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The Food Lab: How To Make Lobster, Bacon, Lettuce, Avocado, and Tomato Sandwiches
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In my earlier days as a real live line cook, I spent a good deal of time shucking oysters, frying clams, and steaming lobsters at Barbara Lynch's B&G Oysters in Boston's South End. On the charter menu: the B.L.T. with Lobster. It's a fantastic sandwich, perhaps one of the few lobster-and-bread concoctions I can think of to rival a classic lobster roll.
Hers came with sweet, tender chunks of lightly dressed lobster, crisp smoked bacon, slices of tomato, and iceberg lettuce on a butter-toasted ciabatta roll slathered with lemon juice-spiked Hellman's mayonnaise.
Over the years, it's become a staple in my summer sandwich repertoire. Enough so that I've managed to make a few tweaks in the process to edge it a bit closer to my own personal vision of perfection. A better method for cooking lobster, skinless tomato filets, a different variety of lettuce, homemade lemon-y mayonnaise, a unique bacon cooking technique to deliver more even coverage, bread toasted in bacon fat instead of butter and, well, avocado. Because, avocado.
Here's how I do it.
There are a number of ways to cook lobster, but none is ideal on its own. Boiling is the worst—it leeches flavor out of the meat and into the pot, where it then gets washed down the drain. Steaming is superior, but can be a bit harsh, causing the exterior of the meat to toughen up before the very center has a chance to finish cooking.
Roasting is best in terms of flavor and texture—it drives off excess moisture, concentrating flavor, and cooks the meat more gently and evenly than steaming. The only problem is that is also causes lobster meat to fuse to the inner surface of the shell (just like a hard-to-peel boiled egg).
My favorite way to cook lobster? Steam it for just 2 minutes in order to get the outer layers of meat set and prevent them from sticking to the inner surface of the shell, followed by roasting so that the meat can cook through gently and evenly.*
*For the record, a similar method will get you evenly cooked boiled eggs with stick-free shells. Drop the eggs in boiling water, boil for 30 seconds, then add a handful of ice to drop the water temp down to a more gentle pace, allowing the eggs to finish cooking slowly.
Lobster's got nothing to hide, and it's summer. The less it wears, the better. Once cooked, I dress my lobster very gently with a bit of lemon juice, salt, pepper, sliced chives, and just enough homemade mayonnaise to bind and moisten it.
The key to great bacon is to start with great bacon. Forget about that mass-produced supermarket junk with its injected, sprayed on flavors. They don't taste as good and they tend to buckle and bend as they cook. This is due to the injected water that rapidly evaporates, causing it to shrink.
Instead, go for high quality, thick-cut, traditionally cured and smoked stuff. There are plenty of good bacons on the market, but my favorite brands are Nueske's, North Country Smokehouse (the smokiest of the lot), and newcomer Vermont Smoke and Cure, which is brined in maple syrup and smoked over corn cobs and maplewood (they also happen to make my favorite pepperoni).
You can pan-fry the bacon if you'd like (remember: low and slow is the key to perfect crispness), but you're better off cooking it in the oven, where even heat leads to more even cooking.
But even better than that is to shingle the bacon into a large bacon-sheet before roasting. That way, once it's cooked, you can cut a shape that perfectly fits your sandwich, giving you completely even coverage.
Sometime in the last decade and a half or so, iceberg lettuce started to become uncool. It's so watery. It's so bland. Arugula is better. Wah wah wah.
I don't get it. Yeah, it doesn't have the peppery bite of arugula, the bitter edge of romaine, or the minerality of baby spinach. So what? It's sweet, it's crisp, it's refreshing, and that's exactly what I want out of the lettuce in a sandwich.*
*or burger, for that matter. If there's one thing the Shake Shack gets wrong, it's that wan leaf of green leaf lettuce that sits on your burger, softening like wet tissue paper.
Plain slices of great, ripe tomato are perfectly fine. But we're going for ULTIMATE here, not just fine. For that, we want to get at only the best part of the tomato: the flesh around the outside.
To do this, we want to peel and seed them. Peeling tomatoes is easy. All you've got to do is score an X into their bottoms with a sharp knife, boil them for about 30 seconds to loosen the skin, then peel them under cold water. The skins slip right off.
After that, it's just a matter of quartering and fileting them with a sharp knife. You're left with the sweetest, fleshiest, most flavorful part of the fruit for your sandwich.*
*Some folks—particularly those of the modern Spanish persuasion—argue that the seeds and jelly around them are more flavorful than the filets. While this may be true, it's not the right kind of flavor or texture for a sandwich like this. Save it for garnishing your gazpacho.
Ah, the avocado. The plant kingdom's answer to a stick of butter. The goal here, as with the bacon, is to lay it on in shingled slices for completely even coverage.
It looks fancy, but it's not hard to do. The key is to split the avocado in half and slice it while it's still in the shell. You can then scoop it out with a spoon and spread the slices out onto the 'wich.
For starters, you need good bread—I use mini ciabatta-style loaves, but any not-too-tough, hearty bread will do—and it needs to be warm and toasty.
See that rendered fat sitting over there from your bacon? Why not put it to good use? I spread it on the bread before toasting it under the broiler.
The order of ingredients in a sandwich can make or break its success. For instance, you never want to place slippery tomato filets right next to slippery iceberg lettuce leaves or you get a case of tectonic shift, the top half of the sandwich sliding off of the bottom half as it spills its guts.
On the other hand, piling all the mushier ingredints—the lobster and the avocado—into the center of the 'wich is a surefire recipe for sandwich backslide, the name for the lamentable condition that occurs when your sandwich ingredients squeeze out the back as you bit into it.
I start by laying a foundation of mayonnaise and avocado, which gets pressed into the bread, thereby forming a protective layer against the soggifying effect of tomato juice. Next comes a sheet of my bacon weave to anchor to slippery tomatoes firmly in place. Finally, the iceberg gets pressed hard into the top bun, forming a sort of concave indentation for the lobster salad, which gets piled in deep.
Press the two halves together, and get ready, because this sandwich means business.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer 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.