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I’m a huge fan of excellent shrimp cocktail, although I will freely admit to eating lots of mediocre shrimp cocktail at parties and events, mostly because it’s there and I kind of feel like if somebody is going to put out a big tray of shrimp in front of me, I should eat some.
I’ll do this even though I know they’re not any good and they are probably just a bag of defrosted frozen shrimp, and if it weren’t for the overpowering nature of the shrimp cocktail sauce, I would be starting to gag a little.
I do this because somewhere along the way I got it into my head that shrimp are a luxury and you should never pass up free food that cost someone else a lot of money. The worst part is I’ll do this even though I know it doesn’t have to be this way because great shrimp cocktail is easy to make.
What Makes Shrimp Cocktail Great
Let’s start with what great shrimp cocktail is and what it’s not. Great shrimp cocktail is fresh shrimp that are lightly cooked and full of plump, juicy flavor. Bad shrimp cocktail smells fishy, tastes watery, is almost all texture, and has no flavor.
The reason there is so little flavor in so many shrimp cocktails, especially those made at home, is the shrimp is often defrosted, precooked frozen shrimp that couldn’t deliver flavor with a nuclear bomb or completely fresh shrimp that someone cooked for an hour, because they were too afraid of killing their guests with undercooked seafood.
In general, shrimp is an ingredient that lacks a lot of natural flavors but is adept at absorbing flavors from the things they are cooked with and how they are cooked. Shrimp’s ability to absorb flavors is part of why it is such an important component of so many cuisines from around the world.
To start with, get fresh shrimp that still have their shells, but are deveined. This will let us infuse flavor into the shrimp without drying them out. After you get the shrimp home, give them a good wash under cold water, and set them aside for a few minutes, while the cooking liquid gets going.
There are two ways you can infuse flavor into your shrimp during the cooking process. The first is to use a marinade or brine; the second is to use a flavored cooking liquid. I like my shrimp to have a nice citrus flavor, so I use a lot of lemon and lime in my poaching liquid. In this case, I don’t use a marinade because soaking the shrimp in lemon and lime juice would start cooking them right away and I’d end up with an accidental ceviche.
The key to this style of shrimp cocktail is to build a robust cooking liquid by getting your lemon and lime juice into the pot by squeezing them into the cooking liquid and then tossing the wedges in after them. Our basic recipe also includes whole peppercorns and some salt.
If I have a lot of time, I’ll let the cooking liquid simmer for 30 minutes or so before adding the shrimp, if I don’t, I’ll get everything in the pot and put the shrimp in at a low temperature for at least 15 minutes.
What I don’t do and what often leads to overcooked shrimp in other recipes is bring the liquid to a boil and then throw in the shrimp.
Shrimp are very delicate, and if you cook them at too hot a temperature, they won’t be in the cooking liquid long enough to absorb any flavor, which is why I prefer to poach them for a long time at a low temperature.
The low and slow method also keeps the shrimp nice and tender while letting the citrus seep in.
You’ll know the shrimp are cooked when they turn a nice pink and are firm to the touch but have some bounce back. If they feel like you’re squeezing a tennis ball, they’re overcooked and are going to taste rubbery, like a tennis ball.
There are a lot of ways you can finish the shrimp. I’m a big fan of specialty sea salts from the South Pacific, a good homemade shrimp cocktail sauce, or with just a simple squeeze of lemon.
- Buy uncooked fresh shrimp
- Get shrimp that have the shells on, but are already deveined, it saves a lot of time, and the shells help keep the shrimp juicy and moist
- Drain your shrimp, don’t let them sit in water after they are cooked
- When you serve the shrimp use a double bowl system to keep them cold, with ice in one bowl and the shrimp in a second bowl resting inside the first bowl
Mark is Umami's publisher
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