In Search of the Best Lobster Roll from Boston, MA to Portland, ME

What can the home cook learn from this when cooking lobster?

Selecting a live lobster

Selecting a live lobster

  • If you can’t get seawater, replicate it as much as possible using sea salt and fresh water. The closest mixture is 4 ounces of sea salt per gallon of water. Don’t use table salt or kosher salt. Remember, you can add a little more salt if you would like since you won’t over-brine it. Use mineral water, not tap water, and bring to room temperature. Slowly add the salt, stirring constantly until fully dissolved. Let stand 10 minutes and stir again to assure all salt is dissolved.
  • Add some natural ingredients to the water to amp up the flavor. Your fishmonger might be able to help with seaweed, shells, and bones and let them come together before steaming the lobster. As Steve says, the vat of water is like a broth.
  • Shell your lobster while it’s hot and don’t rinse it in tap water; you’ll wash away the flavor.
  • Leave all of the natural goodness on the lobster. The white blood is incredibly flavorful, so don’t clean it off thinking it will make your dish pretty. It’s all about taste and the white blood (the frothy white substance) adds lots of flavor.
  • If you’re going to make a lobster roll, use a basic roll with not too much flavor. Remember, it’s all about the lobster meat.
  • For a lobster roll, be sure to include some of each part of the lobster as they have a different mouth feel, texture ,and taste.
  • As mentioned, serve the lobster meat hot and not chilled. This is called Connecticut Style. Maine Style rolls are served chilled.
  • Chilling the meat seems to diminish the flavor and also creates a problem if you pour warm butter over the cold lobster. Warm butter on cold lobster congeals. If you do decide to serve it chilled, Maine Style, you’ll most likely want to add mayo and seasonings to amp up the flavor.

If you are preparing a whole lobster, consider shipping in fresh lobster and then follow the same directions. When you open the lobster, remove the blood vein from the tail and if there is roe, you can remove it and clean the meat that may be stained from the roe, with sea salt brined water. Do not rinse the lobster in cold tap water.

What did we find eating lobster rolls up and down the coast of Maine?

Two Light's Lobster Roll with mayo

Two Light’s Lobster Roll with mayo

We could really taste the difference in the lobster each place we stopped. Some shacks mix lots of mayo in their lobster roll. Some add a large dollop of mayo on top with paprika, Old Bay, and pickles to season and add a little crunch or you can order it with melted butter, or both. Some added a little Tabasco sauce to give a little zing. Some use a bed of shredded lettuce and garnished with celery, scallions, or chives. Some chopped their lobster meat while others pulled the meat in large chunks. (Steve says that using metal from a knife on fresh lobster leaves a residual taste and that’s why he pulls the meat.) Some serve it hot and some serve it cold. It really was surprising to find so many different styles and combinations.

How to shell a lobster

How to shell a lobster

We encountered several well-known shacks where the meat was bland. Often, those locations used lots of seasonings to dress it up. The bland meat was most likely due to using tap water or rinsing the meat or chilling the meat after it had been cooked.

Farnham's Lobster Roll - our least favorite

Farnham’s Lobster Roll – our least favorite

Concerning those fries or onion rings that often accompany the lobster roll, our preference was the double fried, medium hand cut potato fries, though most use crinkle fries. The onion rings competed for flavor against the lobster roll. Obviously, this is personal preference but we believe, keep it simple and keep it delicious.

And what about the bun? The bun is usually a side cut New England style hot dog bun. Rather than the rounded edges typically found on ball park hot dog buns, the New England cut is rectangular with squared-off edges. Maybe we’re just traditionalists, but we liked the New England side cut bun the best. We also liked the bun slightly grilled. It held the lobster meat in place while providing that quintessential lobster roll look and an easy way to take a bite without losing the lobster meat from the sides. Regardless of size or shape, fresh baked won out. Rolls that were too soft (think Wonder Bread-style of white bread) lacked structure and filled the mouth with sticky breading. We also tasted some that use a brioche style bun (a little sweet), but found it competed with the lobster flavor.

It seems like every food magazine and related TV show is producing a list of the best Lobster Rolls in New England. We did a quick search and came up with more than a dozen such lists in just the past year. We taste tested more than a dozen lobster rolls at some of the most well-known and publicized shacks up and down the coast of Maine and while eating lobster is probably a lot like sex in that when it’s good it’s great and when it’s average it’s still really good, you’ll have to decide which lobster roll turns you on. Maybe it’s the ambiance, the person you’re with, or some uniqueness about the flavor. We preferred the clean rich taste of fresh picked naturally brined and flavored lobster.

Eventide's Lobster Roll in Portland

Eventide’s Lobster Roll in Portland

However, we did have one truly unique lobster roll experience. Eventide’s brown butter lobster roll served on a steamed bun (which was something like Momofuku meats Maine). Located in Portland, Maine, Eventide offers an outstanding seafood menu with dozens of different fresh oysters on the raw bar and their spin on the lobster roll is sure to have a fan following.

Oysters at Eventide

Oysters at Eventide

In Part II, we will explore the best fried clams and discover a treasure map to the best clam beds.

Note – The top photo is the Lobster Roll at The Clam Box – Ipswich, MA.

∗ Photo credit – The images from The Clam Shack were taken by Daryl Getman.

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