Lobsters may be related to cockroaches but they are a prized ingredient for cooking when it comes to shellfish especially in the New England area. This article covers some essential tips and tricks to working with Lobsters in your recipes.
Different Species for Different Dishes
Let start off by noting there are 75 different species of lobster, and depending on what you are looking to make really depends on the type of lobster you want to be using. Its worth noting though that depending on where you are located your choices may be extremely limited. In southern Florida the vast majority you will encounter is Caribbean Lobster aka Spiny Lobster. If your in New England you will find Maine Lobster aka Lobster.
Of the 75 species of all lobsters are broken up into two groups, clawed and Spiny / Rock Lobsters. The best known clawed lobsters are the American and European Lobster, these are referred to as true lobsters and are what 99% of people think of when you tell them you are going to cook lobster. Rock / Spiny Lobsters lack the large claws that you find on the American Lobsters.
As an ingredient Clawed Lobster is generally steamed or boiled, while rock / spiny lobster is grilled. As noted before depending on where you are located you may not have a choice. Finding Spiny Lobster in New England for example is next to impossible and purchasing Clawed lobster in the south is extremely expensive.
In all cases the best lobster to cook with with going to be what is local to your area. If your in the south where spiny lobsters are local and you are buying clawed lobster, it is almost impossible to believe the lobster is fresh. Even if the lobster is fresh its likely farm raised. Think about it for your a second, where did your lobster come from. If your eating Maine Lobster in Florida, it had to get to you. So at best (assuming its not farm raised) it came out of the ocean at least a week ago; while spiny lobster you can pick up on the docks plucked fresh from the ocean that very morning.
Obtaining your Lobsters
Regardless of how you go about getting your lobsters the most important factor is that they are fresh. Direct from the ocean same day is best, but if that is not possible because of your location than from your local seafood store or grocery is also a viable option. If your local store isn’t an option because they do not stock lobster mail order is also an option. While you can get frozen lobster this should never be considered an option when it comes to cooking, its on par with buying salmon in a can.
In my mind there are only five options for how to obtain your lobster and they are listed here in my order of preference. If you have another way, please share it in the comments section at the bottom of this article.
Option 1: Catch it Yourself
By far my preferred way of obtaining lobster is to go out and get it yourself. Not only is lobster you caught yourself guaranteed to be fresh but its a fun way to spend the day. That said don’t fool yourself catching lobster can be pretty challenging.
Different areas have different regulations when it comes to catching lobster and like all forms of hunting there are designated lobster seasons. In New England lobsters can be taken year round, but the easiest time of year is during the summer when the waters warm and the lobsters come out more. In Florida Spiny Lobster season is 8 months long beginning in August and ending in March.
Option 2: Buy it at the Docks
If your lucky enough to live near the water, where lobsters are caught and you don’t feel like going out into the ocean and getting your own lobsters head down to the docks and buy someone else’s catch. Like catching your own this is a sure fire way of ensuring you are getting fresh lobster.
While you will not have the experience of casing the thing across the ocean floor to the tell your friends about over dinner, you might get some fun stories from the boat captain about his adventures on the high seas.
Option 3: Buy it at a Local Seafood Market
Assuming you don’t have the ability to get it from the docks or go out and catch it at the docks, your next best choice is going to be your local specialty seafood store. Sadly like options 1 and 2, unless you live in an area near the water this likely isn’t going to be an option. If you have a local Seafood market, there is a pretty good chance the quality you are going to get there is better than what your local chain grocery store will have, because the people who run seafood markets tend to be a bit pickier about what comes into the store.
Option 4: Mail Order
Lobsters are pretty rugged creatures and handle being shipped pretty well. There are multiple companies that handle live lobster shipments with some excellent ones in Maine. Your lobsters go from the docks, to a box, to your door all in less than 24 hours.
I tend to favor having lobster shipped to me from Maine before going to my local grocery store to get them. Mainly because many of the lobsters in grocery stores are either farm raised or left the oceans weeks ago.
