Need Help- Steakhouse or Seafood Joint Style- Classic Shrimp Cocktail

Joined Nov 5, 2020
I haven’t worked in a kitchen in some time but this one is driving me crazy. This should a pretty simple execution but I’ve been struggling with this and wanted to get some feedback.

There is a seafood place near me that has your classic shrimp cocktail on a bed of pebble ice that is always legit. They use 8-12 tiger shrimp. They boil them in their own spice mix with the shell/tail on and clean the shell prior to serving and the come out beautiful

I’ve tried various cooking techniques but lately I’ve been going with poaching them (even though they state they boil them) and just using a basic court bouillon. I’ll usually use somewhere in the 8-12 or 10-15 (and depending on the size, somewhere around 4-5ish minutes. (maybe a tad more when needed). Before that I would either boil or soft boil. I then go directly to an ice bath and I’ve also been trying out putting them in a gallon Ziploc and then putting them in the ice bath so I’m not washing the flavor off. I always use the best quality I can find and always let them thaw at their own pace instead of force thawing under water. I have this problem if I’m just doing smaller shrimp cocktail like 16-20 but I wanted to focus on the larger ones.

Here’s a few of the main issues I have:

Texture where the head is removed- The main one I struggle with is the texture of the meat where the head is usually removed. (Head is already removed unless I can find fresh which is not often) No matter what method I use, I usually get some dryness on that area that I don’t see if I get shrimp cocktail at a nice seafood place or steakhouse. Should I be manicuring the shrimp a bit more prior to cooking to remove some of that? I don’t recall doing that at any place I’ve worked

Overall Appearance- After ice bath, I put them in a colander and let them drain for a few hours and then I remove the shells. The shrimp never look as nice as the shrimp you’ll get at a steakhouse. The portion near the head but also the legs. When you de-shell the shrimp, do you usually add any additional steps in cleaning them for presentation? How soon do you remove the shell? I feel like 95% of my shrimp is beautiful but the 5% that’s not is really displeasing

Texture- I also feel like since I’ve switched to poaching that the shrimp has been more mealy in texture. It’s as though they’re not being cooked to a firm enough texture even though they’re cooked through. Should I go back to boiling or should I poach longer? Seems like other places don’t have a problem with boiling and I do prefer a firmer texture.

Flavor- I’m also not really a huge fan of the flavor of the court bouillon. It’s ok but I prefer a bit more bite without overpowering the subtle flavor of shrimp. Is there a more standard spice for steakhouse shrimp cocktail? One of the restaurants I worked for did giant batches in a steam kettle with a pickling spice and I remember loving that but that was awhile ago and I can’t remember the exacts.

Thanks for any help and suggestions!
Joined Mar 1, 2017
Hello and welcome to CT! :)

As a kid, I spent a lot of time in South Carolina catching whatever I could with my casting net, especially white shrimp during the Fall season.

From what you've described, there could be any number of possible culprits that are causing the issues that you've described. Usually, however, when shrimp meat has a poor texture and/or flavor, its usually caused by two things: poor quality or the cooking process. In my experience, the most common mistake that even experienced chefs make is they overthink the cooking process and complicate it with a bunch of unnecessary stuff added to the cooking process.

First, always cold thaw your shrimp if they're frozen. Put them in cold water or thaw them in the fridge. Dealer's choice. Once thawed, there's no need to let them air dry for several hours. I suspect this represents a good portion of the issues that you've described. Shrimp meat breaks down rapidly when exposed to air. So, as soon as they are thawed, cook them. Don't let them hang around.

Next, add a lemon and about 1-2 Tbsp of non-iodized salt to your pot depending on the volume of water and bring the water to a boil. The volume of water used is determined by the amount of shrimp that you need to cook. More shrimp = more water. In other words, don't cook a dozen shrimp in 3 gallons of water or 3 dozen shrimp in a gallon of water. A good guide is 1 quart of water per 1 lb of shrimp. Adjust the water volume according to the size of the shrimp. For large shrimp, use 1.5 quarts per pound.

When the water reaches a rolling boil, either remove the pot from the heat or turn the heat down to low and wait for the boil to dissipate. Add the shrimp and cover the pot. Large shrimp used for shrimp cocktails will cook in about 5-7 minutes, depending on the size and number of shrimp in the pot. Remember, the goal here is reach the point of just being done and no more.

Once the shrimp are done, remove them from the pot and transfer immediately to an ice bath to stop the cooking process. From that point, the shrimp can be served immediately or chilled in the fridge for up to 12 hours. However, for best results, serve immediately.

That's it. There's no need to add anything but a bit of salt and perhaps some lemon slices to the cooking water. There's no need for court bouillon or any other flavors. The shrimp are not going to pick up any of those flavors anyway. Shrimp are saltwater animals and it only makes sense to cook them in salted water.

Lastly, avoid using peeled and deveined shrimp. They tend to have the poorest quality. Obviously, if you can get fresh, use fresh. But, if your only option is frozen, go with the shell on and not deveined variety. Its a little more work in the prep but, well worth the effort.

I hope this helps. Good luck. :)
Joined Oct 31, 2012
Here's a quick system I'll share that my father taught me. Buy Gulf shrimp, fresh if possible. If frozen, thaw to near room temp.
Fill a pot with a nice lager. No water, just beer. About a quart or two depending on how many shrimp. Add a good handful of pickling spice. Bring to a boil for a couple of minutes. When at a good rolling boil, dump the shrimp in. Shut the heat off. Wait about two minutes. The shrimp should be done or very close. When cooked, remove from liquid. When cool enough to handle, peel right away. Dip in melted butter. Best with a cold beer (Dad) or nice white wine (Mom).
Joined Feb 8, 2009
Going back years ago I saw a method that you boiled water and threw in the shrimp. Then bring the water back to a boil and shut off the burner, cover with a lid and let the shrimp set for 2 minutes. I still use this method today. I think most people over cook the shrimp if you're boiling it all throughout the cooking process. I understand why we do this with a thick shell Lobster. But, when I look at the thin shells of shrimp I have to wonder..........Season the water as you like. God only knows everyone has their own concoctions/blends and boils.
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