Friday, June 1, 2007

Lobster Rolls and the Battle of the Buns

When people ask me how I learned so much about fish, I tell them it was all my students' fault. They kept asking me questions and when I didn't know the answers (which was quite often in the beginning), I put my detective hat on and tried to investigate the issue and give them the information they were looking for. This blog was just a continuation of this learning process and I love it when the readers ask me questions I haven't heard before.

The most recent one came from Jaye at Butta Buns:
My question is about where to get good lobster meat. I'm getting married next month and would like to make lobster rolls. It's a small crowd, about 15-20 people, so I should be able to get away with making it myself. How many pounds should I be thinking of?
Dear Jaye,

Congratulations on your upcoming wedding! Making lobster rolls for 15-20 people is a brave undertaking. I have already e-mailed you some places to call about buying lobsters, but your question has inspired me to make lobster rolls for dinner last night and I learned so much in the process that I thought I'll share it with you and other readers of this blog.

Lobsters are a new territory for me. I am mostly a fin fish person and have only cooked lobsters a few times in my life. I wasn't particularly happy with the results, so I did a little investigative work to see how I could improve.

How much lobster do you need per roll:
I cooked two 1.75 Lb lobsters, which gave me enough meat for 4 hot dog rolls.

How to cook, not overcook a lobster:

The problem with shellfish cooked in the shell is that you can't just poke it, look inside, and see if it's done (like you can with fin fish). You have to rely on timing. Since I cook lobsters extremely rarely, I used to rely on the timing I heard from the fishmongers. The formulas they gave me varied from 13 to 20 minutes per pound and since I prefer to err on the side of undercooking than overcooking, I went with 13 minutes. The claws were good, but the tails were way too tough. After reading what my seafood hero, James Peterson had to say in his Fish & Shellfish book, I realized that even 13 minutes per pound is way too long and the reason my lobsters came out tough was because of overcooking. I guess this is one time when you shouldn't listen to your fishmonger. Peterson suggested two timings.

For a lobster that's still a bit translucent in the center (the way he prefers it): 5 minutes for the first 1.25 Lbs, then 2 minutes for each additional pound. In other words, 1.75 Lb lobster would cook for 6 minutes.

For a lobster that is opaque throughout: 8 minutes for the first 1.25 Lb, then 2 minutes for each additional pound. In other words, 1.75 Lb lobster would cook for 9 minutes.

I tried the second timing (for an opaque lobster) and indeed it was perfect. Next time, I'll try the shorter timing. I've never tried a still translucent lobster, but since I love most seafood on the rare side, I have a feeling it will be good :) Though for lobster rolls, you might want to stick with completely opaque.

Another thing I learned is that a "boiled" lobster should ideally be poached to keep it tender. This means that the water should be at a rolling boil before the lobsters go in. As soon as the lobsters go in, cover the pot and return the water to a boil. Check it regularly, and when you see the first bubbles, turn the heat down so that the pot barely simmers, not boils.

You need a huge pot and a ton of water. Peterson suggests at least a gallon of water for the first lobster and a quart for each additional one. But that doesn't sound like enough to me. I ended up using about 3 gallons for 2 lobsters. Otherwise the water cools off too much when the lobsters go in and the timing formula might not work.

That's all there is to cooking a lobster.

Taking a lobster out of the shell:

The hardest part of this whole experiment was taking these suckers apart. I am a bit slow and clumsy when it comes to extracting shellfish out of the shell. That's how people know I am not a native New Englander. If you've spent your summers on New England coast while growing up, 15 lobsters might not seem as intimidating to you as they do to me. For those readers who might not have taken apart a whole lobster before, you can get instructions on-line just by googling for "how to eat a lobster."

If you have to take apart many lobsters to make rolls, here are some tips the sites might not tell you:
  • crackers are nice, but an old cleaver is a faster way to break the claws and kitchen shears are handy for getting the tail out of the shell (just cut the underside).
  • don't bother with getting the meat out of the little legs, tail flappers, etc. Go for the big stuff -- the claws and the tail and save all the little things to snack on or make a bisque.
  • this is a very messy undertaking! Get everything off your counter and be prepared to wash your clothes afterwards even if you wear an apron. The lobster juices splatter everywhere.
The ultimate lobster roll:
Now the question of the rolls. This dish is quintessential New England and since New Englanders are extremely opinionated, the questions of authenticity start more flame wars on food newsgroups than even clam chowder. Butter vs. Mayo? Should it be mixed in or served on the side? Is celery ok? And what about the bun? Every New Englander has an opinion on each one of these questions. Although I am not a native, I've lived here long enough to have an opinion. Besides, we are within a 2 minute walk from 02138 -- the most opinionated zip code in America.

