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The Food Lab: Wicked Good Lobster Rolls
A few weeks back, a few of you were understandably sent into a tizzy by our coverage of the Lobster Roll Rumble here in New York. The complaints? Aside from the fact that New England—the undisputed epicenter of the lobster roll—was woefully underrepresented, it seemed like pretty much all of the rolls in the competition had some fatal flaw that, were they in a real New England-based competition, would have had them packing their knives before they even got settled in.*
*For the record, we'll be reporting back with our own list of favorite lobster rolls in the near future. Stay tuned!
I'm with you on this. I may live in New York, I may have even spent most of my youth in New York, but I was born and bred in Boston, and a New Englander at heart. The only time I get involved in televised sports is when the Yankees are playing the Red Sox.
As such, I felt it was my duty to set the record straight on not only exactly what a lobster roll should be, but also what it can be.
Let's start with a simple definition. A lobster roll consists of chunks of tender, sweet, cooked lobster meat barely napped in a thin coating of mayonnaise, all stuffed into a top-split, white-bread hot dog bun lightly toasted in butter. A warm, butter-coated lobster salad is an acceptable variation on the classic, and in some cases, either version may contain a few additional textural or flavor elements applied very sparingly—celery, onions, chives—but like any good pizza is built on a crust, a lobster roll that misses these basics has no chance of earning its claws.
So how do you make the best of such a simple creation? As with many things, it all comes down to attention to detail. Perfect selection and treatment of ingredients, balance, and above all, the ability to restrain yourself from over thinking. It's just a lobster roll, right?
All good lobster rolls start with good lobster. That means fresh, live-and-kicking, honest-to-goodness Atlantic lobsters. Maine still clings on to the title, but you can get'em anywhere along the New England and Canadian coast (you landbound folk without a fresh lobster tank in your supermarkets can even order live Maine lobsters online these days!). Here's what you want.
Vitality: The primary characteristic to look for. Any lobster you buy should be highly active. When you pick it up by its carapace, it should lift or flap its tail and raise all of its legs and both claws energetically. Once you've got a good lobster, keep it in a bag or a cooler with some damp newspaper or seaweed, making sure to give it a bit of ventilation. It'll stay alive in your fridge for at least a day or so, but as with all fresh seafood, the sooner you cook it, the better.
Size: Some folk seem to think that large lobsters are tougher or less flavorful than small lobster. I don't find this to be true. What is true, however, is that they are far harder to cook evenly. With most cooking methods, by the time you cook them through to the center, the exterior is hopelessly overcooked. Smaller lobsters don't have as much of a problem with this (though they still do to a degree—more on this later).
I buy smaller lobster simply because they are cheaper, easier to handle, and have less of an impact on the health of the lobster population. With a yield of around 30 to 40%, you should plan on about 1 1/2 pounds of shell-on lobster per person, which'll give you two 4- to 5-ounce lobster rolls.
Male vs. Female: You can tell a male vs. female lobster by the hardness of the pleopods—the first set of swimmerets under a lobster's body. On a male, they'll be hard, but on a female, they'll be soft. Can't locate the pleopods? Don't worry—culinarily, both lobsters are pretty much exactly the same. Unless the female is carrying eggs under her body. In which case, you should not buy her and let your fishmonger know why (It's illegal to keep them).
Hard vs. Soft Shell: Hard shell lobsters (that is, lobsters that are late enough in the annual molting cycle that their shells have become tough) command a higher price on the market due to their higher yield of meat than soft shell lobsters (those that have recently molted, and thus have yet to fully grow into their new, softer shells). But personally, I find soft shell lobsters simply taste better. Couple that with the fact that they are much easier to disrobe, and I'm willing to get a slightly lower yield for my dollar. I prefer my lobsters cheap and easy.
So you've finished up your round of lobster speed-dating at the fish monger, picked the one that looks best to you, and now you and Mr. Pinchy are sitting safe at home, snuggling on the couch and watching reruns of Full House. Just as Uncle Jesse kneels down for the heart-to-heart with Michelle, you suddenly realize—wait a minute, I'm gonna have to kill this guy?
It's not often that modern Americans have to kill their dinner, so it can be a bit disconcerting for some when they are faced with the prospect.
There's an awful lot to be said on the subject of ethics and animal cruelty when it comes to lobsters—so much so that I ended up writing a couple thousand words on the subject, which I've decided to gank from myself to post completely separately. You'll see that post very soon.