Lobsters from Maine has a full list of all licensed vendors in the state who provide mail-order shipments. Maine Lobster Now, is one of the best companies to work with when it comes to live lobster shipments out of Maine. I have used them a couple times with great satisfaction with what arrived at my door. There is one downfall to mail-order lobsters; your going to pay an arm and a leg for it. The prices of mailed lobster tend to be pretty static and are not effected by the Season. This means during summer months when you can get lobsters at the dock for $3 a pound your still going to be paying $14 a pound for mail order.
Option 5: The Grocery Store
This is my absolute last resort when it comes to buying lobster. First and foremost because most of what you are getting regardless of what the store says is farm raised lobster. Those which are wild caught where likely taken out of the ocean weeks ago or even longer.
In addition to the freshness factor the staff who work in the store generally don’t care as much about the lobster as they do for options 1 – 3. Just the other day at the grocery store I watched one of the staff drop a lobster as he was putting him in the tank, on the ground resulting in the shell on the tail and the claw cracking. He simply picked up the lobster looked it over for a second and dropped in in the tank. Now the dropping part you could argue is not that big of a deal, but to put the lobster with a cracked claw shell and tail shell in the tank is a major no no. The lobster should have been cooked immediately and sold either as cooked or used for other purposes.
If you end up buying your lobster at the grocery store, be sure to select your lobster carefully, don’t be afraid to inspect it instead of just letting them throw what ever lobster they feel like in a bag for you.
Selecting Your Lobster
When it comes to Lobster you want to be looking at more than just how big the lobster is. To many people I know simply go to the grocery store and tell the seafood guy they want a two pound lobster. They have no preference what so ever regarding what they get just as long as its a lobster. Guess what you are going to get the absolute worst lobster in the tank. They are trying to get rid of the lobster that isn’t going to last. When you don’t inspect the lobster and don’t care what you get, the lobster you are going to get is the one that was dropped on the floor and now has a cracked shell and is on the verge of death. No matter how little you know about lobsters, take the time to inspect it before you buy it. Handle it a little, and if your afraid to handle the lobster than I have news for you, then you shouldn’t be the one buying it or cooking it.
My personal preference is fresh hardshell, female lobsters with lots of spunk (aggressive) that weigh in at around 1.5 pounds. Below you’ll find information on why.
Size: Some people say that different size lobsters taste different. I have had all size lobsters ranging from small all the way up to absolutely massive. Lobsters are biologically immortal, and can literally live forever, and through out there entire life they will continue to grow. The largest lobsters ever caught have ranged between 40 – 50 pound! Check out the photo to the right of a lobster caught this year (2017) of the coast of New England, its a whooping 44lbs!
The larger the lobster, the more you are going to pay per pound and a higher price does not mean an increase in quality. Some people think there is a taste difference between big and small lobsters but I have never found there to be a difference myself. Where there is a difference is how easy they are to cook. Can you imagine trying to get a lobster that weights 44 pounds into a pot to cook it? Assuming of course you can even find a pot big enough! Ignoring the problem of the size of a pot, cooking larger lobster evening is a real pain. With most methods of cooking lobster by the time you cook them through to the center the exterior meat is overcooked.
Personally I prefer smaller lobsters. They are cheaper, easier to handle and have a smaller impact on the health and reproduction of the natural lobster population.
Gender: Depending on what you are planning to cook the gender may make a huge difference to you. Male lobsters tend to have larger claws and thinner tails. Females also have the possibility of carrying lobster eggs. Now in most states its illegal to take lobsters who have eggs that have moved to the exterior of the body but interior is fine, mainly because there is no way to tell until the lobster is cracked open. Lobster Roe is full of lobsters flavor and can make a huge difference when it comes to making lobster stock and sauces.
Since personally I like lobster tail over claws and make stocks and sauces out of every lobster I cook, I almost always go for female lobsters over male lobsters.
