp are cold, remove them from the ice water. You can keep them on ice, covered in the fridge, for a few hours before serving.
Serve with your favorite cocktail sauce.