Why It Works
- An initial steaming keeps the lobster meat from sticking to the shell.
- Briefly warming the lobster over low heat in melted butter prevents the meat from overcooking.
- The lobster meat's juices are emulsified with the butter, creating a decadent dressing for the filling.
At the Food Lab, we have already taken an in-depth look at New England-style lobster rolls. The cold, mayo-based lobster salad variety, that is. For most people, that's what a lobster roll is and always will be.
But there are certain pockets of the population—mostly in Connecticut, as well as satellite colonies all up and down the New England coastline—that prefer their lobster rolls hot and buttered.
Frankly, I like them both ways. We've already done a lot of the legwork necessary for perfect lobster rolls in the New England–style recipe, so this time, all we've gotta do is tweak the recipe a bit.
That gives me plenty of space to go on a slight detour. If you're interested at all in lobster-killing ethics, read on. Otherwise, you can skip right past this section and get straight back to the delicious stuff.
Reconsidering the Lobster
Before we get into the nitty gritty of cooking and eating lobster, a few quick words about lobster-killing etiquette, and my stance on whether or not it's an ethical act to snuff out the life of a crustacean by boiling it.
Whenever this argument comes up, the late David Foster Wallace's essay "Consider The Lobster," published in 2004 in Gourmet magazine is quoted as one of the primary sources of the anti-kill movement. As well-written as the piece is, I find its core argument to be significantly lacking in substance. Here's the crux of his argument against killing lobsters:
However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you're tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container's sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle's rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster's fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature's claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it's in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little lightweight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.
Now, don't get me wrong. The prose in his piece is stunningly beautiful and his passion is very clear. But what bothers me about David Foster Wallace's piece is the lack of reason. He certainly seems to have done plenty of research on the subject, yet the only defense he offers for his thesis is in the above paragraph: a gut-wrenching anthropomorphism. And to equate lobsters to humans, to project our emotions and reasoning capabilities onto a large crustacean is a fallacy; a fabrication, based not on reality, but on ignorance, delusion, or deception.
"...what bothers me about David Foster Wallace's piece is the lack of reason."
What's surprising to me is that a mere two paragraphs later, he admonishes those who would draw a false analogy between the wildly differing physiologies of a frog and a lobster.
In order to save a lot of research-summarizing, I'll simply assure you that the analogy between frogs and lobsters turns out not to hold.
Unfortunately, the analogy between lobster and human is even more tenuous.
Frankly, I have a very hard time believing that someone who can write so intelligently and beautifully as David Foster Wallace can truly believe that a lobster—a creature that has poor eyesight, that has a sense of touch based on a highly sensitive ability to monitor changes in water pressure and is thus rendered completely useless outside of water, and that has no centralized nervous system—has the mental capacity, much less the presence of mind (or more realistically the presences of the multiple disjointed ganglia distributed around its body that are the closest thing it has to a mind), to put forth a concerted effort to shove the lid off of a pot.
To his credit, he very openly admits his confusion on the issues towards the end of the article, but most of the intellectual damage has already been done by this point. Supplying a sensationalistic emotional response as a valid counterargument to a clearly supported thesis is simply not a sensible thing to do, nor is it an honorable or even valid way to win an argument.
"...a lobster behaves nothing at all like a human being lowered into boiling water"
Fact is, a lobster does not know what a pot is. It does not know what a lid is. It does not connect the fact that by pushing a lid off it may be able to crawl out to safety. It does not have the mental ability or the physical dexterity to "hook its claws over the kettle's rim." In other words, a lobster behaves nothing at all like a human being lowered into boiling water. Rather, it acts very much like a cockroach being dropped into a pot of boiling water: It behaves like a bunch of overstimulated bundles of nerves rapidly firing and causing muscles to spasm in an unpredictable and wild manner.
Some of those spasms may well indeed cause the lobster to flick at the pot's lid or against the wall, or even—if you're very lucky—to stick its claws out over the lip of the pot. Does this constitute a reasoned and calculated escape plan, or does it even indicate any level of self-awareness or what we humans call "pain" in the crustacean?
Nope. It's admirable that DFW doesn't suggest (as some do) that lobsters scream when they are being boiled or steamed. Lobsters have no vocal cords and therefore cannot scream. Whatever noise one might be hearing (I've personally never heard this noise) must be coming either from the scraping of chitin against metal, or perhaps the sound of gases escaping from cracks in the carapace.
Now, we can argue over the definition of pain and suffering. If a simple avoidance of things that cause harm or bodily damage constitutes pain, then we'd have to extend the umbrella to include all plant life as well, as plants most certainly avoid damaging themselves, sometimes quite actively so. If, on the other hand, we take a more reasonable definition of pain as one that requires at least a degree of self-awareness and the mental capacity to understand what is happening to one's body beyond pure reflex, then we're more in the realm relevance.
