A Hamburger Today
How To Ruin (and Rescue) A Real New England Clambake
Before you get married, you think you're an expert in basic domestic chores like washing underwear, cleaning bathtubs, and not ruining the leather on the couch. Then you find out you've been wrong the whole time, and that for every right way to do something, there are a hundred of wrong ways.
A couple weeks ago my soon-to-be-married friends decided that a full-on traditional New England clambake was the way to go for their beachside Massachusetts wedding—and that I'd be the one to execute it. It was clear from the beginning that the right way was clearly not the way we'd be doing things. The only question was: Exactly which variety of wrong would we choose?
See, in my head, a clambake is a primal thing. Like sticking a hunk of mammoth meat over a fire or driving from any given point A to any given point B without the need to stop for directions, it's just something that any self-respecting man (or woman) should just know how to do. Screw tradition, experts be damned. If I can't take 30 lobsters from living to cooked with nothing more than a pile of wood and sand, then I have no right calling myself a cook.
I've never had to opportunity to do a clam bake in the past, mostly due to the Draconion laws prohibiting bonfires on public beaches and the utter failure of a man of my caliber and status to impress those who own private beaches. Well that weekend, with Hurricane Irene hitting New England and most people gone from the shore, I had the perfect opportunity to finally do it, unmolested by passersby who were more interested in the trifling matters of survival than in glorious smokey seafood.
Just so we're clear, a normal clambake goes something like this:
- Dig big hole in beach.
- Line hole with flat beach rocks.
- Light big big fire on top of the rocks and let it burn out.
- Shovel off ashes.
- Layer seaweed, then lobster, corn, clams, mussels, chorizo, and potatoes on top of hot rocks.
- Top with more seaweed and cover with sand.
- Cook until everything is done.
- Dig up and dig in.
Can you imagine a better way to spend an afternoon than digging holes in the sand, building big fires, and sucking down shellfish? I mean, it's three of my favorite activities all rolled into one!
That's the way it's done, that's the way it's been done for hundreds of years. But is it really the best way?
We were gonna find out the hard way.
Here's the thing: True, I've never done an actual clam bake, but I do know a thing or two about cooking, hole digging, and fire building, and there were a few things that just didn't make much sense to me when it comes to tradition. For one thing, how could you expect potatoes and lobsters to cook in the same exact environment and both come out done at the same time? I mean, by the time a potato is fully softened, a lobster is bound to be overcooked, right?
Moreover, wouldn't it be far more efficient to simply burn the fire on the beach instead of at the bottom of a hole where there's very little oxygen? And wouldn't awesome modern technology like thermocouples and remote probes help us to deliver food that's more precisely and properly cooked than our ancestors could have ever dreamed of?
It's questions like this that kept me up for the few nights preceding the event, so come the day of the wedding, I had a pretty clear plan of action in mind.
First things first: Digging the hole. The trickiest part here is finding
suckers able-bodied young men or women to dig for you. Having a big camera around your neck and swearing that their feet will be seen by hundreds of thousands of people around the world helps. It also helps if they're just kind of awesome people to begin with.
I went with a combination of the two strategies, and within a matter of 15 minutes or so, was looking into the bottom of a hole roughly 4 feet long by 3 feet deep by 3 feet wide, giving us a total volume of 36 cubic feet.
Out of this space, I figured roughly 6 cubic feet would be filled with red hot ashes and another 6 cubic feet with hot stones, leaving us with an ample 30 cubic feet to fit our 30 lobsters, 30 ears of corn, 10 pounds of linguiça, 10 pounds of Prince Edward Island Mussels, 150 littleneck clams, and 50 Wellfleet oysters.
The potatoes we'd be cooking separately in a pot indoors in order to avoid overcooking the lobsters.
In order to cook through, I wanted the shellfish to come up to at least 140°F from the 35°F it started out at. Raising the temperatures of about 50 pounds of shellfish by 105°F requires an awful lot of energy, which means building an awfully large fire.
Typically, this fire is built in the bottom of the hole where it needs to burn for a good hour or two in its relatively low-oxygen environment to build up enough heat.
Here was my plan to streamline that process: We'd build the fire in the sand next to the hole. Once it was mostly covered in gray ashes and really really hot, we'd carefully shovel it into the bottom of the hole before placing our meticulously collected flat rocks on top of it (btw, rock collecting is another great task for
rubes good friends).
The idea is that the fire would get much hotter much faster in its oxygen-rich environment, shaving some time off the endeavor (we had a houseful of hungry wedding guests waiting on their meal). Not only that, but by placing the rocks directly on top of the embers instead of the other way around, they should end up heating up faster, as well as saving us the trouble of having to shovel off the ashes before adding the food.
Finally, as an added bonus, we'd have a big pile of really hot sand right next to our hole which we could use to cover the pit once the food was in it, thus heating the food from both below and above, leading to faster, more even cooking.
As we piled the carefully collected rocks on top of the fire, I had a bit of an Emperor Palpatine moment as I pressed my fingers together and silently said to myself, "Excellent... everything is proceeding as I have forseen."
