It's surprisingly easy to ace this classic appetizer.

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It's one of the most classic and most universally loved appetizers and for good reason: shrimp cocktail is elegant and delicious. Shrimp ties with salmon as our favorite seafood, and though it was once reserved for special occasions, today we enjoy this shellfish for dinner on the regular. Yet shrimp cocktail somehow remains singular, associated most frequently with celebratory meals out. Don't save shrimp cocktail for the steakhouse dinner! This starter is both quick and simple to make at home, especially when armed with our tips.

one shrimp with cocktail sauce
Credit: Johnny Miller

Buy Fresh, Shell-On Shrimp

Shrimp cocktail shines when you use the best ingredients. Frozen shrimp can take on an unappealing mushy texture, so spring for fresh shrimp whenever possible. The shell is also key to flavorful shrimp, so look for ones that still have theirs.

What size to buy? Instead of trying to figure out the difference between large and jumbo, buy shrimp by the number, such as 16/20, which means 16-20 shrimp per pound.

Flavor Your Poaching Liquid

Adding aromatics such as lemon, fresh herbs, peppercorns, carrots, and/or celery to the poaching liquid will flavor your shrimp without overpowering them.

Watch the Clock

Bring poaching liquid to a boil, add shrimp, and cook for a minute and a half, until the shrimp are completely opaque. Poaching is a gentle cooking process, but shrimp can still go from perfectly tender to rubbery in seconds, so set a timer!

Ice Baby

Move the shrimp to an ice bath to stop the cooking process. Peel and devein when cool enough to handle, then chill until you're ready to serve.

Make Your Own Cocktail Sauce

Ditch the preservative-laden store-bought version and make your own cocktail sauce. It takes mere minutes to put together: just combine horseradish, white-wine vinegar, ketchup, fresh lemon juice, salt, sugar, and hot sauce, then stir. Serve alongside the shrimp with lemon wedges.

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