A Tasty Tufts Guide to Lobster
Two hundred years ago, lobster would have been a staple of Boston poorhouses and Northeast fishing communities. Without refrigeration, the quality of lobsters outside of a limited area along the Atlantic would have ranged from bad to terrible, which combined with their leanness might have inspired the famous historical fact that prisoners used to riot about having to be fed lobster.
Today, of course, with lobster matching the price of good beef, we look at its past reputation with a smile and maybe a tinge of jealousy for a populace that was so naïve as to what they had in front of them. However, it really is a combination of modern technology and practice that has helped turn these humble aquatic bugs into the stuff of fine cuisine.
Lobsters are crustaceans, closely related to crawfish and scampi and distantly related to shrimp. Like all crustaceans, they have an inedible exoskeleton and an extremely muscular internal body structure. Living close to the bottom of shallow parts of the ocean, they use their powerful tails to propel them forward.
The “true” lobster is the most common variety found in the Northeast. Their large claws and smooth exoskeleton distinguish them from the distantly-related rock or spiny lobster, most often found in warm water like the Caribbean and Mediterranean.
Lobster is absolutely best fresh. There multiple two reasons for this. The first is that the chemical that gives their meat its sweet taste, glycogen, has a short life and will disappear within hours of its death, even with freezing. Secondly, lobsters evolved to digest dead fish and other crustaceans. They are full of digestive enzymes that will quickly begin working on the flesh, destroying its texture. These enzymes are designed to work at low temperatures, so raw lobster needs to be cooked almost immediately. Finally, lobsters exoskeletons are covered in deep sea bacteria which also evolved with high cold tolerance. While the lobster’s digestive system is attacking it from within, once the exoskeleton has been breached these bacteria are spoiling it from the outside.
Fortunately with proper refrigeration, lobster can be stored alive. Unlike humans, lobsters don’t suffer tissue hypothermia; when on ice their mental and physical processes slow to a crawl. Unlike past lobster-eaters, we can generally trust that lobster we’re getting was kept at a safe temperature.
Lobster is available year-round, but is considered best in the summer and fall. Lobsters shed their exoskeletons in the early summer. Living under intense pressure, they avoid being crushed by the water beneath them by absorbing water into their flesh. Essentially the lobster is brining itself, leading to a saltier, more dilute flavor and wetter meat. This is why soft-shelled lobster is universally preferable – eaten straight it has richer flavor and firmer flesh; there’s also less of a tendency to break the mayonnaise or soak the bun in a lobster salad or roll.
Concerned about the ethics of lobster cooking? Lobsters are extremely simple animals with very limited mental capacity and nervous structure. They’re big bugs. Current research suggests that they do react to stimulation like heat, however their exoskeletons mean that they do not have the same kind of nervous response as humans. Tales of their screaming in the pot make the mistake of anthropomorphizing the release of pressurized gases as the exoskeleton expands; they cannot make noises from their mouths. Lobsters may continue to move after death. Their muscles are on a separate system from their sensory nerves, but all feeling and consciousness is gone. These days, to avail diners of ethical concern and to handle their tendency to flail about, chefs often simply decapitate them with a knife inserted into their brainstem (lacking nerve endings in their exoskeleton, the lobster would not feel any pain from the knife entering).
The primary edible parts of the lobster are the claws and tail. The tail, which does most of the animal’s movement, is extremely meaty in both true and spiny lobsters. Tail meat is most often consumed as-is and much like steak it is best right after cooking. Claw meat is harder to get at. Since the awkwardness of excavation often leaves it in pieces, it is commonly used in lobster salad. There’s also a fair bit of meat in the legs (best consumed with the tail) and in the body (especially in the spiny lobster). However, one runs the risk of coming across the less-than-appetizing parts of the lobster’s anatomy when they delve into the front of the body so it’s best to adopt a surgical approach. Of course many New Englanders consider the tomalley, which is the lobster’s liver, to be a delicacy, as well as the vivid orange roe.
Fresh lobster needs little adornment. It’s extremely lean and comes pre-seasoned by the sea, giving it a great balance of sweet and salty. Most often the condiment of choice is clarified butter, which gives the lobster some richness. Depending on when you’re eating your lobster, it may be brinier or sweeter, owing to the maturity of its exoskeleton that controls the amount of salt in the meat.
For many in the Northeast, the next best thing to fresh lobster is the lobster roll. The combination of rich mayonnaise and lean lobster, like crab or tuna salad, was probably an invention of the lobster-exhausted New England maritime communities for whom seafood was part of the daily menu. As mentioned above, the best lobster salad comes from soft-shelled lobsters, which means that it’s a summer treat. In Boston, the best places for summer lobster rolls are the places that know their seafood: namely oyster bars (Island Creek, Neptune, and B&G, for instance), and the Seaport’s fish spots.
For the real crème de la crème of lobster, though, you probably need to go north to the fishing communities that supply most of the country’s lobster. You might be surprised at the price the lobsters fetch on the docks. High demand, small supply, and one of the most successful marketing campaigns in history means that lobster, like diamonds and designer clothes, suffers dramatic price inflation.
However, if recent news is any sign, lobster may be more available in the not-too-distant future. During the financial downturn, the high price and luxury of lobster turned away many a potential buyer, leading the industry to try reversing the inflationary trends with campaigns like the McDonald’s McLobster sold during the summer in Canada and Maine, and increased out-of-season sales, which have seen restaurants making more lobster stock and other less-freshness-dependent dishes. Maybe we’ll see lobster return from the realm of haute cuisine so we can all enjoy the sweet, unique flavor of one of America’s most special foodstuffs.
Cover image source.