Under this definition of pain, there's no doubt that killing mammals, birds, and probably fish causes them pain. And I'm comfortable with that. I try my best to minimize the pain caused to these animals when I slaughter them myself, as well as by trying to make reasonably ethical choices at the market. But I've no doubt that my eating habits do cause pain to other creatures. As an omnivore, that's just something I have to face up to.
So honestly, whether killing by boiling or stabbing causes a lobster pain is not the issue for me, and for most meat eaters. The issue at hand is, am I comfortable with the level of pain that it causes? And to this, I answer yes. I am indeed comfortable.
Physiologically speaking, a lobster is far more similar to insects than to mammals. Personally, I'd sooner kill an insect-like lobster—whose succulent flesh I'm about to enjoy—than swat a mosquito or squash a cockroach just because they have annoyed me. And I have no compunction with swatting and squashing those annoying bugs.
All of us, whether we are meat eaters, vegetarians, or vegans, understand that not all animals are the same. We don't treat dogs the way we treat other humans. We don't treat lobsters the way we treat our dogs. There is a hierarchy in terms of the level and quality of interaction we can have with our fellow creatures on this earth, and my ability to eat or empathize with them is directly related to this hierarchy.
Lobster, frankly, falls pretty far down the ladder. Given that I eat pigs, cows, and lambs, I'm afraid the big sea bugs just don't stand a chance.
Back to the Rolls
In our efforts to perfect New England-style lobster rolls, we determined that the best way to cook a lobster for a roll is to very briefly steam it, just long enough to tighten up the exterior of its flesh so that it won't stick to the shell. Then roast it in the oven to prevent it from taking on too much water during boiling. With hot buttered lobster rolls, we've no need to roast the lobster—we can simply finish them directly in the butter we're going to serve them with.
If you want to get fancy, you can kill your lobsters, cut them up, shell them, then cook them sous vide. You'll never have more tender lobster in your life. It turns buttery sweet with an almost braised texture to it.
Personally, I feel that for such a humble dish, it's a bit of overkill. If you're careful enough, you can get away with simply sautéing the lobster pieces in a skillet with butter over relatively low heat. As long as the butter never starts sizzling and you make sure to take the lobster off the heat just as it's done cooking, you're all set.
Added bonus: The lobster juices and melted butter will emulsify into a sweet sauce to pour over the rolls after you stuff'em.
While my cold lobster rolls get nothing but some diced celery, I really like the flavor of a bit of sliced scallion in hot lobster rolls. I add it to the sautéing lobster meat just before it finishes cooking.
And once again: top split hot dog buns toasted in butter are a must!
4 lobsters, about 1 1/2 pounds each (see notes)
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter
8 top-split hot dog buns, preferably Pepperidge Farm brand
1/4 cup finely sliced scallion greens or chives
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Kill each lobster by pressing the tip of a heavy chef's knife in the crack just behind the eyes in the center of the carapace (see notes). Press down firmly, then split head in half. Using kitchen towels, twist off tail and claws (including knuckles) from carapace. Save carapace for another use. If desired, press each tail flat against the cutting board and insert wooden skewers along their entire length to keep them straight (this helps prevent it from curling when it cooks for easier cutting later, but isn't required).
Place a steamer insert in the bottom of a large lidded stock pot and add 1-inch of water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add a single layer of lobster claws and tails (about half the lobster) and cover pot. Let steam for exactly 2 minutes. Transfer lobsters to sink and set under running cold water. Return liquid to a boil and repeat with remaining lobster tails and claws.
As soon as lobster is cool enough to handle, remove meat from shell using kitchen shears, lobster crackers, and/or the back of a heavy cleaver to help crack the shells (It's OK if the meat gets a little mangled). Roughly chop into bite-size pieces and set on double layer of paper towels to drain.
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a heavy bottomed 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Swirl to coat pan. Add 4 buns with one cut side down. Cook, pressing on buns gently and moving them around the pan until golden brown on first side. Remove from pan, add another tablespoon of butter, and toast second side. Repeat with second batch of buns.
Melt remaining butter in skillet over medium heat. As soon as butter is melted, add lobster meat. Cook, tossing constantly and using a spoon to gently fold meat and butter over itself in the skillet until lobster is mostly opaque (butter should not sizzle), about 3 minutes. Add scallion greens and continue to cook until lobster is cooked through, about 1 minute longer. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Divide lobster filling evenly between rolls. Spoon excess juices over each roll. Serve immediately.
I prefer using smaller 1- to 1 1/2-pound lobsters rather than larger ones. Lobster carapaces can be discarded or frozen and saved to make stock.
If you don't have the stomach to knife your lobsters to death, you can boil them whole in step 2.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 30g||39%|
|Saturated Fat 16g||80%|
|Total Carbohydrate 64g||23%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||9%|
|Total Sugars 8g|
|Vitamin C 6mg||28%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|