What is prawn cocktail?

The prawn cocktail has become such a figure of culinary fun in recent years that it is hard to take it seriously as a dish – prawn marie rose sandwich may be one of the safer bets on an office sandwich platter, but the idea of serving the same combination to guests is still faintly embarrassing. Like gammon and pineapple, or scampi, the indignities suffered by this decent dish are too raw, too recent.

The thing is, like its contemporaries the black forest gateau, or the chicken kiev, the prawn cocktail is actually an inspired creation – one with, as Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham write in their book dedicated to such foods, The Prawn Cocktail Years, “the potential for being truly excellent”. Sweet, nutty prawns bathed in a piquant sauce and served on a bed of crisp lettuce – you have to admit, the idea has a certain charm.

Although it almost certainly started life in the US, the dish does not, as is often claimed, seem to have been introduced to these shores by the redoubtable Fanny Cradock – it apparently merited a mention on Coronation Street at early as 1962. Five years later, it was popular enough for Fanny to describe “the ubiquitous prawn cocktail” as a “sordid little offering … with a good old ground padding of lettuce cut with a knife and darkening at the edges, a tired prawn drooping disconsolately over the edge of the glass like a debutante at the end of her first ball and its opposite number – a piece of lemon tasting of the knife – clutching the opposite side of the rim like a seasick passenger against a taffrail during a rough Channel crossing”. Sadly, they don’t make them like Fanny any more.

The prawns

Delia Smith’s prawn cocktail.

This is a dish that stands and falls by its prawns – the soggy, barely thawed “little pink commas”, as Bareham and Hopkinson put it, have no hope against the deluge of pink sauce. Delia Smith reckons that “the very best version of this is made with prawns (either fresh or frozen in their shells) that you have cooked yourself”, and she dry-fries them before use.

Lamenting the disappearance of freshly boiled prawns at the British seaside, Bareham and Hopkinson recommend whole cooked prawns, shelled; Mary Berry suggests “cooked, peeled North Atlantic prawns, drained and dried” (though those in her photo look to be of a larger variety than the aforementioned commas); Gary Rhodes gives the reader the choice of the “small, pink, ready-cooked variety”, which he describes as “moist and full of flavour”, or large king prawns; Cradock uses shrimps or prawns; and Sophie Grigson prefers a mixture of cooked, unpeeled prawns.

Clearly, in an ideal world, I’d take a leaf from Delia’s book and cook the prawns myself. The problem is, I’m convinced that smaller North Atlantic prawns have a sweeter flavour than the farmed east Asian giants – to say nothing of the very dubious ethical issues surrounding the latter, which put them straight on the blacklist – but it is remarkably hard to come by the cold water sort in their raw form. The next best thing is the ready-cooked but unshelled variety, which will, of course, require you to put in the legwork yourself, but the results are well worth it. I like Grigson’s idea of using a mixture of prawns to vary the texture and flavour, so I’m adding some of Cradock’s sweet, chewy little shrimps as well, but feel free to make up the weight with prawns if you can’t find them.

The salad

Sophie Grigson’s prawn cocktail.

I’d always associated the prawn cocktail with the dreaded iceberg lettuce, but as it wasn’t introduced to this country until the early 1980s, I suspect Cradock’s “crisp heart of lettuce” is more likely to have been a soft or gem. Bareham and Hopkinson and Grigson go for little gem; Rhodes and Heston Blumenthal for iceberg; Smith for cos; and Berry for a bag of mixed leaves.

Smith also adds rocket to her little gem, which I find too peppery; the greens should offer a refreshing contrast to the spicy sauce, as well as a welcome crunch, which points me in the direction of the little gem. Iceberg, though certainly crisp, is just too watery, and cos doesn’t offer quite the same flavour, plus the larger leaves mean you’re more likely to end up with a forkful of limp shreds. Grigson mixes in some white cabbage, presumably because of its robust texture – it works pretty well, but its vegetal flavour feels a bit rustic in a dish with pretensions to grandeur.