And then, it happened.
Just as the last rock was being carefully positioned, the unthinkable occurred: The carefully dug hole collapsed. A torrent of sand poured over half of the rocks and the coals, completely suffocating the fire and ruining any chance that the rocks had of preheating properly.
For about 15 seconds, we desperately dug in there with our bare hands, risking life and limb to expose those dying embers to a life-sustaining breath of fresh oxygen, but to no avail.
There was no turning back. Our guests were hungry, we didn't have time to start over, and the fire was losing juice even as we sat there momentarily paralyzed by fear. So we did what any hardcore trained cook would do: We threw that s*$t in the hole and hoped for the best.
Ok, so it wasn't quite as haphazard as that. In our dash to get the bugs in the sand, we still managed to follow through with at least part of our original plan, namely the precise ordering of the layers.
Knowing that corn needs to cook to at least 183°F to while lobster and other shellfish are better at 140°F, we made sure to layer the corn on the very bottom of the pit right on top of the damp seaweed. Next up was the bugs. Being thicker than clams and oysters, they'd take longer to come up to temp.
On top of the lobsters went the rest of the shellfish (in nylon potato sacks to make'em easier to fish out at the end) and the linquiça (if you've never thrown 10 pounds of sausage into a hole in the ground, you should seriously consider it. Immensely satisfying), followed by a final layer of seaweed and then the hot sand (once again I was on camera duty).
Of course, we stuck a probe thermometer into the midst of the shellfish to keep an eye on the temperature as it cooked.
The only thing left to do was wait.
The thermometer ticked up at an unbearably slow pace. Thirty minutes in, we were barely breaking 90°F—the temperature of a lukewarm bath. The way we saw it, there were basically three ways this could end:
- The Glorious Ending: We'd dig up our treasure, each lobster more perfectly cooked than the next. We'd haul it up to the house and revel in a beautiful orgy of perfect seafood, corn, and perhaps free love. The storm would hit and we'd while away the night sucking up stray bits of oyster and clam, perhaps partaking in the odd lobster-butter body shot by the light of the sparking downed power lines, like fireworks in a perfect late summer sky.
- The Frightening Ending: Things would never get hot enough and as we dig into the pit, 30 very much alive but slightly irate lobsters would claw their way towards us, attempting to snap at our toes and Achilles tendons with their rubber-banded claws. Dinner would be boiled potatoes and poorly mixed rum and cokes which we'd sip dejectedly as the angry crustaceans slowly recede back into the icy waters from whence they came where they'd patiently plot their revenge.
- The Likely Ending: We'd dig up a half-cooked pile of seafood and corn and desperately try and figure out a way to make it all work.
When the hungry masses could wait no longer and our thermometer had maxed out at 120°F, there was nothing for it but to pray, hope for the best, and start digging (thanks friends).
An initial glimpse of bright red lobster shell is a promising sign, but it quickly gave way to...
...yep. Dozens of barely-cooked lobsters.
Luckily, by this point we'd been sufficiently fortified by the beers and cold whiskey cocktails that Bottom Shelf blabber Will Gordon had compassionately mixed for us and were once again in invincible mode. Just like in Season 1 of Lost, we used our tragedy not as an excuse to feel sorry for ourselves and resign our fates to the whims of a cruel, heartless beach, but as the impetus to band together and bring glory where there once was calamity.
This wasn't an unmitigated disaster at all. That big ol' pile of dark lobsters and unopened clams? They aren't undercooked: they're cold smoked. And who doesn't like cold smoked seafood, am I right?
We immediately hauled our booty to the kitchen where we turned on every available heat source full blast.
Within minutes we had five pots of water boiling away to finish off those lobsters (the last burner was reserved for melting three pounds of butter). The gas grill was fired up to 500°F outside for our corn on the cob. Linguiça and oysters sizzled away on top of the flat top while trays full of clams popped open under the heat of the broiler.
Even Will Gordon put knife to lemon to make s*&t happen.
Needless to say, everything came together beautifully.
I can honestly say that it was some of the finest lobster I've ever tasted. Smoky and tender from its slow cooking, all the more tasty because I knew exactly the journey it had been through to arrive on our paper plates.
Could our meal have been better if we'd done everything by the books? I really don't think so. Where's the fun in a meal of this magnitude pulled off without a hitch?
Take that, planning and research!
The hurricane seemed to have missed us entirely, two of our best friends had just gotten married, dinner was an awesome group effort, and we had three pounds of butter in which to dip 40 pounds of lobster in front of us—I can't think of a better way to end a day.
Even the dog had a blast (ok, he always has a blast).
And if there's one thing better than smoked lobster for dinner, it's crispy bacon, creamy scrambled eggs, oyster hash, and lobster hollandaise for brunch the next morning.
Now, if only I could get a team of friends to work together on washing my underwear and cleaning the tub, my wife would finally be satisfied.*
* I think.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.