Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Lobster

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Lobstah! The food is an icon of celebration, indulgence and decadence. Whether you are in it up to your elbows at a seaside shack or basking in the glow of a white tablecloth moment, lobster reads: "special." The pearly white meat is so highly valued it is often used (overused?) to elevate the lowliest of dishes to gourmet status. Lobster is mac and cheese's passport from the kiddie table to the hipster bar menu - and even, if you're going to be posh, to the wedding brunch buffet. It turns a Cobb salad from lunch-at-your-desk fare to fair game for Ladies Who Lunch. It's succulent and elegant and - who would have guessed it? - closely related to the cockroach.

A Brief History of Lobster Eating

The "bug of the sea" was the lowly station in the food chain that lobster once held. While ancient Greeks revered members of the lobster family for their hard but flexible shells - even using the design as a template for their war helmets - the crustacean's reputation did not travel well. 

On American shores, lobsters were so abundant that they used to wash in with the tide and pile up on the water's edge. Native Americans would eat some of them, roasted over hot coals on the beach; an early version of the traditional clam bake. But mostly they turned lobsters into their fields as fertilizer. When settlers arrived on what would become New England's shores, they treated lobsters with the same level of disdain and fed them as a cheap and abundant food source to servants and prisoners. 

Lobsters maintained a low place on the culinary totem pole through the 17th and 18th centuries - and then something happened. People began to travel by train. Hungry people that needed to be fed. Pressed to provide sustenance without cutting too deeply into the bottom line, train operators had a light bulb moment. They fed these far-flung, unwitting travelers something they had never seen or heard of before. A rare delicacy called lobster, which was cheap to procure and, with its delicate taste, easy to pass off to diners who had not heard of the crustacean's East Coast reputation as peasant food. The riders loved it and started to seek out their new favorite food after their journey's end. 

Lobster increased in popularity and cost into the 1920s. The Depression, however, put the expensive luxury out of reach of eaters who could no longer afford it. This glut in supply drove prices down once again. Canned lobster became an affordable and ready convenience food. In the 1940s it was cheaper than canned beans. Many pet owners fed it to their cats. It was included in rations for American troops in WWII. Unlike many staple foods, lobster was not rationed during the war which further expanded its popularity. 

America was hooked. Lobster made its way up through the ranks of dinner courses from a salad additive to a featured item. It then gained celebrity status, showing up on the main plates of movie stars and as a popular dinner offering at the fanciest of soirees. Lobster remains a distinguished ingredient in the American dining cannon. 

Factual Nibbles 

  • Lobsters are closely related to insects, spiders and snails and, like their creepy relatives, are part of the scientific phylum, Arthropoda. In fact, the word Lobster comes from the Old English loppe, which means spider. 
  • The average lifespan of the American lobster in the wild is fifty years. 
  • Unlike crabs, lobsters are not scavengers. They prefer to catch and eat live food. 

The Lobster Lifecycle

There are two types of lobsters, cold and warm water varieties. The red champions on your lobster bib are the cold water Homarus americanus, also known as American lobster, Atlantic lobster, Canadian lobster, true lobster, northern lobster, Canadian Reds or Maine lobster. These lobsters are a uniquely East Coast thing. They are known for their sweet meat and giant claws. 

Warm water lobsters, also known as "spiny lobsters," "slipper lobsters" or "rock lobsters" do not have claws. These types of lobsters are found in the waters off the coast of Florida, in the West Indies and off southern California. They account for the majority of the "lobster tails" sold at the retail level, as that is the only edible part of their body. 

Over 200,000 tons of American lobster are harvested annually. Their habitat spans from Northeast Canada to as far south as North Carolina, but the population is most abundant from Maine to New Jersey. The journey to the plate is a long one. 

The process from mating to hatching takes about twenty months. Females choose their partner and emit a pheromone spray when they are ready to molt and mate. The females store the sperm for months until they ovulate and then keep their fertilized eggs, called "berries" under their abdomens for the nine to eleven months that it takes them to develop. After which, the female will release the hatchlings into the water over the course of a few weeks. 

In their initial "plankton" stage the baby lobsters are microscopic in size and unable to navigate; they float wherever the tide takes them. The miniscule juveniles go through several moltings over their first month before settling on the ocean floor to become bottom dwellers. Their small size makes them so vulnerable to attack they spend about four years hiding between rocks and marine grasses before they are sizable enough to come out to hunt. 

Lobsters reach market maturity in about five to seven years. These smallest lobsters weigh about a pound or just over and are called "chicks." They continue to molt about once a year and can live for about fifty years and grow up to about forty-five pounds. 

Lobster Fisheries

The health of lobster fisheries relies heavily on allowing this lifecycle, at least the early part of it, to play out uninterrupted. There is a constant push and pull between conservation efforts that preserve stocks and regulation that isn't so tight that lobstermen and women can continue to make a living.  

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has been established to attempt to coordinate some of the limiting factors that protect the fisheries between states. This is becoming increasingly important as climate change impacts marine life. Warming waters caused by climate change are forcing cold water lobsters into northern latitudes in search of colder waters. While the stock has been plentiful in Maine, southern states have seen declining populations. Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is working to change quota rules, increase the minimum "keeper" size, reduce the amount of lobster pots and limiting the season to increase stocks. 

Demand for American lobster continues to grow, particularly in Asia where its popularity has soared in recent years. In the United States, lobster demand peaks twice during the year. During the summer, clambakes and seaside lobster shacks generate sales. During the holidays, pull-out-the-stops entertaining causes a winter surge. 

