Lobster 101

It’s hard to believe that lobster was once so abundant on the shores of Rhode Island that beachcombers could scoop them up in their bare hands whenever they desired. The crustaceans were so common that they were deemed “a poor man’s food” completely devoid of cachet. In fact, in 1622 Governor William Bradford of the Plimoth Plantation expressed regret that, due to a meat shortage, he could only offer new settlers the lowly lobster. Times certainly have changed. Consumer demand, along with environmental degradation, has risen to such a degree in the past century that there simply aren’t enough of the delectable shellfish to go around.

Back before lobsters were commercially fished, they were able to mature into old age (it is thought that lobsters can live almost 100 years) and were caught at enormous weights of almost 40 pounds. Today, regulations specify that lobsters need only reach a length of 3 1/4-inches (from the rear of the eye socket to the rear of the main cavity) to be caught and sold, leaving most marketable lobsters in the 1 to 3 pound range.

Because these delicacies tip the scales at almost $10 per pound in stores (that includes a lot of shell), you certainly cannot afford to take a casual approach to purchasing and cooking lobster if you expect delicious results.

A lobster has a pincher claw, used to grab prey, and a larger crusher claw, used to do just that. The crusher claw grows with more frequent use; lobsters with a crusher claw on the right side are called right-handed; those with one on the left are left-handed.

A lobster with one claw is called a cull and with no claws is called a pistol, bullet or dummie. Claws can regenerate as can antennae and eyes though they usually grow back smaller.

Before eating a lobster, remove the intestine (a greenish-black line through the tail) and the stomach, a green sac near the front of the cavity. The green tomalley, which functions like the liver, pancreas and intestines, is considered a delicacy. Females may also carry roe (developing eggs) that become orange-red when cooked and can be eaten.

The teeth of the lobster are in its stomach, which is located a short distance from the mouth. The food is actually chewed in the stomach between three grinding surfaces called the gastric mill.

Once a lobster is cooked, a thick whitish foam appears around the meat and in the cooking water. This is the blood, which remains colorless until cooked; it can be eaten or rinsed off. (It’s actually an indicator that your lobster is fresh.)

Although it’s difficult to pinpoint a lobster’s exact age, scientists believe that it takes five to seven years for a lobster to reach one pound.

Lobsters come in myriad colors, but red is rare (until they’re cooked). Usually greenish-brown, they have also been found in hues of blue, yellow and orange. White, which indicates an albino lobster, is the only type that will retain its colorless state when cooked. So why do they turn red? Hot water breaks the connection between a red substance in the shell called astaxanthin and proteins that change this color to hues of brown and green, thereby releasing the bright color.

Buying: The details

A 1 1/2-pound lobster yields about a cup of lobster meat; plan on at least this much per person. Though lobsters can be stored for 24 to 36 hours, it’s best to buy them the same day you plan to cook them. When choosing lobsters, consider the following:

Size matters, but bigger is not necessarily better. Though chickens (one pounders) are more readily available, they won’t give you the most meat for your effort. Opt for quarters (1 G-pounds), halves (1 H-pounds) or selects (1 H–2 H-pounds), which give flavorful and abundant meat with the same amount of effort needed to crack smaller lobsters. Jumbos (2 H-pounds and up) are tasty up to 5 pounds at which point the meat may become tough and the prices exorbitant.

If the shell is hard, the lobster will have firmer meat. Lobsters shed their shells (or molt) about five times a year for the first five to seven years of their lives and then once a year after that. Lobsters caught while the new, larger shell is still hardening are called soft-shelled lobsters. Some people prefer these easier-to-crack crustaceans, but because the new shells are waiting for the meat to catch up in size, they yield softer-textured meat and less of it. Most people opt for hard-shelled lobsters, which are more resilient and have more meat.

If you’re choosing between two lobsters of the same size, it’s best to opt for the heavier one. The meat will be denser and more flavorful.

Look for long antennae. Short, stubby antennae indicate a lobster that’s been held in captivity for long periods of time. In such close quarters, there’s likely been a fight in which the antennae were clipped or bitten. If your lobster’s shell has been punctured in an accident or fight, blood can escape, causing the meat to deteriorate.

live lobster Your lobster should have an energetic attitude. When you (or the fishmonger) pick up a lobster, it should flap its tail with gusto. More anemic efforts indicate a lobster on its last legs with insufficient blood flow and less time to live.

