Homemade Lobster Rolls: Are They Worth It?

Summer is here and for many of us, myself included, that means it’s lobster roll season. During the summer, lobsters migrate closer to shore, where they’re easy to catch. A plentiful supply means lower prices, which is good news for anyone craving a lobster roll.

My first experience with a lobster roll was at a fishing shack in Newburyport, Massachusetts, when I was about 14. Before that, my family lived outside of Salt Lake City, where lobster rolls weren’t exactly easy to find at the time. I can still remember my parents’ excitement at the prospect of eating whole lobsters, served on a deck overlooking the ocean where they’d been caught. But I opted for the lobster roll, and the cold, sweet lobster meat, mixed with quality mayonnaise and a bit of celery on a toasted bun with the sides cut off, was a revelation.

But not everyone has access to a fish bar, and the price of restaurant meals shows no sign of coming down. In this context, it is worth asking how much effort it really takes to prepare a lobster at home. That’s the question I asked recently, and I discovered that the answer actually varies.

To make a lobster roll from scratch, like I did, you need live lobsters. How many? According to Michael Serpa, whose Little Whale oyster bar serves one of the best lobster rolls in Boston, “1 pound of lobster meat requires 4 pounds of lobster.”

A hearty lobster roll at a restaurant can contain up to 8 ounces of meat, but when I make one at home, it’s probably closer to 5 ounces. I start with two live lobsters and steam them in a 5-quart pot (for more lobsters, you’ll need a 5-quart pot). Add a few inches of heavily salted water to the bottom of the pot, bring to a boil, then add the lobsters head first. Listen for the water to boil again, then start your timer. I usually steam for about 9 to 10 minutes, until the tail temperature reaches 140 degrees. If you’re hesitant about submerging the live lobster in the pot, place it in a large bowl in your freezer for about 30 minutes, which will numb it.

Once the lobster is steamed and rested for a bit, it’s time for the hardest part: getting all that sweet meat out of the tail, claws, and body. “You need a sturdy chef’s knife and kitchen shears,” Serpa says. “But the kitchen shears are a little better at removing the meat from the tail.” When you remove the tail and cut it with scissors, he explains, “you’re less likely to have juices squirting everywhere. It’s a little less messy with the scissors, and you can get a nicer piece of the tail.”

After tackling the tail, Serpa recommends using “the little shellfish tools, the little tongs, for all that shank meat, because the shank meat is obviously a little harder to get out.” Personally, I use a very small fork (which was originally part of an oyster set) to remove the shank meat.

Serpa also advises against using your good knife for this. Instead, choose a “heavy-duty knife that you don’t really care about,” he says. “Especially when it comes to hard shells and you break the claws, you’re going to ruin the knife.”

Once the meat is removed (and the remaining shell saved for the broth), the fun part begins. If you like your lobster rolls cold, let the meat chill for about an hour, then toss it with your mayonnaise of choice and anything else you want to add, like chopped celery, celery seed, Old Bay seasoning. This is where you can customize the dish to your liking. “I like Hellmann’s mayonnaise, salt, cracked pepper, and then just lemon on top, chives,” says Serpa.

If you choose to make a hot lobster roll, Serpa offers some advice: “Put butter in a pan with the lobster and let it rise slowly, because if you let it rise too quickly, it breaks up and becomes oily. On the other hand, if you let it rise slowly with the lobster and the lobster juices come out, you get a very creamy butter lobster.”

As for the bread itself, Serpa recommends using a heartier loaf, “because it absorbs the butter better. But for cold weather, he likes a Pepperidge Farm loaf, toasted with a little butter.

If you don’t have access to fresh lobsters or don’t find cooking a whole lobster a satisfying challenge, it’s time to head to your local seafood counter or fish market to buy some hand-picked lobster meat. Sure, it’ll cost a bit more, but if you’re pressed for time, it’s a perfectly acceptable shortcut that even chefs sometimes take. A pound of meat can make three to four rolls, and it’ll still cost less than a lobster roll at many restaurants.

Another option? Crabmeat, equally sweet and delicate, is one of my favorite substitutes for a simple summer seafood roll, and it often costs a few dollars less per pound than lobster. It’s best served cold, with just a touch of mayonnaise and seasoning, on a toasted bun.

Making your own lobster rolls is definitely worth the time and effort to start from scratch and make your own at least once, if only to say you tried it. For me, it’s a fun, one-afternoon project with delicious results. But if you’re short on time and the craving strikes, just buy some lobster meat at the market and remember that there’s no wrong way to go about your favorite summer sandwich.

Tanya Edwards is a freelance writer based on the New England coast. Her work has appeared in The Boston GlobeRefinery29, CNN, Better homes and gardensFood Network and more.
Lily Fossett is a freelance illustrator based in Bath, UK. She has a passion for narrative representation in her illustrations and uses digital media to explore colour and texture.

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