For now, I'll just go on record as saying that when I kill or consume any animal, the goal is always to allow the animal to live its life as stress- and pain-free as possible, and to dispatch it with the same criteria.
There's plenty of debate on all sides of the field about how to accomplish this, and the jury is still out. For me, the most convincing method also happens to be the most difficult for the squeamish type: stabbing it directly through the top of its head right in the tiny crack in the space right in the middle and set slightly back from its eyes with the tip of a knife and splitting the head in half.
This pretty much instantly destroys the main nerve ganglia in the lobster's carapace (though it does nothing to the ganglia around the rest of its body, which is why you'll see its tail and claws continue to move for a long time after the lobster has been dispatched), as well as most of its vital organs.
Can't stomach the knife? Skip it and just drop the bug straight into boiling water. They won't last all that much longer (about 10 to 15 seconds until they're stone cold dead, or is that stone boiling hot dead?).
So killing is out of the way, but here's the question: is boiling really the best way to cook lobster? Let's take a look.
Method 1: Boiling
Very old recipes for lobster call for cooking times as long as 10 minutes per pound. 10 minutes! Per pound! How the heck did anyone ever eat those rubber balls? As we now know, when cooking meat, temperature is a much better indicator of doneness than time. For optimal tenderness and texture, lobster meat should come to around 135°F, which ends up translating to just around 4 or 5 minutes of boiling for a 1 to 1 1/2 pound lobster (use a thermometer). Any hotter, and you end up in rubber-band territory.
How you get the lobster to that perfect final temperature is another matter entirely
But first, an interesting aside: Lobsters turn red when you cook them in much the same way that leaves change color in the autumn: the underlying color is there all along, waiting to be released. In the case of lobsters (and other crustaceans), the bright red hue comes from a heat-stable carotenoid pigment called astaxanthin. It's this pigment that turns the flesh of salmon and the feathers of flamingos—animals that feed heavily on crustaceans—into the familiar pinkish-orange color. (Farmed salmon have pigments added to their diet to color their flesh—without it, they'd be totally white.)
When mixed with the many other pigments found in a lobster's shell, you get the familiar range of bluish purple to green or dark orange colors of a live lobster. Heat them up, and the other pigments break down, leaving just the carotenoids behind.
Why do I know all of this? Because every year during our annual Christmas lobster course, my grandfather—who by which point has already got two martinis, a couple of glasses of Chardonnay, and half a pour of Vin Jaune down the hole—insists on telling me.
While this tidbit is certainly interesting, it doesn't exactly help me on my quest for perfectly cooked lobster meat. What does, however, is the other bit of wisdom he feels compelled to bestow from on high every Christmas: the best way to cook a lobster.
Here's his problem with boiling: Cook a lobster in a large pot of water, take them out, then look inside the pot. What do you see?
That's right: cloudy, murky water with weird white gunk floating on top. Now stick your nose in there and inhale. What do you smell? Yup. Lobster. And here's one thing I can guarantee: what's in that pot is not in your lobster.
The massive amount of water circulating in and out of the lobster's body can quite efficiently wash away many of the flavorful compounds you find inside the meat. Not only that, but for larger lobsters, the high heat of boiling can cause the exterior to overcook while the interior remains raw (one of the reasons why larger lobsters often seem so much tougher than smaller lobsters that cook faster).
So plunging them into boiling water is not the way to go.
Method 2: Steaming
At first glance, you'd think that steaming is a more gentle method of cooking than boiling. Surely very dense water at 212°F should heat faster than steam (which is not very dense at all) at 212°F? The denser the medium, the more efficient it is at transferring heat, right?
True, but this doesn't take into account the latent heat of vaporization of water. It takes about five times the amount of heat energy to convert water into steam as it does to raise either water or steam's temperature by 1°C. This energy is stored in the steam molecules, and as they hit the surface of the food being cooked and re-condense into water, the stored energy is released onto the surface of the food, heating it.
While steaming does offer the advantage of not diluting flavor like boiling, it does nothing to solve our fast-cooking problem.
This finally brings us to...
Method 3: Roasting
Now this seems promising, and it's the method my grandfather has always recommended. According to him, rather than diluting and washing away the flavorful compounds in the lobster's flesh, roasting will heat the lobster through, cooking it, while at the same time evaporating some of its excess moisture. The result should be meat that is more intensely flavored, not less.