Lobster sellers smooth out the peaks and valleys of supply and demand by storing their live lobsters. Lobster pounds are underwater pens or tanks designed for keeping lobsters fresh. The water is chilled to about forty degrees, which puts the crustaceans in a state of dormancy. They can be stored in this way for about two months without impacting health or quality. 

There have been some attempts to grow lobsters from egg to maturity. Lobsters' propensity to cannibalize each other in their juvenile stage makes farming them difficult. Some efforts are being made to separate individual young lobsters until they are old enough to survive on their own.  They are then reseeded in their natural habitat to support population growth. 

Environmental Impact of Lobster Fisheries

Most lobster is caught in pots - large wire traps that are bated and sunk to the bottom of the water. The lobsters crawl into the traps, which are then retrieved days later by their owner. This form of capture is the least detrimental to the environment. It leaves the sea floor relatively undisturbed and any bycatch (unintentionally caught sea life) can be released when the traps are retrieved. Lobsters that are too small or females that are breeding can be released as well. Some larger swimmers, such as whales, can be caught in the lines, but many lobster people use special ropes that do not float to minimize entanglement. 

Trawling is another way to harvest lobster but it is much less efficient and much more harmful to the ecosystem. It scrapes the sea floor, damaging the underwater terrain. It also inadvertently scoops up a lot of bycatch which often cannot be returned to the water in time for it to survive. 

Location also plays a large role in the sustainability of lobster. Fisheries in Canada are better managed than many in the US, according to Seafood Watch. Maine's protections and cold waters still support an abundant lobster population. But fisheries must be constantly monitored and regulations adjusted to respond to fluctuations in supply. 

What to Look for When Choosing Lobsters

American lobsters are ten-legged crustaceans that are closely related to shrimp and crabs. Their relationship, both genetically and appearance-wise, has earned them the nickname "bugs" by professional lobster people. 

Lobsters have two large claws; one is stronger (used for crushing) while the other is sharper (used for cutting). Lobster shells are a mix of green, blue and brown but turn bright red when cooked. 

When shopping for lobster, make sure you choose active, energetic ones. An agitated lobster should flex its claws and curl its tail when touched. Give limp or lethargic lobsters a pass. Never buy a dead lobster as the meat spoils rapidly.  

Nutrition and Lobster Meat's Effects on the Body

If you can resist dunking your lobster in butter, it's actually a very healthful food with less calories and saturated fat than the same portion of skinless chicken. Lobster meat is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, potassium and the Vitamins E, B12 and B6.

What to Do with Lobster and How to Cook it

Lobsters are most often boiled or steamed (see recipe below) but can be grilled, baked or broiled as well. Lobster is featured in a wide range of recipes. Lobster Neuberg, Lobster Thermidor and Lobster Rolls are a few classics. 

The meat from the legs, claws and tail can all be eaten. The roe from inside the female's body is a highly prized ingredient that is often used in sauces. Save your lobster shells and boil them to create lobster stock, the starting base for lobster bisque. 

The tomalley, the soft green innards of the lobster, function as the liver and pancreas. These filtering organs can trap toxins that, when eaten, can cause Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), a potentially fatal condition. The FDA has posted warnings when the risk of PSP is high, usually when red tide algae blooms are extensive and prolonged. To avoid exposure all together, leave the tomalley aside. 

Lobster meat deteriorates so rapidly that cooks do best to reduce the time of death to pot as much as possible. Some prefer there to be no window at all, adding the live lobsters directly to the pot. Others believe that it's more humane to swiftly dispatch their lobsters before moving on to cooking. To do this, start by chilling your lobster. A cold lobster is a less active lobster which makes it easier to handle. If you've stored your lobsters in the refrigerator, it may already be subdued. If you are just getting your lobsters home, you can put them in the freezer for fifteen to twenty minutes. Place your lobster upside down on a welled cutting board. Insert the tip of a large chef's knife between the claws, plunge straight down and then slice through the head to kill it instantly. 

Storing Live Lobsters

Fresh water will kill a lobster, so never try to store it in a bucket or tank of tap water. Lobsters can survive outside of water for up to forty-eight hours. Store them in the refrigerator and cover with seaweed or wet newspaper to keep them damp but not wet. 

Recipe: Steamed Lobsters

Serves 4

Steaming lobsters is an easy way to prepare them and, unlike boiling, keeps all of the flavor in the shell and not in the cooking water. Steaming also yields a more tender result than boiling, which can toughen the meat. The only challenging part of this recipe? Digging in. If no one at the table is familiar with lobster cracking, share this video to get the most out of your dinner.

Ingredients:

4 live lobsters, at least 1 ½ pounds each

Seawater or salted water (2 tablespoons per quart)

2 lemons, cut into wedges

2 sticks of butter (8 ounces), melted and kept warm 

Method:

You will need a pot with a lid and steamer rack or false bottom that is large enough to accommodate your lobsters. Bring two inches of sea or salted water to a boil. Add the rack. Kill your lobsters and add to the pot immediately. Cover and steam for eight minutes per pound, rearranging lobsters halfway through to ensure even cooking. Test lobsters for doneness - they should be bright red all over and the meat will change from translucent to opaque white (cut a small slit in the base of the tail to check if necessary). Use tongs to remove the lobsters to a colander set in the sink and allow to cool for ten minutes. Using kitchen shears or a knife, cut a slit in the underside of each tail and allow any liquid to drain out of the lobsters. Serve with melted butter and lemon.