Shrimp cocktail is a splurge, whether you’re popping crustaceans at a raw bar or poaching a batch yourself. Each bite should feel like luxury: plump, snappy, well-chilled meat with clean, oceanic sweetness that gleams on your palate.
Nailing that profile is all about poaching the shrimp just right. First, the water must be judiciously seasoned to underscore shrimp’s natural brininess. Second, the shrimp must reach, but not exceed, their ideal doneness. That’s hard to do well, because small, lean shrimp go from raw to rubbery in an instant and because it’s hard to monitor the temperature of so many pieces.
There are a few unusual steps I take to ensure proper seasoning. First, I brine the shrimp in water laced with both salt and sugar. Then I also poach them in that brine with more salted water, which enhances the seasoning effects of the brine rather than diluting it as plain water would.
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The Original Seafood Cocktail
Before modern freezer technology made highly perishable shrimp widely available, cocktail sauce’s best mate was the oyster. Popularized in 19th-century San Francisco, the oyster cocktail (or shooter) was shucked bivalves dropped into a glass with their liquor, ketchup, Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces, vinegar, and horseradish. It has been largely eclipsed by the shrimp kind but is still a popular briny bracer.
In his book On Food and Cooking (2004), food science writer Harold McGee notes that poached shrimp tastes best when cooked to 140 degrees, and my sous vide tests confirmed that. I cooked batches of jumbo (16–20) shrimp to temperatures ranging from 130 to 180 degrees. At 140 degrees, they were juicy, tender, and just resilient enough to swipe through cocktail sauce.
Science: Poached Shrimp’s Sweet Spot for Doneness—and How to Achieve It
The texture of poached shrimp is just right, we confirmed after a slew of tests, when they’re cooked to 140 degrees. At this temperature (the same target doneness we like for lobster), the flesh is nicely plump and tender as well as snappy—perfect for swiping through cocktail sauce.
Since it’s fussy to take the temperature of shrimp as they cook, we temp the water instead. Provided you use the prescribed size and amount of shrimp and water, the shrimp will reach 140 degrees when the water hits 160 degrees.
Sous vide is great for poaching; just bring the water to 140 degrees and cook the shrimp for 45 to 60 minutes. My question was how to consistently hit that target without relying on sous vide. Drop shrimp into hot water and if you’re not careful they can overcook in a flash, even if you pull the pot off the heat. The best approach is to heat the shrimp and water together—a method I call “cold‑start poaching.” That way, they cook gradually, so there’s minimal risk of overshooting the mark. The other key is to monitor the temperature of the water, not the shrimp, which makes it easy to hit the target without temping individual pieces. Once I figured out how high to heat the water (160 degrees) my method worked perfectly, as long as I used the prescribed size of shrimp and volume of water. The results, I promise, are worth the splurge.
A New Way to Poach Shrimp: Cold-Start Poaching
Brine Shrimp; Add More Seasoned Water to Pot: Brining shrimp seasons them more quickly and evenly than salting does and plumps up their flesh with water. Poaching in a combination of the concentrated salt-sugar brine and more lightly salted water enhances the seasoning effects of the brine rather than diluting it as plain water would.
Cook Until Water Hits 160 Degrees: Heating the shrimp and water together cooks them gently, minimizing the risk of overcooking. The shrimp reliably hit the 140-degree mark when the water reaches its target.
Shock in Ice Bath: Drain lunging the cooked shrimp into an ice bath quickly chills them to prevent carryover cooking.