Real Food Encyclopedia | Lobster
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 succulent and elegant and — who would have guessed it? — closely related to the cockroach.
Fun Facts about Lobster:
- Lobsters are closely related to insects, spiders and snails and, like their creepy relatives, are part of the scientific phylum, Arthropoda. 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.
What to Look for When Buying Lobster
There are two types of lobsters: cold and warm water varieties. The classic red crustaceans on your lobster bib are the cold water Homarus americanus, also known as American lobster, Atlantic 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 most the “lobster tails” sold at the retail level, as that is the only edible part of their body.
Lobster Life Cycle
In their initial “plankton” stage, baby lobsters are microscopic in size and float wherever the tide takes them. The juveniles go through several moltings over their first month before settling on the ocean floor to become bottom dwellers. Their small size makes them vulnerable to attack, so they spend about four years hiding before they are big 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.
The health of lobster fisheries relies heavily on allowing its 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.
When shopping for live 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. 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.
Sustainability of Lobster
Most lobster are 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 by-catch (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 by-catch 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 United States, per 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.
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.
In the US, 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.
Lobster and Geography
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.
On American shores, lobsters were once 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. But mostly they turned lobsters into their fields as fertilizer. Early American colonists 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 culinary place through the 17th and 18th centuries, until train travel picked up in popularity and train operators started to feed their travelers a “rare” delicacy called lobster, which was cheap to procure and 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 journeys’ end, thus beginning lobsters’ culinary rise.
Fresh water will kill lobsters, so never try to store them in a bucket or tank of tap water. Lobsters can survive outside of water for up to 48 hours. Store them in the refrigerator and cover with seaweed or wet newspaper to keep them damp but not wet.
Cooking with Lobster
Lobsters are most often boiled or steamed 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. If you are just getting your lobsters home, you can put them in the freezer for fifteen to twenty minutes. Place the lobster upside down on a 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.
If you can resist dunking your lobster in butter, it’s 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 Vitamins E, B-12 and B-6.