While we’re talking crunch, Bareham and Hopkinson and Cradock all sneak in some cucumber, which certainly pulls its weight on the texture front. It should be finely diced and deseeded, but there’s no need to peel it, as Bareham and Hopkinson insist – the skin provides a pleasing flash of colour. That’s not the end of it – this being a fashionable 60s dish, avocado is a popular choice, and I love its rich creaminess against the sweetness of the prawns; they’re a classic combination for a reason. Tossing it with a little lemon and seasoning, as Berry suggests, not only keeps it green, but ensures it doesn’t get lost in the sauce.

Anything too strident, such as Bareham and Hopkinson’s spring onion, or Grigson’s fennel, threatens to overpower the other elements. To my surprise, I discover this is a dish whose success depends on a fairly fine balance of flavour.

The sauce

Mary Berry’s prawn cocktail.

The classic marie rose or cocktail sauce is a blend of mayonnaise, tomato and lemon juice. Berry suggests using a blend of light mayonnaise and creme fraiche, but I’m not keen on the light version, and I think the lemon juice adds enough freshness on its own. Cradock’s whipped cream makes it taste too rich and cloying. In fact, it’s tough to improve on a straightforward mayonnaise, preferably homemade so you can adjust the flavour to your own taste (I find most commercial varieties too vinegary, to say nothing of their weirdly jellified consistency).

The tomato element is generally supplied by ketchup. Rhodes insists on making his own, which, in contrast to the mayonnaise, hardly seems worth the effort, because once it is mixed with the other ingredients, it’s fairly indistinguishable from the bought stuff. A little less sweet, perhaps, but if you want a stronger tomato flavour, you could always do as Berry suggests and add a squirt of tomato puree. Mind you, she also adds a pinch of sugar, which definitely isn’t necessary.

Lindsey Bareham and Simon Hopkinson’s prawn cocktail.

Grigson and Smith use lime, rather than lemon juice. Either will do, but I’m sticking with lemon; it just works better with these classic flavours. Bareham and Hopkinson and Rhodes add a touch of old-fashioned luxury with cognac, and Cradock suggests the “merest flick” of sherry or madeira (which makes me think she means a cream sherry, rather than a bone-dry fino). I love the hint of boozy flavour, but I’m wary of adding too much sugar given the ketchup element, so I’m going to stick with brandy.

Many recipes also include a bit of spice: Tabasco sauce for Cradock, Smith, Bareham and Hopkinson; red chilli for Grigson; and creamed horseradish for Berry. Horseradish works surprisingly well with prawns, but you can’t beat the vinegary kick of the classic Tabasco – or Smith and Blumenthal’s Worcestershire sauce, which contributes a satisfyingly savoury note missing from the other ingredients. Grigson smashes her way through the classic, sticking in garlic, fresh coriander and apricot jam. The result mimics the same sweet and vinegary character as the original, but with a slightly eastern twist; it’s nice, but it’s not cocktail sauce.

The extras

Gary Rhodes’ prawn cocktail.

Rhodes’ prawn cocktail is a real 90s stunner – a tower of prawns and lettuce sandwiched between two discs of grilled red pepper, surrounded by squiggles of lemon and olive oil, and a rouille made from roasted red peppers and breadcrumbs. It is delicious, but the dominant flavour is of the red pepper – the poor old prawns don’t stand a chance.

Grigson, ever the maverick, mixes her salad and prawns with pink grapefruit. The flavours work surprisingly well, but again, feel more eastern than seems strictly appropriate here. She garnishes with more coriander and red chilli, while Cradock uses the 60s equivalent, chives and paprika. Where spring onions dominate, the chives work with the other ingredients, providing just a hint of alliaceous flavour. The paprika adds a final flourish of colour – in fact, the two look rather pleasing together – but cayenne pepper gives the same visual effect with more of a kick.


Fanny Cradock’s prawn cocktail.

Nothing can beat Cradock’s lemon basket with a handle fashioned out of the peel, which “can be picked up easily and additional lemon juice squeezed over as desired without getting your fingers in a filthy mess”. Carved fruit or not, prawn cocktail should be a feast for the eyes. Keeping the layers separate is important, though I find serving it in a glass, as is often suggested, makes it too fiddly to eat.