He's absolutely right. Roasting a lobster in the oven (I found that bringing it up to 135°F in a 350°F oven worked very well) gives you extraordinarily aromatic meat with a much more intense, sweeter flavor. Roasting is also a slower cooking process than steaming or boiling, leading to more evenly cooked meat
I Am Rubber, You Are Glue
But as every rose has its thorn and every cowboy sings a sad, sad song, this good method comes complete with a couple of problems of its own. The first you'll notice is that roasted lobster meat is much harder to remove from the shell than boiled. This is because as the proteins in the meat slowly heat up, they will chemically bond with the interior of the shell. Rapid heating, on the other hand, causes them to shrink too fast for them to form these bonds
This leaves us in a rather sticky situation: Cook too fast by steaming and some of the meat gets rubbery. Cook too slowly by roasting, and the meat sticks to the shell.
Solution? Steam the lobsters just until the very exterior of their meat just sets—about one minute—remove it from the steamer, then finish it off in the oven.
With easily shelled, evenly cooked, and intensely flavored meat, we're almost there. There's just one last hurdle to overcome. The trouble is with enzymes mostly located in the dark liver in the central carapace. These enzymes break down the protein structure of the lobster's muscles, becoming highly active after the lobster's death(the main reason you should always look for lively lobsters), particularly at warmer temperatures. Cook too slowly, and you give these enzymes too much time to work, delivering tail meat that borders on mushy near the carapace end.
The only two ways I know of to prevent this from happening is to either cook it all the way through very rapidly (already out of the question), or to completely remove the tail and claws from the carapace (and offending liver) before cooking. The latter seems the more sensible option (and you can always cook the liver separately if you are one of those who like to eat it).
Keep 'Em Separated
There are other distinct advantages to cooking tails and claws separately from the carapace. For one thing, it allows you to address the fact that the tail is much thicker than the claws or knuckles, and therefore needs a little more cooking time. It also allows you to keep your carapaces intact to use as desired (I make mine into stock to cook my paella in).
Finally, it solves the pesky old curly-tail problem. You know, when your lobster tail curls up into a little pillbug-like ball (an isopod which it very closely resembles)?
Wouldn't you much rather have the tail on the left than the one on the right? No? OK, just think about how much easier it'd be to chop with a knife into tender, bite-sized nuggets. Get it now?
Here's how you do it:
That's right, just flatten it on a board. Don't be alarmed if the tail continues to curl and jerk suddenly even after its been completely removed from the lobster's body: this is a reflex reaction. I've seen it last up to two hours after the rest of the lobster is long dead.
Once you have it flat out on the board, spear it with a couple of stiff wooden skewers, starting from the body end and exiting through the joints near the tail end. Of course, insert the skewers as close as possible to the shell to minimize muscle damage.
And if ripping the claws and tail off of a lobster which you've just impaled through the head with a knife leaves you cold, you can always perform the par steaming step first, then use kitchen towels to grasp and dismember the dead beasts before continuing with the roasting steps. (You won't be able to get a straight tail this way, btw.)
Nothing More than Peelings...
There's no easy way to break it to you: peeling a lobster is messy, painstaking work.
Whether hard or soft, the best way to peel a lobster is to start with the tail. First, squeeze it firmly from the sides, pushing the edges of the shell together underneath the tail until you hear a series of cracks. This should break or crease most of the cartilaginous material under the tail. Next, pull apart the edge of the shell. It should separate quite easily (if not, use kitchen shears to carefully snip through the cartilage, then try pulling it apart again). Once cracked open, the shell meat should easily pop out.
Claws are a bit trickier. I start by wrapping them in a clean dish towel, and whacking them sharply all over with the back of a heavy cleaver. The goal here is to crack them like eggshells, not smash them into smithereens.
Once they're good and crackly, I break off the knuckles (I protect my hands with clean dish towels—yes, I go through lots of them), then gently break off the small pincer. If I'm lucky or feeling extra talented, I manage to get the shell off the pincer without ripping the meat off the rest of the claw. More often, I have to fish out the little nugget with a skewer or a chopstick.
At this point, it's no-hold-barred. Usually, the shell is sufficiently cracked so I can peel it off in large or small chunks, with the occasional bout of assistance from kitchen shears, a lobster cracker, or the back of the cleaver. Remember: this meat is destined for lobster rolls, so no need to make it look too pretty (though it's very satisfying when it does!).
