A Crab Cocktail Appetizer Is More Than Just A Swap For Shrimp

Crab cocktail with avocado appetizer
Crab cocktail with avocado appetizer - Nancy Pauwels/Shutterstock

Though shrimp cocktails appear on countless restaurant menus, they're not the only crustacean cocktail nibblers in town. It would be easy to just swap out the shrimp for other types of seafood in this world-famous hors d'oeuvre, but that's not what happens when crab enters the equation. Rather than the simplicity of whole cooked shrimp dipped in cocktail sauce, a typical crab cocktail appetizer involves multiple ingredients with an artful presentation, often using layering effects.

In other words, the only thing a crab cocktail has in common with a shrimp cocktail is the ancient decapod lineage of the featured namesake ingredients. Both shrimp and crab are 10-legged crustaceans, but when it comes to appetizers, they move in different circles. A lot of time goes into creating a crab cocktail, and many approaches are valid. But they often include something creamy, something saucy, and definitely something crabby. Alternatively, there's a tasty crab ceviche cocktail appetizer with chopped tomatoes and fiery peppers.

In modern times, the word cocktail most often refers to a mixed alcoholic drink, but a crab cocktail is far from that — unless you splash in a bit of vodka for a crab martini version. More likely, you'll just use a similar fancy glass for a delicious pre-meal appetizer. According to Prohibition-era lore, cocktail glasses became cradles for seafood while otherwise lying dormant in alcohol-free establishments. The tradition stuck, elevating the status of seafood while showcasing elegant presentations such as the artistry of crab cocktails.

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Crab Cocktails, No Shrimp Involved

Ceviche crab cocktail appetizer
Ceviche crab cocktail appetizer - Warren Price Photography/Shutterstock

Many hors d'oeuvre recipes toss shrimp and crab together for mixed-seafood starters, but a true crab cocktail stays loyal to its name. Using only crab lets its distinct flavor and texture shine, complemented by strategically placed glass-mates. The crab will ideally be fresh or frozen, though canned or imitation crab suffices if need be.

In the layered rendition of crab cocktail appetizers, the creamy element typically comes from a thick mayonnaise-based sauce, but could also be an aioli emulsion of pressed garlic, olive oil, and other add-ins. When making it the bottom layer, the relatively stable consistency helps support the subsequent zesty layer of classic cocktail sauce, topped by a generous heaping of fresh crab meat. Using a long spoon, often called an iced tea spoon, the idea is to scoop upward from the bottom of the glass, dragging the spoon through each layer, ending up with a crazy-delicious flavor explosion in your mouth. You could also forego the cocktail sauce and use a bottom layer of guacamole.

Then there's the crab ceviche-style cocktail with no layers involved, only a glorious tumble of fresh crab, diced veggies, herbs, and lime juice. It's important to use cooked crab meat rather than a true "ceviche" approach, which by definition indicates raw and marinated meat. Most crab available in supermarkets has been pre-cooked anyway, but if using fresh-caught live crab, you'll want to cook it first, since raw crab meat can carry all sorts of undesirable hitchhikers.

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