The fashion seems to be to provide your guests with an unpeeled prawn as a garnish, to remind them what they’re eating – and it does look fancy, but you will need to supply either a finger bowl (retro heaven) or a decent napkin to head off any temptation for your guests to wipe their prawny fingers on your chairs or tablecloth. It may be a retro dish, but frankly, manners aren’t what they were.

The perfect prawn cocktail

Felicity Cloake’s perfect prawn cocktail. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

(Serves 4)

For the sauce:
8 tbsp good mayonnaise, preferably homemade
1 tbsp tomato ketchup
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Tabasco, to taste
2 tsp lemon juice
2 tsp brandy or medium sherry

300g shell-on North Atlantic prawns (about 110g peeled weight), raw if you can find them
100g brown shrimps
3 little gem lettuces
10cm piece of cucumber
1 avocado
2 tbsp lemon juice
Slim bunch of chives, finely chopped
Cayenne pepper, to top

Put the mayonnaise in a bowl and whisk to loosen, then add the other ingredients and taste, adding a little more of any as takes your fancy.

Cook the prawns in a dry frying pan until pink all over, if you’re lucky enough to have raw ones, then peel and de-vein all but four of them. Set the unshelled ones aside and mix the remainder, with the shrimps, into the sauce.

Cut the cucumber in half lengthways, scoop out the seeds, and cut the flesh into small dice. Peel the avocado, dice finely and toss this and the cucumber with the lemon juice and season well. Shred the lettuce fairly finely, and toss together. Divide between four bowls, plates or glasses with a dip in the middle for the prawns to sit in, and so the greens aren’t entirely lost below.

Divide the prawns between the dishes and top with chives and cayenne pepper. Garnish with the remaining prawn and serve immediately.

Prawn cocktail – what did it ever do to you? Do you hanker after the classic version, or could it do with being dragged up to date with a few modern tweaks? And which of its contemporaries would you like to see revived?

English Prawn Cocktail

Shrimp cocktail in England is different than in North America. In England it’s called Prawn Cocktail and they use a different sauce, among other things. Learn how to make it here!

I’ve been doing a shrimp cocktail extravaganza on this site lately. It’s because I love shrimp cocktail so much and think it’s so perfect for the holiday season. Shrimp are a special, celebratory food, and shrimp cocktail is so easy and great as a finger food for large and small gatherings alike.

I showed you how to cook shrimp for making shrimp cocktail. Poaching is the way to go (and is possibly my favorite way to cook shrimp anyhow!). I also made a basic homemade cocktail sauce for you, and a kicked up Sriracha-Balsamic version. There’s a post about how to make the perfect shrimp cocktail too with lots of tips and tricks. And then, finally, a shared a recipe for Marie Rose Sauce.

What is Marie Rose Sauce? I thought you’d never ask. It’s a mayonnaise-based sauce that is used in the British version of shrimp cocktail. They don’t use the red one made of (mostly) ketchup and horseradish sauce that we use. Instead, it’s a creamy, pale pink sauce.

In England they call it Prawn Cocktail, not Shrimp Cocktail. We could get into a whole thing here about the difference between prawns and shrimp but we won’t. (They’re actually different species but the names are used somewhat interchangeably with more people in Australia and England saying prawn, and more people in North American saying shrimp. Some people think that prawns are bigger than shrimp and that’s the difference between them. It might be true that many people use the terms that way, prawns for big, honking ones and shrimp for small, dainty ones. But actually, you can get big and small shrimp and you can get big and small prawns. I think in this case it just comes down to different countries preferring different terms, not to any real substantive difference).

So the name is different, and the sauce is different. Is there anything else that makes the English seafood cocktail different from the North American one? Yes, actually. The North American one is served just as is, with the shrimp cold and ready to be dipped into the sauce. For the English Prawn cocktail, the sauce can be served as a dip or the prawns can be mixed with the sauce. Either option is possible. Also, the English one is often (though not always) served with avocado. The avocado can either be chopped up, sliced or sometimes the sauced shrimp are served inside a halved avocado like this). Finally, prawn cocktail is traditionally served with some buttered whole wheat bread. I’m not entirely sure why but it really works. Maybe it’s the mayonnaise-based sauce which makes it so bread-worthy. Whatever. It’s delicious.

