OK, you might not be like Holden and have a father who catches Maine lobster on a daily basis, but it is important that you use the freshest lobster possible. If you’re unable to go to a specialty fish monger (or quite frankly just don’t live on the East Coast), Holden had a great tip for figuring out which lobster is the freshest: look at its antennae. Because lobsters are carnivorous, they start to eat each other after being in a tank together for a long time. They go for the antennae first, which are normally around 12 inches long, so stay away from any that have short or stubby ones.
Unless you’re a lobster connoisseur, you may not know that there are such things as soft-shell lobsters and hard-shell lobsters. Soft-shell lobsters are known as "shedders" in the industry, and they’re only available during certain parts of the year. Their nickname comes from the fact that they molt, shedding their skin every so often to produce a new, more tender one. The belief behind soft-shell lobsters is that their meat is generally sweeter, but the downside is that they contain very little meat, and that the meat they do have is incredibly tender and harder to work with. Hard-shell lobsters are bursting with meat that is generally tougher and easier to work with. It all comes down to convenience and affordability. If you can afford the time and resources, then go with soft-shell, but for convenience sake, hard-shell is best.
This debate will circulate whenever lobster is in play; whether it’s for a roll or when serving one whole, and it all comes down to how you cook it. We like Charles’ approach to this debate when she says, "Most important thing to me is really about how the lobster is cooked — don’t care if it’s steamed or boiled, as long as it’s not overcooked."
It’s true, but here are some facts for you to consider when deciding. Many people stray away from boiling because it lets extra water into the shells, and of course, any boiling does away with a little bit of the food’s natural flavor. Steaming allows the lobster to cook slowly, so it’s harder to overcook it, and it keeps the flavor more locked into the meat. Our advice? Do whatever is easiest. Before she started churning out 1,500 pounds worth of lobster meat for the rolls served at her restaurant, Charles boiled them because it was cheaper to do so. When it’s going to be turned into a salad in the end, anyways, that tiny bit of flavor you lose from boiling is irrelevant.
If there’s one motto that was consistent throughout with every expert’s opinion, it was how important it is that you don’t overcook the lobster. As Povich puts it, "A lobster is like pork — it goes from being cooked perfectly to impossible to eat in about 30 seconds," so make sure your timing is right. And as Charles adds, "God forbid, never cook a dead lobster."
Hands down, it’s the knuckle and the claw meat, but if you’re trying to be cost-efficient, like some such as executive chef Rich Vellante at Legal Sea Foods, you can use all of it. To drill down even deeper to the knuckle and claw debate, Holden told us that lobsters are right- and left-handed like humans, and it’s distinguished by their crusher claw and their pincher claw. Crusher claws are big and thick, where pinchers are thin and long. It’s our belief that the crusher claw is the lobster’s dominant hand (because crushing takes so much more effort), and probably has less tender meat because it’s frequently used. Holden had never thought of that, but we’re sticking to our notion that like cows, less use of muscles is better with lobsters, so pincher claw meat is preferable.
To use mayonnaise or not to use mayonnaise, that’s the question for a lot of people. When asked why his rolls contain almost no mayonnaise, Holden had a very simple answer: "Because I hate mayonnaise." If you like your lobster salads on the creamier side, then add mayonnaise, and follow Charles' advice when she says to use the best of the best. Some believe that Kewpie mayonnaise takes it to the next level, and Charles feels that’s Hellmann’s, but what do you think is the best mayonnaise?
Seasoning is another debate surrounding lobster rolls. The roll’s meat should be so fresh that it doesn’t need any seasoning, some believe, while others don’t think there’s anything wrong with adding a little extra flavor. Holden uses celery salt and some other secret ingredients to season his, while Povich likes to add color with paprika. Whichever route you go, you should always season with a little salt and pepper, and never let any additional seasonings overpower the great flavor of the lobster.
We don’t care how you do it, but you’ve got to add some lemon juice to your lobster roll. Some like to dress their lobster meat with a little lemon butter, while others squeeze some on top right before serving. How will you add lemon juice to yours?