Liveliness: You want the freshest lobster you can get, but in addition to being fresh you want one that is healthy. The liveliness of your lobster is especially important because of the way lobsters eat. Lobsters digest there food with enzymes in the upper digestive tract, located in there head of all spots (thats why there brain is so small, there isn’t any room). When a lobster dies or begins to die the enzymes will actually start to eat away at the lobster starting with the nervous system and the brain (cause its right there). This results in the tail meat becoming mushy in as little as an hour or two after death.
When you pick up a health lobster it will lift up its claws, move its legs and even raise its tail. Its going to try to defend itself from this massive giant who has just picked it up, expect it to flap a bit. If the lobsters claws and legs are limp with little movement move on to a different lobster.
Hard Shell vs Soft Shell: As lobsters grow they shed their old shells, leaving a softer shell underneath. Eventually the soft shell will harden. This process occurs yearly between June and December. Depending on your plans with the lobster the difference can be key and its not hard to tell the difference between hard shell and soft shell lobster, all you have to do is gently squeeze the lobster. A Lobster who has molted its shell recently will give slightly, while a hard shell lobsters shell will be very hard and firm.
If your serving whole lobster soft shell lobster is far easier to shuck. Usually you can actually rip them apart with your hands. When it comes to hard shell lobsters expect to need to use some good old fashion brute force to get to the meat.
The amount of meat you get from a soft shell lobster is going to be less than a hardshell lobster. When a lobster has just molted its hardshell it will puff itself up and fill the space between the shell and body with water. This is a defensive move to make it look bigger and to stretch the shell out for future growth. The result is about 30% less meat per pound.
Preparing to Cook your Lobster // Lobster Storage
Depending on how you obtained your lobster is going to depend on how it is going to arrive at your house. There are some simple rules for dealing with your lobster before its time to cook it.
First off absolutely never ever ever wash your lobster off in the sink or put it into a tub of fresh water. It will kill the lobster almost immediately. Lobsters are a salt water creature not fresh and no putting table salt in the water will not help.
Your lobsters need to kept alive right up until you are ready to cook it. Surprisingly you can keep them alive in your fridge by wrapping them in damp in newspaper, which helps keep the moisture around them. Put them at the very back of the fridge where it is the coldest. When you remove the lobster from the fridge you will have what is known as a lazy lobster, its not going to move much if at all until it warms back up, which can be achieved by simply putting it on the counter.
Its not a pet you don’t need to feed it or give it attention. It won’t get lonely and it won’t get scared in the darkness of the fridge, lobsters are really stupid and have very tiny brains so don’t worry about it.
Different Parts of a Lobster and what to do with them.
Know before you even start the process of cooking your lobster that absolutely every part of a lobster can be used. Don’t waste your lobster. While serving a lobster whole may be one of the most common and easiest ways to prepare lobster it is also extremely wasteful.
Claws & Tail: The claws and tails are the most popular part of the lobster when it comes to cooking and what most people think of eating when you say you are going to cook lobster.
Knuckles: The knuckles of the lobster are the portion of the claws that are situated between the main body and the claw itself. There is a total of two joints both of which contain a ton of meat. The meat found here is great in pasta dishes. The knuckle meat is just as good as the tail meat is but from an appearance stand point needs to be served in a manner that it can be shredded.
Legs: The legs have a small amount of meat in them which are packed full of flavor. Due to the small size legs are best used for making stocks.
Head: Like the legs there is a ton of meat and flavor in the head of a lobster. From a ratio standpoint the head contains the most amount of flavor, its just hard to get to. The head is perfect for preparing stock.
Tomalley and Roe: The tomalley and Row are liquid substances found in the body cavity of the lobster.
The Tomalley is green in color cooked or uncooked and the Roe is black when uncooked and red once cooked. Tomalley is the digestive gland its creamy in texture and intense in flavor. Making it great in sauces, compounded with butter or spread on crackers or toast.
Lobster Roe or Lobster Coral when you find it in your lobster is like getting a price in a Cracker Jack box. Its an amazing ingredient and should never just be thrown away. It makes a great addition to sauces or for lobster butter.