What Is Shrimp Cocktail Sauce Actually Made Of?

It's hard to imagine a time before weddings and summer parties featured trays of shrimp draped around a pool of cocktail sauce. The truth is, cocktail sauce as we know it has only been around since the early 20th century. Some theories would have us believe that the sweet-spicy seafood sauce we all know and love originated in San Francisco, California, where a local prospector crafted the concoction to smother on oysters in a restaurant. The trick of presenting the shrimp in a cocktail glass likely was adopted during Prohibition, with bartenders seeking a new use for their fancy glassware. This was followed by a rapid expansion of the condiment to other regions including Las Vegas, Nevada, where it became a staple offering in casinos.

While there are many variations on the recipe, at its simplest, the tangy, mildly spicy condiment consists of only 3 to 5 ingredients and can be made at home to adjust to your desired spice preference. Modern cocktail sauce in the U.S. consists of horseradish, ketchup, and Worcestershire sauce, with an optional addition of lemon juice and Tabasco sauce for an added kick.

While shrimp dipped in cocktail sauce has been as ubiquitous a pairing as peanut butter and jelly since the '70s , there are a number of other delicious applications for the horseradish-based condiment, including oysters, crabs, and other shellfish, as well as a topper for burgers, deviled eggs, or a base for a refreshing Bloody Mary mix.

What does cocktail sauce look like around the world?

While the combination of horseradish, ketchup, and Worcestershire sauce has become the industry standard for the recipe across the U.S. and Canada, the term cocktail sauce has essentially become something of a catch-all for seafood condiments in international circles. For instance, if you ask for cocktail sauce in many European locations such as France, Italy, and the Netherlands, you'll get a mayonnaise and tomato sauce mixture, producing a pale pink condiment that is more akin to fry sauce or thousand island dressing.

This mayo-based sauce is often referred to as Marie Rose sauce in the United Kingdom and, like the cocktail sauce served in bars and restaurants across the States, is used to punch up the flavor of any seafood medley. In Belgium, Marie Rose sauce traditionally comes with a splash of whiskey mixed in, making the mildly boozy dressing a brunch-time favorite.

A deep dive into the origins of cocktail sauce writ large tends to produce a number of conflicting results regarding who first invented the flavor-enhancing condiment. Though many have tried to take credit, the truth may never be known for sure.