If you do choose to store your lobsters for a day before cooking, get them home from the market as quickly as possible. Lobsters live in cold ocean waters and will benefit from being held in a small cooler in the car. Remember that lobsters can live only in natural salt water; tap water (including ice) will shorten their life span dramatically. Wrap lobsters in damp newspaper or paper towels and store loosely wrapped in a plastic bag in the coldest part of your refrigerator (35 to 40 degrees). Be certain that all lobsters are in their own separate wrappings or they will begin to fight with one another. If your lobster appears lethargic (or dies), cook it as soon as possible. You can store the cooked meat in the shell for better flavor and a juicier texture until you are ready to use it in salads or sautes. Be very cautious when removing lobsters from their bags because they will claw at anything near them. Open the bag and gently shake the lobster out onto the counter. Hold the lobster around its midsection directly behind the claws so that you won’t get pinched.

Nutritional Information (per 3.5 ounces):

Lobster: 98 calories/20 g. protein/.6 g. fat/ 72 mg. cholesterol
Chicken (light meat): 153 calories/27 g. protein/4 g. fat/75 mg. cholesterol
Beef tenderloin: 206 calories/29 g. protein/ 9 g. fat/92 mg. cholesterol

Cooking: The Basics

Boiling: Most people prefer to boil lobsters because it is easy and you can add almost anything to the cooking liquid to make the meat more flavorful. Many cooks swear by seawater, but you can also add broth, lemon juice or herbs.

Cover lobsters with cold, salted (1 tablespoon per quart) water and bring to a boil over medium heat. This is considered the most compassionate approach; slow changes in temperature are thought to lull a lobster to sleep. If you do hear a high-pitched “squeal,” it is not a screaming lobster; they do not have any vocal chords. The piercing sound is air escaping from the body cavity as it expands from the heat.

Once the water has come to a boil, cook lobsters for 10 minutes for the first pound and three minutes for each additional pound. (A 1 1/2-pound lobster should cook for 11 1/2 minutes.) Lobsters are thoroughly cooked if you can easily separate the antennae and legs from the body.

Steaming: Although steaming may not make your lobster quite as flavorful as boiling, aromatics can add a good deal of flavor to the meat. Try adding fresh lemon juice, a splash of wine, celery, bay leaves, fresh thyme or garlic to 2 inches of water. Place a steamer basket in a large stock pot with the seasoned water. Bring water to a boil and add lobsters. (It’s easier to use lobsters that have already been killed; if they haven’t been, be prepared to stand at the stove and keep the lid on the pot until the lobsters acquiesce.) Cover the pot and begin timing, about 15 minutes for a 1 1/2-pound lobster. Make sure lobsters are thoroughly cooked using the technique outlined in “Boiling.”

Broiling: Follow directions below for killing a lobster. Brush clarified butter onto the open half of the lobster and season it with salt and pepper. Place flesh side down, along with claws, on a shallow pan and broil for four to five minutes. Turn the lobster over, apply more butter and broil for another four minutes. Make sure lobsters are thoroughly cooked using the technique outlined in “Boiling.”

Grilling: Follow directions below for killing a lobster. Apply a small amount of clarified butter and salt and pepper to the open half of the lobster and grill, along with the claws, for two to three minutes. Flip the claws and body over and grill for an additional four minutes, moving it to a cooler spot if flames jump up. Make sure lobsters are thoroughly cooked using the technique outlined in “Boiling.”

Killing: Place the lobster stomach down on a large cutting board with rubber bands around its claws. Wrap a kitchen towel around your hand to ensure a good grip on the lobster. Flatten the lobster’s tail, maintaining your grip where the tail meets the body. Using a large kitchen knife (a heavy 10-inch chef’s knife is ideal), place the tip of the blade between the eyes and cut straight down. The knife should be facing away from your other hand. You can now slice the body lengthwise, removing the dark green stomach and black intestine from the tail. Separate the claws and place them in a plastic bag and crack with the dull side of the knife. This will ensure they cook thoroughly and make shelling easier.

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Styling by Cindy Salvato

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