That’s it then. The difference between prawn and shrimp cocktail. And now you know now to make British Prawn Cocktail. No need to fly across the ocean to do it! The recipe is below.


Shrimp cocktail in England is different than in North America. In England it’s called Prawn Cocktail and they use a different sauce, among other things.


  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 Tbsp. ketchup
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce (optional)
  • 1/4 tsp. hot sauce, like Tabasco (optional)
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 20 large cooked shrimp, deveined, peeled but with tail on (buy them already cooked or learn how here)
  • 8 small butter lettuce or romaine lettuce leaves
  • 1 avocado, pitted, peeled and cubed (learn how to cut an avocado here)
  • 4 slices of buttered whole wheat bread, quartered
  • lemon wedges for optional garnish


  1. In a small bowl combine the mayonnaise, ketchup and salt. Taste.
  2. Add any or all of the lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce and cayenne pepper. Stir.
  3. Put two lettuce leaves into each of four small serving bowls (martini glasses are great for this!).
  4. Top each set of lettuce leaves with 1/4 of the avocado cubes. Drizzle each with 1/4 of the sauce.
  5. Hook shrimp around the edges of the serving bowls, 5 shrimp per bowl.
  6. Put each serving bowl onto a plate. Onto each plate plate put 4 quarters of buttered bread. Top avocado with a lemon wedge, if desired.

last updated on October 1, 2019 by Christine Pittman

Categories: Appetizers, Easy Entertaining

Tags: shrimp, shrimp cocktail

Prawn Cocktail

The very best version of this is made with prawns (either fresh or frozen in their shells) that you have cooked yourself.

Failing that, buy the large cooked prawns in their shells, or if you can only get shelled prawns cut the amount to 1 lb (450 g). To prepare them: if frozen put them in a colander and allow to defrost thoroughly at room temperature for about 1 hour.

After that, if using uncooked prawns, heat a large solid frying pan or wok and dry-fry the prawns for 4-5 minutes until the grey turns a vibrant pink. As soon as they’re cool, reserve 6 in their shells for a garnish and peel the remainder. Then take a small sharp knife, make a cut along the back of each peeled prawn and remove any black thread. Place them in a bowl, cover with clingfilm and keep in the fridge until needed.

To make the cocktail sauce, prepare the mayonnaise and add it to the rest of the sauce ingredients. Stir and taste to check the seasoning, then keep the sauce covered with clingfilm in the fridge until needed. When you are ready to serve, shred the lettuce and rocket fairly finely and divide them between 6 stemmed glasses, then peel and chop the avocado into small dice and scatter this in each glass amongst the lettuce.

Top with the prawns and the sauce, sprinkle a dusting of cayenne pepper on top and garnish with 1 section of lime and 1 unpeeled prawn per glass. Serve with brown bread and butter.


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This prawn cocktail recipe is so simple, it make a great easy recipe for kids to make themselves from start to finish!

We’re enjoying the summer holidays at the moment, so things have been a little quiet here on the blog recently, but today I’m sharing a really simple recipe that Small Child has made for us several times now.

This easy prawn cocktail recipe makes a quick and easy summer meal, either served on lettuce leaves as a yummy starter or snack, or as a healthy topper for baked potatoes – one of our favourite family meals at the moment!

As I was reminded when hundreds of you started descending on the site for this recipe on Christmas Day a few years ago, this prawn cocktail makes a perfect starter for Christmas dinner too! The simple Marie Rose sauce is made from easy-to-find store-cupboard ingredients, so if you’re looking for a last-minute prawn cocktail recipe, this is the one for you!

This recipe is part of my ‘Easy Recipes for Kids‘ series, so includes a free child friendly recipe sheet at the end of the post for you to download and print – maybe your own ‘small child’ might like to give it a try?

