Most people love lobster. But the idea of cooking — and then eating — a whole, live lobster can be a bit intimidating.
What color should your lobster be? How can you tell if your lobster is fresh? What is the most humane way to kill a lobster?
Last summer, on a visit to Portland, Maine, I met with Melissa Bouchard, executive chef of Dimillo's on the Water, to get the answers to some of these questions.
Bouchard, a Maine native, was named the Maine Restaurant Association’s first female Chef of the Year in 2013. Her kitchen kills close to 150 live lobsters every day to feed droves of summer visitors who funnel in from Commercial Street, the tourist hub in the city's Old Port district.
The head chef and her staff showed me how to steam a Maine lobster and the right way to eat it.There are many species of lobster. However, the authentic Maine lobster, also known as American lobster, has five sets of legs and two large claws that are filled with meat.
Maine is particularly famous for its soft-shell lobsters, mature lobsters that have recently shed their shells. The "shedders" are easier to crack open and are said to have sweeter, more tender meat than hard-shell lobsters, although there is less meat inside a new-shelled lobster than a hard-shell lobster of the same size. Dimillo's only serves hard-shell lobsters.
When picking a lobster, go for one with the most energy. The color makes little difference. Maine lobsters are typically greenish, brown, or black in color — all lobsters will be bright red once they are cooked.
A lobster that throws its claws in the air and flaps its tail when picked up is likely healthy. You don't want a lobster if its tail is hanging straight down, says Bouchard.
Check your lobster for any scars or blemishes. Marks don't necessarily change the taste or texture, but a banged-up lobster is better off in a dish, like lobster stew, than served whole.
Lobsters need to be kept alive until they are cooked. Although it's best to cook lobster the same day it is bought, the creature can be kept alive for up to a day by storing it in the refrigerator under a cold, damp towel.
Never store your lobster in fresh water — this will kill them since they are saltwater animals.
DiMillo's prefers to steam its lobsters in a high-pressure steamer instead of boiling them. Some say that steaming lobsters produces more tender meat, and because it cooks the lobster a little more gradually than boiling, there is less risk of overcooking.
Although the traditional way to eat a lobster is steamed or boiled, lobsters can also be baked, grilled, or broiled. For any of these cooking options, the lobster must be killed in a humane way first, done by swiftly cutting the lobster in half with a sharp knife.
To do this, lay the lobster on its back. Center your knife over where the tail meets the body and slice the lobster in half lengthwise. Turn the lobster around and cut through the center of the body and head.
Scoop out the black vein in the tail, the gastrointestinal tract, and the green tomalley (which functions as the liver and pancreas). If the lobster is female, you may scrape out any unfertilized eggs, which will turn red when you cook them.
After cleaning the lobster, remove the rubber bands so the elastic flavor doesn't leach through the shell. Then, it's ready for the oven or grill.
The cooking time depends on the size of the lobster. In the high-pressure steamer, a 1 and 1/8 pound lobster will cook in 10 minutes. The largest lobster Dimillo's serves — 2 and 1/2 pounds — will take 25 minutes.
Once the lobster is out of the steamer, the work begins.
Most restaurants provide diners with a bib and a moist towelette since tearing a lobster apart can be slightly messy.
A cracker and a lobster pick will also come in handy.
Once your lobster arrives, start by tearing off the claw. Hold the lobster down with one hand and twist the claw in one gentle motion with your other hand.
Break off the smaller, thumb-like part of the claw.
Now grab your lobster pick.
Use the pick to pull the meat out from the shell.
Next, use the cracker to break the tip of the larger part of the claw.
Break the claw in half with both hands to reveal the juicy meat inside.
You can also use the pick to remove this meat.
Don't forget about the meat from the lobster knuckles, which connects the claws to the body.
Place any pieces of shell or other unwanted parts into the shell bowl.
Now it's time to attack the tail.
Grab the tail at the top, and hold the body and head down with your other hand.
Twist the tail to separate it from the body.
Hold the tail as if the lobster was on its back.
Give the tail a little squeeze to break the shell and loosen the meat.
There's also a little bit of meat in the small flippers at the end of the tail, which you can get to by peeling off the shell.
The tail meat should come out in one piece.
Once the tail meat is out, many people like to wipe off the greenish "tomalley."
There is some meat in the legs, which you can easily twist off.
Then suck the meat right out.
Brave lobster-eaters will eat small pieces of meat found inside the lobster body.
To find this meat, pull down on the lower part of the body cavity.
This will split the body down the center and you can use a small utensil to pick out the meat.
If a customer is struggling, DiMillo's will bring out a large knife to slice the lobster in half.
Finally, it's time to enjoy your lobster!
Lobster is best served with a side of melted better.
French fries, a baked potato, or cole slaw also go well as side dishes.
Would you be able to give up lobster?
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