If you’re not a purist and like a little crunch in your roll, there are plenty of ways to add some texture. Povich and Vellante like adding chopped scallions and shredded lettuce to their roll, while others have been known to add diced shallots and pickles. And of course, there's the traditional diced celery that is a favorite of many. A little consistency isn’t bad; just make sure it’s diced finely so the flavors don’t overpower the roll.
There’s very little debate surrounding the bun: top-split New England-style, because it cradles the meat, as opposed to opening up like a book for it. The roll always has to be buttered thoroughly, using a butter knife and softened butter, and griddled to perfection. Wright sums it up best for us:
"New England split-top rolls have flat, crustless sides that butter and grill beautifully, sort of like Texas toast on a hinge. Grilling brings out the bun's mild sweetness and warms it just enough to make a pleasing contrast to the cold lobster."
Ready to make your own lobster roll? Read on to see recipes for inspiration.
Thanks to the top-split bun, lobster rolls can be pretty flexible with the amount of meat they require. Some like to be specific, like Holden, who says they add ¼-pound of meat to their rolls every time they make them, and others are less specific, saying that the amount is "an ice cream scoop size." If you want to do it true Maine-style, like Wright would do, it's all of the meat from a 1 ½ pound lobster. A good rule of thumb is to make sure the roll doesn’t topple over when left alone, and of course, you’ll want to be able to get your mouth around it.
"In 1997 when Pearl opened, you could only get lobster rolls in East Coast beach towns. Often they weren’t very good. So, I used the best ingredients to get the best product: steaming our lobsters every morning; using the whole lobster in the salad not just claws and knuckles; Hellmann’s mayonnaise (too expensive for the average lobster shack); and the now legendary Pepperidge Farm bun. No one used a Pepperidge Farm bun then. I had to arrange special deliveries, just to get them. You will hear way too much smack talk on what makes the best lobster roll: claw versus tail meat, hot versus cold, lobster salad with mayo mixed in or just swiped on the bun. You should make what YOU like. I did!"
— Rebecca Charles
There is nothing fancy about a lobster roll; they were invented on the side of the road. I think my secret is steaming the lobster in a salty bath and never tossing out the lobster liquids that are in the shells. Save every last drop. That liquid is like lobster extract . . . or lobster flavor on steroids. Trust Dr. Klaw on this one.
"One time at our friend Julie’s house on Cape Cod, we loaded a couple of boxes up with lobsters and settled in for a fun weekend of cooking. That evening we feasted on nothing but freshly steamed lobster with plenty of melted butter. Our eyes bigger than our stomachs, we had lots of lobster meat and butter left over, so we combined the two and put them in the refrigerator. The next day, we decided to make lobster rolls for lunch. We pulled the lobster out and were admonished by Julie for "ruining" the lobster meat by soaking it overnight in butter. It seems that a proper New Englander would only make her sandwich with lobster meat and mayonnaise — nothing more. Not ones to waste perfectly good food, we pulled the lobster out of the now hardened butter and tossed it with celery, salt, pepper, and mayonnaise. We toasted the buns in a little bit of fried butter and made the BEST lobster rolls any of us had EVER had. Our friends on Fire Island think so, too."
— Mike and Jeff, authors of The Fire Island Cookbook
"The best lobsters are harvested from the icy cold waters of the North Atlantic. At Legal Sea Foods, we intentionally include all the meat — the tail, claws and knuckles in the lobster roll — because it offers the full experience of a lobster and delivers the different flavors and textures of the meat. I use a light dressing to complement the lobster, not overpower or detract from it. What makes it ideal is the combination of the lobster's sweetness, the brininess from the sea, creamy mayo, crunchy celery, and a warm toasted bun. It's quintessential New England comfort food."
— Rich Vellante, executive chef Legal Sea Foods
The Gagnon family is nice enough to share a few simple guidelines for building their lobster roll, but we thought that it should be visualized. We asked They Draw & Cook to sketch out exactly what Red’s famous roll should look like. The Gagnon family claims the secret to their roll is using more lobster meat then what’s found in a 1-pound shell, and serving the mayonnaise on the side.