Great Lobster Bisque Is All About the Broth

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Video: Natalie Holt]

Let's start from a very simple premise: Lobster bisque is little more than a gussied-up lobster stock. It's important to start there, because many lobster bisque recipes, in all their convoluted twists and turns, can obscure that. Just take Julia Child's as an example: I had to reread it about 10 times before I was able to make sense out of all the needlessly complicated components.*

I wouldn't go so far as to describe lobster bisque as an easy recipe, though. Nothing that involves cooking and shelling multiple lobsters is. But it shouldn't require a murder detective's web of string on a corkboard to map out all the steps.

* (Sorry, Julia! You're still a legend.)

To explain how I've approached my recipe, I'm going to break down what a good lobster bisque needs, and how I'm accomplishing that here.

Requirement #1: Deeply Flavorful Broth, Perfectly Cooked Lobster Meat

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The first challenge with bisque is that the soup itself should be loaded with rich lobster flavor, which requires making a long-simmered stock. But the meat in the soup should be perfectly cooked, which means it needs to be cooked very briefly.

A lot of bisque recipes bungle this step, having you cook every part of the lobsters in the broth until it's infused with their flavor, then fish out the meat from the claws, tails, and knuckles to use in the soup later on. But after all that cooking, the lobster meat is going to be as tough as a tire.

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The solution is to divide the lobsters into parts while they're still raw. That way, you can par-cook the claws and tails just enough to make it possible to free the meat from the shells. (When raw, the meat clings to the shells and won't come out.) You can then reserve those half-cooked morsels for later.

Then take all the leftover shells from the claws and tails, along with the chopped-up raw bodies, and make stock with that. The result is plenty of flavor in the broth, and perfectly cooked meat.

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Lobster flavor tip: When shelling and chopping the lobster parts, set your cutting board inside a rimmed baking sheet. The sheet will catch all the juices from the lobster, which you can reserve for the stockpot later, ensuring that you lose none of that great lobster flavor. Save the steaming water from the par-cooked claws and tails, too; it'll also be full of flavor and worth adding to the stockpot.

Requirement #2: A Lobster-Infused Fat

Crustaceans like lobster are tricky. While some of their flavor and color molecules are water-soluble, others are fat-soluble—enough that you'll want to try to infuse a fat for maximum flavor extraction. A lot of old-school bisque recipes deal with this by having you create a separate lobster-infused butter and blend it into the broth base later on in the process. That's just too much work, though.

My solution is incredibly simple: Add a larger-than-normal volume of butter and oil to the stockpot for the shell-sautéing step. That way, you create a lobster-infused fat at the same time that you make the stock. It'll end up blended into the broth anyway, and doing this eliminates an entire step that's common in classic recipes.

Requirement #3: A Luxurious, Silky Consistency

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Bisque is traditionally thickened at the end of cooking with both cream and cooked rice. The latter, when blended in, adds a smooth, starchy thickness without introducing much flavor of its own. I've tried it, and it works well, but, once again, it requires an extra step—making rice on top of everything else. You don't need to do it.

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With today's powerful blenders, rice needn't be your go-to thickener in a bisque. Instead, just use the aromatic vegetables from the stock itself. They'll be soft and squishy after simmering in the stockpot, and infused with the flavor of the stock. Once blended into the broth, the vegetable fiber acts as a thickener, rendering the rice unnecessary.

If you really want an extra-thick broth, sure, you can still blend some cooked rice into the pot (or thicken the broth with a cornstarch slurry), but I didn't need it.

Lobster Bisque, Step by Step

Step 1: Kill the Lobsters and Break Them Into Parts

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This is the step that gives most people pause, and I understand why. Having to kill a living creature isn't fun. But if you want to make lobster bisque, you have to do this. There's no way around it.

A lobster, like many shellfish, will start to break down and go bad rapidly once it dies. In just a short period of time, its meat will begin to grow mushy, and an unpleasant ammonia smell can creep through its body and flesh. Pretty soon, it'll be inedible. The only way to avoid this is to keep the lobster alive until the very last second, and that means you have to dispatch the lobster yourself.

On top of that, because we want to handle the claw and tail meat differently from the bodies, we need to split each lobster into parts before cooking any of it. Since tearing the lobsters into pieces while they're still alive would be extremely cruel, we first need to quickly kill them.

There's debate over the best way to do this for a lobster—frankly, a lobster's neurological system is primitive enough that finding a large vital organ, like a brain, to target isn't so clear-cut. But the best bet is still to drive a hefty chef's knife down between its eyes, straight through the shell. In theory, this should hit its nerve center and kill it instantly.

