An unpretentious guide to eating lobster
I’m on a lobster cruise in Shediac, New Brunswick. It’s a clear sunny day, the waters are calm, and the breeze whips through my hair as the captain steers the boat through the bay. There are 50 tourists on board, all eager to crack into something. The entire boat chants “Pull! Pull! Pull!” as a lobster trap is finally dragged up from the ocean. It lands on the deck with a clattering thud, a disappointing two lobsters in the green metal cage. When the second mate, Emery Léger, jokes that we’re going to have to share, I realize that these people (including myself) would actually scrap for a tail, or even just a claw.
We all soon came to our senses, realizing that we paid to get on a cruise that promised a lobster dinner. Sure enough, the boat is stocked, preventing a potential Hunger Games-style fight over the measly catch. Still, the guy to my right looks like he might have used his tiny fork to stab me so he could get a head start.
People’s obsession with lobster baffles me, mostly because, until relatively recently, lobster was peasant food, nicknamed the “cockroach of the sea.” It was the poor man’s protein, soldier rations, and even prison fare at one point. Back in the 1800s, lobster only cost about 11 cents per pound. But the shellfish has been flung far from its humble beginnings and affordable price point — in 2019, it costs about $9 per pound at a seafood counter in Maine.
Side note: This price fluctuates from season to season and can go up or down based on demand from countries such as China. But that $9 a pound doesn’t even come close to what restaurants will charge you. That market price can triple or quadruple depending on the restaurant, which might be why people think it takes a certain amount of confidence and know-how to eat the now luxurious delicacy — confidence and know-how I do not possess (yet).
So when the waiter places the blushing red lobster in front of me on a no-fuss paper plate, I’m all too aware at how much of a lobster-virgin I am. Sure, I’ve experienced it in bisques and rolls, but I’d never cracked into one myself. I have no idea what to do.
Luckily, that day on the The Ambassador armed me with a full set of lobster-eating guidelines and now, I’m here to dish the secrets so you don’t have to feel like a fumbling teenager at the table. Here’s how to eat lobster like you know what you’re doing, even if you didn’t grow up summering in Maine.
How do I pick a good lobster?
I didn’t get a choice of which lobster I got to eat on the boat, but sometimes you will — like at those fancy restaurants where the waiter guides you to a tank filled with a bunch of lobsters crawling around on the bottom with elastic bands on their claws. Despite how sad this sounds, they’re kept alive for a reason. Lobster and other shellfish have harmful toxins and bacteria in their flesh, so when they die those harmful substances multiply and the meat spoils almost immediately.
Back to the task at hand: How do you know which one will be the tastiest? According to Russell Vibert, a lobster fisherman from Miscou Island, there are a couple of things that matter when picking out lobster. “There might be slight differences in taste depending on where they’re caught,” he says, explaining that lobsters from the strait tend to be a little bit sweeter than those caught in a gulf or bay.
Also the time of year they’re caught can make a difference in how much meat you get. “Earlier in the spring, the lobster are fuller because they’re not changing their shell,” he says, referring to the process known as molting that happens about once a year.
Where lobsters are in this process is what determines if they’re hard or soft shell lobsters. In short, for lobsters to grow bigger, they need to shed their hard exoskeleton shell and grow a new one that’s bigger so they can grow into it (kind of like when you were a kid and your mom bought you a coat that was two sizes too big). But if the lobster has just molted, it will have less meat in it because the extra space is filled with water to expand the shell, leaving you with a relatively lackluster eating experience.
Chef Nathaniel Adam, who won Maine Lobster Chef of the Year in 2017, also says it’s important to look at claw size and tail girth, as those parts will yield the most meat. Other than those body parts, nothing else really matters. It doesn’t matter if your lobster is male or female, how big it is, or even how old it is. Vibert says that it’s a rumour that younger lobsters are more tender.
So once you pick it and it’s cooked, what do you do with it once it arrives on your plate? How do you use the tiny fork? Do you wear the infamous bib? Breathe with me, crack those knuckles, and get ready for game time.
How do I remove meat from a lobster?
While you could probably start with almost any part of the lobster, both Léger and Adam suggest going for the claws first.
Léger explains that all you need to do to remove a lobster pincer — the claws on their front limbs — is snap it back against its natural joint movement. The thumb part of the claw comes off the same way. Then, using your pick (the tiny silver fork), you can fish out the lobster meat.
The main part of the claw can be broken apart using the nutcracker. Place it in the middle of the claw, with the claw lying flat, and squeeze. The claw will crack open and you’re rewarded with a huge chunk of meat, as well as an abundant spray of lobster juice. (I now understand why, at fancier places, they just serve the tails or the lobster sans-shell.)