A lobster roll is fundamentally a sandwich, and as such, it should be easy to eat without the aid of any utensils. Using whole tails might look impressive, but it makes eating them impossible, as you try and hold on to the bun with one hand while simultaneously grabbing the end of a mayo-slicked tail and holding it in place with your other while you try and bite off a chunk, inevitably dropping a juicy morsel of knuckle meat to the ground.
The meat in lobster rolls should be cut into substantial, but bite-sized chunks to avoid such indecencies.
And for the record, I personally prefer the sweeter, more succulent claw and knuckle meat (but don't even think of buying pre-cooked or frozen knuckles or claws for your roll!).
Some people like warm lobster rolls dressed with butter. I occasionally pine for the magnificent examples served at Neptune Oyster Bar in Boston. But most of the time, cold lobster meat dressed with plain old Hellmann's mayo is the way to go, perhaps with a little extra squeeze of lemon. There's something about the combination of cold, fresh, sweet and tangy lobster meat in a warm, buttery bun that can make even the biggest, baddest Men from Maine go week in the knees.
One thing you definitely want to avoid is letting your sandwich head into what I call "globster roll" territory. That is, when the mayo completely overwhelms the sweet lobster meat. Check out this photo for a prime example of a globster roll (but be warned, it ain't pretty).
You can play games estimating the amount of mayo needed, but I've found that the very best way to get just the right amount of mayo to cling to your lobster is to toss it while the lobster is still warm with just a few teaspoons of mayo per pound of meat. Set the dressed meat in a strainer or colander over a bowl, then throw the whole thing in the fridge. Any excess mayo will drip out for you to discard (or sop up with bread, if you wish), leaving just the thinnest, flavor-enhancing coating on each piece.
Bonus point: the mayo and lobster will mingle during their time in the fridge (a lot of stuff goes on in there while you aren't looking), giving you better flavor.
Some folks like to gussy-up their rolls with things like extra citrus, herbs, pickles, and onions. I'm a purist here, and prefer to add just a bit of diced celery for some crunch. If I'm feeling extra rambunctious, I'll throw some sliced chives or scallions in there as well, leaving the pickles to serve on the side.
Beware of going overboard. This is a lobster roll, after all, not a lobster-and-all-kinds-of-other-stuff roll.
Buns of Steel
OK people, here's my stance, and I know it might make your life more difficult, or just plain p*ss some of you off, but if there's just one thing that as a natural-born New Englander I have to stick up for here, it's the importance of the bun.
You can't just stick lobster meat in any old bun and call it a lobster roll! It must be a top-split, white-bread hot dog bun, slowly toasted on both sides in plenty of butter. This is not optional—it's an essential part of the recipe.
It's like telling a Japanese person that you can make nigiri on a bed of quinoa or a Texan that his burger needs ketchup. It's just not done. If it's served on potato bread, it's not a lobster roll. Grilled side-split bun? Might be delicious, but sorry, not a lobster roll. Buttery, brioche-like concoctions should be used as sparingly with lobster rolls as they should with burgers (I.E. never). Slider buns? Slider buns? Sorry, disqualified.
You get the point. You want to fight with me about this, I got a whole fleet of temperamental New England lobstermen who got my back, and they're just itching to exchange in fisticuffs.
The reason to use a top split bun is plain: more surface area for toasting in butter.
The best bun for a lobster roll I've ever had was baked by Mr. Lobster himself, Jasper White, at a chef-y wedding. The second best I've ever had is a tie for every time I've had a lobster roll made with the plain-old top-split hot dog buns from Pepperidge Farm. Unfortunately, they're only widely available in New England, and I can't help all of you find them in your home town.
Worse comes to worst, the best alternative to the top-split buns is a plain old slice of white bread carefully folded in half, each half toasted in butter. It won't look the same, but then again, a lobster roll doesn't really taste the same if you're not sitting on the New England coast anyway. Sorry.
Just as with a grilled cheese sandwich, the key to a great lobster roll bun is low, slow cooking. You want the bread to slowly turn an even golden brown, without letting the butter burn. A good toasted hot dog bun should take a full five minutes to achieve the state of golden perfection. There's no rushing it.
Once your bun is toasted, all that's left is to immediately fill it with cool lobster salad, and consume with haste and a side of pickles and chips.
Roasted lobster meat in a lobster roll? Have I turned my back on my own birthplace? OK you New Englanders. Before you break out the pitchforks, might I suggest you first open wide for a taste?