Prepare yourself, though, because a lobster's reflexes can continue to fire afterward, which means the lobsters may continue moving even after you've killed them.

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Once you've cut through the head, you can go ahead and twist off the tail and claws, including the knuckles that connect them to the body.

Step 2: Par-Cook the Claws and Tails, Then Shell

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Next, steam the tails and claws for two and a half and three minutes, respectively. That's just long enough to set the meat and free it from the shell, while still leaving it a bit shy of fully cooked. Crack the shells, pull out all the meat, and place it in the fridge for later.

You can now combine all the tail and claw shells with the bodies.

Step 3: Chop the Bodies and Shells

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You'll now have several raw lobster bodies, and a pile of shells from the par-cooked tails and claws. Chop it all up. (The tail and claw shells may not require much chopping, since you already cracked them earlier.) You'll use every last bit of this to make the lobster stock.

Step 4: Make the Lobster Stock

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As I mentioned above, I start my stock with a generous amount of butter and olive oil in the pot, which will help pull the fat-soluble color and flavor from the shells. The key with a lobster stock is to first sear the shells well, building up some good browning (known as the fond in kitchen parlance) before you add any liquids.

I like to do this by adding the lobster bodies and shells one small portion at a time, since crowding the pot right away will introduce too much moisture and get in the way of good browning. Once I have all the shells and bodies in the pot and they've browned nicely, I add aromatic vegetables, like carrot, celery, and onion, and continue to cook and brown them.

Next, I add some tomato paste and stir that into the pot, letting it cook briefly.

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After that, I start adding liquids:

  • Brandy goes in first, cooking down until it's mostly reduced and its raw alcohol flavor is gone. (If you're comfortable with flames leaping from your pot, you can flambé it to burn the alcohol off more quickly, but this isn't required.) Some recipes call for sherry instead of brandy, and I tested both. At first, I thought I preferred the sherry—its aroma seemed to meld better with the lobster than the sweet and oaky vanilla notes of the brandy. But after the stock was done, I changed my mind; with enough time, that sweet brandy smell becomes much subtler and more pleasant, and it fits better into the overall flavor profile.
  • White wine follows the brandy, adding its own complex flavor and tart edge.
  • After the alcohol, I add the lobster juices I saved from the steaming pot and cutting board. They're basically lobster concentrate, so we don't want to lose them down the drain if we can help it.
  • Finally, I top it all off with chicken stock. Yes, you read that right: chicken stock. Not fumet, not water, not shrimp-shell broth. This may sound crazy, but it helps to know the history of bisque to understand the logic. Before "bisque" became so inextricably associated with shellfish, it was a meat-based soup. Over time, it seems, chefs began garnishing these meaty bisques with seafood like crawfish tails. Eventually, the shellfish overtook the meat, transforming the soup into what we know as bisque today. But the secret is that the meat broth never fully left the bisque: It's hiding in plain sight, as the base of the soup. The flavor is inimitable and not to be skipped, adding a deep and savory richness that underscores all of the lobster's aromatic delicacy. So yeah—in goes the chicken stock, until the shells are just covered.

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With all the liquids in the pot, I add some herbs, like parsley and tarragon, then let it simmer for about an hour.

Step 5: Strain, Then Blend

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When the rich lobster stock is done, I strain out the solids and transfer the liquids to a blender—if you have a high-powered blender, even better, since it'll make the smoothest possible soup. Then I pick out some of the aromatics from the solids and add them to the blender, too, along with some heavy cream. A good long buzz in the blender brings it all together into a velvety, creamy broth.

The only catch: That broth likely has some shards of lobster shells in it, which we absolutely do not want in the final bowls of soup. It's time to...

Step 6: Strain Again

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One last pass through a fine-mesh strainer will do the trick. Give the broth a final seasoning, including a light touch of cayenne pepper—just enough to bring a subtle warmth, but not an outright spiciness.

Step 7: Prepare the Lobster Meat

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To finish, take the shelled lobster meat from earlier, cut it into chunks, and sauté it in hot butter for about a minute to finish cooking it. Add a generous pinch of fresh herbs, like parsley, tarragon, and chives, along with a pinch of ground coriander seed (one of my favorite spices in...just about everything).

Then ladle the soup into bowls, and spoon the lobster and herb butter into each.

Like I said, lobster bisque is not exactly an easy recipe, but if this one's streamlined, just imagine what the others must look like!

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