I like my lobster rolls with mayo (Hellmann's and "real." No low-fat, miracle whip, or all those other travesties please). The mayo has to be mixed into the meat. I hate it how some places give you mayo on the side. There is no way to achieve even distribution once the lobster is in the bun. Celery is a must for a little crunch, but it should be cut small and you can't overdo it. And now the bun... I hate to admit it, but when it comes to lobster rolls, I like that abomination of a processed hot dog bun more than I like a good brioche. Of course, the bun has to be buttered and toasted both inside and out, but still, there is no denying that it's an awful bun. Just to prove that you don't need it for a good lobster roll, I bought 2 types of brioche at Iggy's (plain and black pepper) to taste side by side with Pepperidge Farm hot dog rolls. All rolls were brushed with melted butter and grilled. Black pepper brioche was a tad too stiff, regular brioche was excellent, and that pathetic processed hot dog bun was pure heaven. The only explanation I can find to this quandary is that the processed bun is the only one that is soft enough to not detract from the texture of the lobster.

I hope this helps and I can't wait to read about your lobster adventures. Your guests don't know how good they have it :)



Anonymous said...

In making these rolls, the biggest challenge is going to be not snitching pieces of the lobster as the salad's being made.

Thank you so much again for your help, I'm going to be making these too this weekend as an experiment to see if I want tarragon in it.

For the buns, I find that cheap cafeteria style are the way to go because anything fancier would take away from the main attraction. And I agree with you 100% about using the best mayo out there. It's a shame to use inferior ingredients with something so wonderful.

Many thanks again and I'm dead flattered to have got you thinking of this great treat.

Anonymous said...

Helen: Some grocery stores (I know, Roche Bros. and Market Basket) will cook the whole lobsters for you. This might be an option to eliminate one less step in the process.

Anonymous said...

Hi Helen:

I'm a little surprised by Hellmann's mayo.
Is it like Pepperide Farm buns, more appropriate to a lobster roll than actual mayonnaise?

P.S. Shaw's/Star Market also steams your lobsters upon requests.

Helen said...

While many places will cook the lobsters for you, you still have to take them apart, which is the hard part. And since I like mine cooked way less than most places do, I just cook them myself.

About Hellmann's -- I actually like it in anything, not just lobster rolls :) Here is another little secret from my kitchen -- I've never made real mayo in my life. My aioli is just Hellmann's with mashed garlic and lemon juice mixed in. If I am feeling ambitious, I add some fire roasted red peppers and puree the whole thing with a hand blender.

Pyewacket said...

Helen: Pepperridge Farm is the CORRECT hot dog bun for a lobster roll. You have earned major Yankee points by using them. But I hve to say that I'm on the melted butter side of things. A hot lobster roll, with lots of butter, on a grilled roll - nothing could be finer.

Helen said...

Hi Pyewacket,

I feel so honored to be awarded Yankee points by someone who was actually born here :) I agree that melted butter is a fine accompaniment particularly if the lobster meat is still warm. Then, it's simply amazing. I had a lobster roll like that once at "Scales" in Portland, ME. Unfortunately, that awesome place is no more :(

The problem is that I can't take apart lobsters fast enough to keep the meat warm when making 4-5 rolls. That's why I use mayo at home. What I need is some serious lobster dismemberment practice, but unfortunately, it's not a cheap exercise ;)


Anonymous said...

I'm almost ready to try this, thanks to all your helpful instructions. Thanks, Helen.

Unknown said...

You probably know this already - the best lobster roll in Boston, along with much of the best shellfish, is at Neptune Oyster in the North End.

Having had both their versions (mayo vs. butter, but both on a brioche hotdog roll), I'm with the butter. Mayo makes it too sweet.

Blue Plate said...

I'm not a New Englander, but I'm with on the hotdog bun for a lobster roll. Butter and toasted, there's nothing better.

Anonymous said...

This will probably add a degree of difficulty that you want to avoid, but you also have the option of butter-poaching the lobster (the Thomas Keller method). To butter-poach you boil the lobsters for only two minutes and then plunge them into ice water. The lobster is, of course, cooked only on the outside, but now you can get the meat out of the shell. Then you create a butter emulsion by bringing a couple of tablespoons of water to a boil and wisking in several sticks of butter, bit by bit. (The emulsion is important--if you simply melted the butter it would brown and separate.) Now you poach the lobster meat in the simmering butter emulsion, to which you can add a bit of salt and even herbs (tarragon, e.g.). I know this is more work than simply boiling but the finished product is incredibly succulent. And you're left with a pan of lobster-infused butter, which can be very useful--a few tablespoons tossed with pasta, for example, or used in a reduction.

Helen said...

Oh my, this butter poaching method sounds so decadent. I just have to get over "several sticks of butter" part ;)

Anonymous said...

It does seem decadent, but I'm not sure how much butter the lobster actually absorbs. I wouldn't be surprised if you were actually eating less butter than you would if you dipped each piece of lobster in drawn butter before putting it in your mouth. Somebody should do a scientific study!


Helen said...

Hi Tse Wei,

Thanks for the Neptune Oyster tip. We don't eat out much, so I actually didn't know that.

Will have to go give them a try.