Super Easy Prawn Cocktail


  • 75g light mayonaise
  • 20g ketchup
  • dash Worcestershire sauce
  • 200g cooked prawns
  • sprinkle paprika
  • lemon slices


Measure out the mayonnaise, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce and mix them together in a bowl.

Add the prawns and mix with the sauce until completely coated.

To serve, place spoonfuls of the prawn cocktail mixture onto small lettuce leaves or use as a healthy baked potato topping.

Sprinkle over a little paprika and serve with fresh lemon slices on the side.

Top Tips for Making Prawn Cocktail

Are the prawns in prawn cocktail cooked?

The prawns in a prawn cocktail should always be cooked. You can cook your own in advance (be sure to cool completely before serving) or buy ready-cooked to save yourself some time.

What’s the difference between Thousand Island and Marie Rose Sauce?

Thousand Island Dressing and Marie Rose Sauce are actually the same thing – a sauce made primarily from a mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise, traditionally mixed with cooked prawns to make a prawn cocktail.

How do you defrost frozen prawns for prawn cocktail?

Forgot to take your prawns out of the freezer? Don’t panic, they’re really easy to defrost quickly and safely!

Tip the frozen prawns out of the bag into a large bowl, cover with cold water and drain. Repeat this a couple of times, then cover with cold water again and leave for 10-15 minutes.

Once defrosted, drain again and roughly pat dry with kitchen paper.

How long does prawn cocktail keep?

If you’d like to get ahead and make your prawn cocktail in advance, the sauce will keep in the fridge for 2-3 days. If making in advance, keep the prawns separate from the sauce and mix them together just before serving.

What do you serve prawn cocktail in?

When serving as a starter, it’s traditional to serve your prawn cocktail in a glass bowl. If you don’t have glass bowls, sundae glasses, glass tumblers, cocktail glasses or large wine glasses would work just as well, or you can bypass the serving dish altogether and serve on lettuce leaves as I have for this recipe!

What do you serve with prawn cocktail?

It’s traditional to serve prawn cocktail on a bed of shredded lettuce. If you want to jazz it up a bit, you can add extras to your salad with sliced veggies such as cucumber, avocado, spring onion or radish. Add a wedge of lemon if wanted, and serve with small slices of brown bread or sourdough bread on the side.

As I mentioned above, I have created a free printable recipe sheet for this recipe so that your child can have a go at following the recipe themselves. Click on the picture below to download the PDF file.

Looking for more easy Christmas dinner recipes? Try Turkey in a Bag from My Fussy Eater or a Festive Roast Leg of Lamb from Charlotte’s Lively Kitchen.

For veg on the side I’ve come up with some great easy Baby Friendly Side Dishes for Christmas Dinner – so the whole family can enjoy it together, or how about some Rosemary & Garlic Crushed Roast Potatoes?

For pudding you can’t beat my Gran’s Christmas Pudding Recipe, some Easy Mince Pie Puffs or my fun Mini Christmas Cakes – baked in tin cans!

If you’d like more child friendly recipes like this one, be sure to check out the rest of my easy recipes for kids section, and why not pop over and follow my Cooking with Kids Pinterest board too!


5 from 2 votes

Easy Prawn Cocktail

Quick and super easy prawn cocktail recipe – perfect for a last minute starter for Christmas dinner, party food or a simple jacket potato topper! Prep Time10 mins Total Time10 mins Course: Appetizer, Lunch Cuisine: British, Christmas Servings: 4 people Author: Grace Hall

  • 75 g light mayonaise
  • 20 g ketchup
  • dash Worcestershire sauce
  • 200 g cooked prawns
  • sprinkle paprika
  • lemon slices
  • Measure out the mayonnaise, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce and mix them together in a bowl.
  • Add the prawns and mix until completely coated, then cover and pop in the fridge until ready to serve.
  • To serve, place spoonfuls of the prawn cocktail mixture onto small lettuce leaves or use as a healthy baked potato topping.
  • Sprinkle over a little paprika and serve with fresh lemon slices on the side.

Love this simple recipe? Why not save it to Pinterest so you can easily find it again!


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