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Maine Lobster 101

America loves Maine lobster, that claw-heavy creature with the snow-white flesh that seems made for melted butter. Tying on a bib and getting up close and personal with a whole boiled Maine lobster is the epitome of summer feasting for many. But when it comes to enjoying lobster, there's a world beyond boil-and-eat. The Southeast Asian flavors so popular today—think lemongrass, fish sauce, coconut milk and chilies—can give lobster a new attitude. It can upgrade a ceviche, fish tacos, chowder or a club sandwich. It elevates dishes to premium status, and its high perceived value boosts check averages as customers trade up from a chopped chicken salad to the same dish with Maine lobster.

Lobsters need to be kept alive until they're cooked to prevent deterioration. You can store them briefly in the walk-in or, if you're serious about lobster, you can invest in a tank.

In the walk-in: Ideally, you should cook  lobsters the same day they're delivered. However, you can keep them alive for an additional day if you pack them properly.

In the walk-in, keep lobsters as cold as possible in an open container such as a cardboard box. Pack them with seaweed or damp newspaper to keep them moist but not wet. Never store them on ice or in tap water; they will die.

In a tank: Nothing piques customers' appetites for lobster like a live lobster tank. If you are considering purchasing one, do your research and ask a lot of questions.

Maine lobsters are harvested year-round, but seasonal peaks and dips occur. As always, prices follow the market, rising with scarcity, dropping when stocks are high.

January-March: The lobsters are largely dormant so most harvesters stay home. Supplies are low and prices relatively high. During this period, many live lobsters come from pounds—enclosed tidal areas where lobsters caught earlier can be kept alive and healthy. Pounded lobsters are just as meaty and sweet as fresh-caught lobsters, although their shells may have a mossy appearance because there is less tidal action in a pound than in the ocean.

April: The water is warming, the lobsters are on the move and it's time to drop some traps.

May-June: Prime months for hard-shelled lobsters; quality is high and prices reasonable.

July-September: Molting time. Many lobsters will have new shells during this period, so hard shell prices rise. Maine lobsters are least expensive from the end of August to early November because that is when most lobsters are harvested.

October-December: Peak season for hard shells. Quality is as good as it gets.

Lobsters grow by molting. Baby lobsters molt several times a year, mature ones only once.

Many people like these “shedders” because they are easier to eat and their flavor is sweeter. You don't even need implements to crack them. They tend to be less expensive than hard-shell lobsters. Some chefs prefer hard shell lobsters for their fuller meat content.

Most aficionados say that male and female lobsters taste the same. But only the females have the "coral," or roe, the internal egg sac that turns a vivid coral color when cooked and enriches some recipes. If you use the coral, you'll need to learn how to recognize the females. 

Turn the lobster on its back and look at the swimmerets, the tiny flippers on its tail. The top pair of swimmerets are the reproductive organs. If hard, they're male. If soft and feathery, they're female.

Although harvesters can't keep lobsters showing fertilized eggs on their belly, many female lobsters contain internal, unfertilized eggs. These tiny dark eggs are near the upper part of the tail. You can remove them from a raw lobster and stir them into a sauce, or add the chopped cooked roe to a mayonnaise or vinaigrette.

Choose your size

Although some think smaller lobsters are sweeter and more tender, lobster authority and chef Jasper White says he notices no difference until the lobster surpasses five pounds. Selects usually cost more per pound because they are most in demand. If you aren't serving the lobster whole, consider buying the cheaper culls.

Live lobsters should be feisty, not sluggish, and they should feel heavy for their size. When you lift them, their tails should curl and they should flail at you with their claws. If their claws are droopy, send them back. 

Culls: lobsters missing a claw
Chickens: about 1 pound
Quarters: about 1-1/4 pounds
Selects: 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 pounds
Jumbos: over 2-1/2 pounds

What's the yield?

The yield of meat from a lobster can vary considerably with the season. In winter, when they're fleshiest, you might get close to a 25 percent yield. Soft-shell lobsters may yield much less and the price should reflect that. On average, you can expect about a 20 percent yield from a Maine lobster.

Soft shell

Yield range: 17-19%

Example:
1 lb live lobster yields 3.04 oz meat
1 lb meat: divide 16 oz by 3.04
Result: 5.26
Need 5.26 live weight to get 1 lb meat
Cost:
$ x/lb (live) x 5.26 = $__/lb meat
(based on 19% yield)

Hard shell

Yield range: 20-24%

Example:
1 lb live lobster yields 3.84 oz meat
1 lb meat: divide 16 oz by 3.84
Result: 4.17
Need 4.17 live weight to get 1 lb meat

Cost:
$ x/lb (live) x 4.17 = $__/lb meat
(based on 24% yield)

Fresh or frozen?

For chefs who need more stable pricing than the fresh product allows, frozen lobster makes great business sense. It's also a smart choice for operations that can't forecast demand with any certainty. In kitchens with high labor costs, frozen picked meat can offer real savings.

Many Maine lobster suppliers will ship fully cooked, frozen lobsters or lobster meat, or raw frozen tails. During soft-shell season (July through September), some companies prefer to ship only frozen lobsters because the fragile soft-shell lobsters don't live long enough out of the water.

For best texture, thaw frozen lobster tails or meat slowly in the refrigerator. Alternatively, you can boil raw frozen tails directly from the frozen state. You can also reheat cooked frozen lobster without thawing first. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, allowing 3 quarts of water per 1-1/2 to 2 pounds of lobster. Add 1/4 cup sea salt for each gallon of water. Add the frozen lobster and remove from the heat. Let stand 10 minutes for 1 to 2 lobsters, adding 5 minutes for each additional lobster up to four.

Frozen lobster offers several advantages beyond just stable pricing. One great benefit is that the lobster is processed, not just frozen, allowing the operator many more recipe options. To freeze whole cooked lobster, wrap individually and tightly in plastic wrap, then place in a heavy-duty freezer bag and expel all air.

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