Here's a simple method for cooking perfect boiled shrimp, plus 8 knockout dipping sauces to serve with them.
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Boiled Shrimp with Cocktail Sauce
Credit: Jamie Vespa, MS, RD, LD/N

Shrimp star in so many classic dishes from shrimp cocktail to shrimp scampi. Thanks to their mild, naturally sweet flavor, these pint-sized crustaceans are easy to love. And they're delicious when worked into salads, pastas, rice dishes, stir-fries, quesadillas, casseroles, and more.

Cooking shrimp is easy. You can grill or steam them, but boiling shrimp makes them tender, juicy, and flavorful. Boiled shrimp also make an easy party app or a speedy weeknight dinner when paired with a simple green salad and crusty garlic bread. When dipped into spicy cocktail sauce or tangy remoulade, boiled shrimp transform into a totally addictive treat. Here’s how to boil shrimp in three easy steps.

Step One: Buy the Shrimp

Buy fresh shrimp when possible—and for the best selection, visit your local fishmonger or Whole Foods. While terms like “fresh” and “organic” are relatively meaningless for shrimp, the FDA requires all varieties to always be labeled with their country of origin and whether they’re farmed or wild, regardless of where they’re sold. When buying shrimp, here’s what you need to consider:

1. Farmed or Wild?

Choose wild-caught over farmed when possible, and look for shrimp caught in regional bodies of water such as the Gulf of Mexico. If you are purchasing farmed shrimp, look for certification labels that evidence sustainable practices, such as the Best Aquaculture Practices seal, or reference Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide.

2. Type of Shrimp

The most common types of shrimp you’ll see are White Shrimp, Brown Shrimp, Pink Shrimp, and Tiger Shrimp. White, Brown, and Pink Shrimp, which all hail from the Atlantic, Pacific, or Gulf, are good choices for boiled shrimp.

3. Amount and Size of Shrimp

Another factor to consider when buying shrimp is size and amount per pound. “Colossal” is the largest size, and usually translates to about 15 or less shrimp per pound. “Small,” on the other hand, can include up to 50 or more shrimp per pound.

For boiled shrimp, choose Large Shrimp, which average out to be 30 or so per pound. They look nice on a platter and they’re meaty enough to stand on their own. Buy at least two pounds if you’re boiling the shrimp for a meal—and at least four pounds for a party.

4. Shell or No Shell?

Shrimp without their shells may be easier to eat, but they’re also more likely to be mushy. Stick to shell-on shrimp, which have the best flavor and texture. (You’ll also save tons of time by not having to peel and devein them, too!)

To review—for boiled shrimp, buy at least 2 pounds of large White, Brown, or Pink Shell-on Shrimp.

Step Two: Boil the Shrimp

Boiled Shrimp Ingredients
Credit: Photo: Jamie Vespa, MS, RD, LD/N

Shrimp are highly perishable, so cook them as soon as possible after purchasing. When you’re ready to boil your shrimp, roundup a large pot, and a mishmash of spices, fresh herbs, and other flavorings.

The more aromatic your boiling water, the more flavorful your shrimp. There’s no right or wrong combination of ingredients, so feel free to experiment with different amounts and types of spices and fresh or dried herbs until you find what you like best. Toss in aromatics like coriander seed, mustard seed, celery seed, whole allspice, and cloves—or keep it old-school with Old Bay Seasoning (if you're a paprika fan, you'll instantly fall in love). Whatever you do, aim for bold, but balanced flavors.

Here’s one ingredient combination we tried—and loved—for boiling 2 pounds of shrimp. If you like spicy, tangy, aromatic, and a touch earthy, then give this a try:

  • 3 to 4 bay leaves
  • 3 tablespoons Old Bay Seasoning
  • Pinch of cayenne
  • 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
  • ½ head garlic, halved crosswise
  • 5 sprigs fresh parsley
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 lemon, halved

Once you have your ingredients together, here’s what to do next:

  1. Fill a large pot with water until a little more than halfway full. Stir in all aromatics except lemon (if using), and bring the water to a boil. While you’re waiting, fill up a large bowl with ice—this is how you’ll cool your shrimp after they boil so they don’t overcook.
  2. When the water comes to a rolling boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes to infuse the flavors.
  3. Next, squeze the lemon juice into the water (and you can actually just toss the whole lemon into the pot once you've squeezed the juice). Add the shrimp (cook them in two batches if you’re using more than 2 pounds) and simmer until they just start to turn pink. Shrimp cook very quickly—so this shouldn’t take more than 2 to 3 minutes.
  4. Remove the shrimp with a slotted spoon and place them on the ice to cool. Serve immediately or chill on ice in the refrigerator.

Step Three: Serve—and Don’t Forget the Dipping Sauce!

Horseradish-Dill Sour Cream Sauce
Credit: Jennifer Causey

Jennifer Causey

You can serve your boiled shrimp warmed, at room temperature, or chilled. We tried all three—and preferred them slightly chilled, but not ice cold. Here, we could best taste the buttery sweetness of the shrimp, as well as the spices and herbs we used for cooking.

To serve, place the shrimp on a large, pretty platter (include a bowl for guests to discard shrimp shells) with a delicious dipping sauce. Choose a condiment that’s bold, bright, and tangy to elevate the flavor of your shrimp. A little spiciness doesn’t hurt either. Here are several sauces that would pair perfectly with your shrimp:

The Classics

The Twists

And there you have it—delicious boiled shrimp in under 20 minutes. Looking for more shrimp ideas? Add these Scrumptious Shrimp Recipes to your weeknight rotation.