To separate the tail from the body, twist it one way, then the opposite way, and pull. Then, squeeze down the shell, cracking it and then flip it over and crack it the opposite way, Léger instructs. Strip off the top layer of skin and look for the vein that runs along the back. It’ll be clear but visible. The vein is the lobster’s digestive tract, and Léger tells me you’ll want to take that out before tucking in. If you’re a visual person, by the way, here’s a demo that might help.
If your lobster is female, you will also find eggs, which Léger says is “lobster caviar” but it can be an acquired taste. As for the little legs, you snap them off like twigs and squeeze them “like a tube of toothpaste” to get the meat out, Léger says.
Then there’s the head and body, where you might notice some distinctly creamy-green looking mass. Léger tells me that this digestive gland is the “paté” of the lobster, sometimes also called tomalley. No one at my table is willing to try it, because it’s apparently very strong in flavour — like lobster concentrate, if you will — and has the texture of snot. This sounded like the least appealing thing to eat, so I passed on trying it but if you’re feeling adventurous, Léger says it’s fantastic as a spread on bread, and lots of chefs mix it into sauces and butter Although, despite many people being big fans of lobster tomalley, the FDA sometimes warns against eating it as it can contain high levels of toxins.
The shell of the head and body come off easily by hooking your thumb under the shell of the side where you rip off the tail and pull up; there will be a generous chunk of meat right on top. And that’s it. That’s how you get all the meat out of a lobster.
It was less difficult than I thought it would be and I’m feeling a bit like I’ve just done a high school biology dissection, but I feel a sense of accomplishment as I look down at my deconstructed lobster.
What are the different ways I can eat a lobster?
Every Maritime region seems to have their own preference on how to cook and eat a lobster, whether it be steamed, boiled or grilled, with or without butter etc. My friend from Nova Scotia tells me about a warm lobster sandwich, where the lobster is cooked with cream and vinegar, the latter apparently enhancing its natural taste.
In New Brunswick, I’m shocked to discover they eat lobster cold with no condiments — not even butter. They’re complete purists about the matter. “I want to taste the lobster,” says Vibert, whose favourite way to eat it is right on the boat, using nothing but the ocean water to boil it.
Adam speaks fondly of the traditional Maine lobster bake, explaining the process, which starts with a cast iron pan over a big fire. It’s all very al fresco; he uses ocean water and seaweed to steam the lobster, adds a layer of seaweed to the bottom, and places lobster, corn, and potatoes on top. And then, another layer of seaweed on top of all that. The whole thing is covered with a wet canvas. “[It] just gives you a true oceanic-state-of-Maine-flavor in a piece of food,” he says. The bake, however, is traditionally served with melted butter, mussels, and clam chowder.
But if the above options don’t sound like your jam, there’s a million other ways you can eat lobster. Adam tells me of a time he made “lobster caviar” from a lobster stock; he transformed the stocks’ consistency and then created tiny spheres that looked like caviar. For the less lobster-savvy, though, Adam suggests lobster mac and cheese. It’s ideal if you’re trying lobster for the first time and aren’t sure if your taste buds will take to the natural flavor it. “It’s rich and creamy, so it kinda hides the oceanic flavor,” he says, adding that his favourite kind is made with smoked gouda.
I’m a fan of the lobster roll. The sweet lobster is tossed in mayonnaise or butter, (depending on where you order) and is served between two exquisitely toasted buns served hot or cold, depending on your preference. When it comes to eating lobster meat outside of a sandwich, dipping sauces can make or break the lobster experience. Clarified butter is a go-to, but Adam isn’t a fan. “With clarified butter, you lose all the milk fat so it doesn’t have much flavor,” he says.
And butter is not the only sauce in town. Many people are a fan of Asian-style sauces that have soy sauce, chilli, ginger, lime juice, and sesame oil. For those who like heat, hot sauce with a tomato base can also go well with lobster. If you want an even more unique concoction to try, I found a sauce that’s made with green Tabasco, butter, lemon, and spicy fish cocktail sauce — apparently the lobster sauce of choice for celebrity chef Mark McEwan — described in a TorontoLife article. Flavors like bacon, sherry, tarragon, champagne, and vanilla go well with lobster, Adam says.
There seems to be no shortage of ways you can eat a whole lobster, as long as you’re down to get a little messy. Vibert wouldn’t be caught dead in a bib and believes that the smell of lobster is an aphrodisiac of sorts. “The girls love the smell of lobster,” he says, in complete earnest. Adam, on the flip side, is all for the bib, and butter stains like hell, so I am too.
But regardless of where you fall on lobster-related etiquette, tearing through one can be magical and not nearly as challenging as it looks. You might not always be able to afford one, but if one of these titans of the seafood world gets slid in front of you, you’ll know how to get the very most (meat) out of every corner.