The History Of The Shrimp Cocktail And How To Make The Perfect One From Scratch

From the 1960s to the 1980s there was only one starter to serve at your dinner party: the shrimp cocktail. Served in a wine glass, this gloopy mix of defrosted prawns and sweet pink sauce balanced on a nest of iceberg lettuce was the sophisticated way to begin a night among friends. 

When it comes to the retro classic’s history, it’s quite a saucy one. The shrimp cocktail is so entrenched in Britain’s culinary landscape that people often assume it was invented there. Berni Inns, the chain of mock Tudor restaurants that dominated dining out in post-war Britain, have been credited with inventing the dish, as has Fanny Cradock. In fact, the shrimp, otherwise known as the prawn cocktail, owes its origins to a 19th-century miner in California.

Legend has it that after a successful day prospecting, a miner took his gold nuggets to a bar in San Francisco. He ordered a whisky and a plate of oysters. After knocking back the booze, the miner tipped his oysters in to the empty glass, doused them with vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, ketchup and horseradish and sucked them down.

Astonished, the restaurant owner asked: “What sort of mess do you call that?” With aplomb the miner replied: “This is what I call an oyster cocktail.”

The next day a sign appeared in the restaurant’s window advertising Oyster Cocktails. Four Bits A Glass. Within weeks every café and bar on the West Coast was selling glasses of seafood cocktail.

But it was in 1950s Las Vegas that the prawn cocktail found its true home. The Golden Gate Hotel was the first casino to offer its gamblers a 50-cent shrimp cocktail in 1959.  Served in a tulip sundae glass, the Golden Gate’s cocktail was famous for being just shrimps and cocktail sauce – no salad padding to stretch it out.

The Golden Gate’s legendary 99-cent shrimp cocktail .

So what constitutes the perfect shrimp cocktail? First, let’s look at the components…

Court Bouillon

This is the poaching liquid that not only cooks but flavours your shrimp. Here’s an easy recipe.


  • 10 cups water
  • 1 lemon, thinly sliced
  • 1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 12 whole black peppercorns
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt or kosher salt


  1. Place all ingredients in a stockpot. Bring to a boil over high heat and then reduce to a gentle simmer. Allow to simmer for 5 minutes.

Ice Bath

Shrimps are somewhat temperamental. You will cook them in a hot bath (the court bouillon) but then immediately plunge them into ice to stop the cooking process. This is very important and timing is everything.


This is the start of the show, so quality and size do matter. The fresher the better!

  1. Retrieve 2 cups of liquid from the stockpot and reserve.
  2. Place the shrimp in the simmering stockpot.
  3. Your first sign is that they have turned bright pink. Take one out and prod it with your finger. If it feels slightly firm, it’s done. But don’t wait until it is very firm. That’s over-done.
  4. Drain and quickly place the shrimps on the ice and pour the 2 cups of reserved bouillon on top. That is the final step, but it is vitally important. If you merely remove your shrimp from the court bouillon and don’t plunge them in ice they will hold residual heat and continue to cook. Overcooked shrimp are rubbery shrimp, and no one wants that.

Cocktail Sauce

The zingy pink cocktail sauce is called Mary Rose and at its simplest, it is a mix of ketchup and mayonnaise but Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, lemon juice, brandy and sherry all have their place in this late 20th century classic.