Ask any good Mainer how to cook a lobster and they will tell you, “Cook it till it’s done.” Us Mainers tend to have a sarcastic, dry, honest sense of humor, especially Maine lobstermen.
But when you really push for cooking instructions regarding our most famous crustacean, you’ll find that us Mainers, well, we’re not all on the same page.
Tradition & Sustainability
According to the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, “Maine Lobster is one of the oldest continuously operated industries in North America, with the first documented catch dating back to English settlers in the 1600s.” It was initially eaten mostly by people along the coast because it was available, and it didn’t become a popular food until much later.
The commercial Maine lobster fishery was established in the 1840s and in 1954 the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) was founded; it is the oldest and largest fishing industry association on the east coast. The MLA represents about 1200 members and works diligently to sustain the industry and resources.
In 1995 the lobster industry in Maine introduced a new type of management called “co-management” or zone councils. This new management determined that authority over the industry would lie with both the fishermen and government agencies. There were seven zones established (A through G), and each zone maintains its own policy council made up of local lobstermen and elected leaders and within these zone councils, lobstermen co-manage a number of regulations.
The history of the industry, proud heritage and multiple layers of management make the lobster industry one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world. Maine lobstermen have to constantly adapt to a changing ocean and efforts to conserve other species that live there.
Maine lobster, Homarus americanus (American lobster), has two claws, a carapace, and a tail and when you buy fresh Maine lobster from your local fisherman or neighborhood market, it’s still alive. It’s one of the last types of food people have to slaughter before consuming. This is not appetizing for everyone and there are methods that have been suggested that theoretically make the lobster more comfortable before it is cooked. Some say you can put a lobster to sleep by balancing it on his head. Others swear by putting them in the freezer. Chefs often stab the lobster by cutting the lobster down the carapace with a chef’s knife.
But the science says that lobsters do not feel pain. Perhaps the most humane way to begin the cooking process of a lobster is to handle it with care and just drop it in the pot quickly.
To band or not to band.
Lobsters are cannibalistic and they also have very strong claws. Because of this when the commercial lobster fishery came to fruition lobstermen needed to find a way to prevent lobsters from eating each other and from biting the people that tried to pick them up. (Lobstermen call being pinched by a claw being “bit.”) The original mechanism was a wooden plug that was placed in the middle of the claw and prevented the lobster from being able to open and close.
In the 1980s as the lobster industry continued to grow and lobsters were shipped globally a new method for ensuring that lobsters did not bite each other (and inevitably die) was needed so the elastic band was created. During this time, the bands were made out of rubber and if a lobster was cooked with the bands on it would permeate the water and meat and leave a strong rubbery taste behind.
In the past couple of decades, the band used to disable a feisty lobster has been made with a synthetic non-latex rubber in order to make them last longer with the added effect that they no longer make lobsters taste like rubber.
But so many people still argue that the bands must be removed before cooking the lobster.
At this point, whether someone chooses to remove the bands from a lobster before cooking is totally personal and the gesture is more of a nod to tradition than it is to preserving flavor. For people who are unfamiliar with cooking lobsters, it’s likely best to keep the bands on to limit the risk of being bitten by a lobster.
To steam or to boil?
Now that you’ve decided to have lobsters for dinner, and you’ve decided whether or not you are going to take the bands off, it’s time to cook the lobsters. But, do you steam them or do you boil them?
Most Mainers agree: You steam them. But, there are some chefs that argue boiling the lobster is better for some preparations.
Before we go too much further, though, there’s one other thing to consider. Do you steam them with seaweed, salted or unsalted water, or what about beer or ocean water? One person on Facebook said, “I boil water with a bottle of beer, throw lobsters in bands on, [and] eat!” My grandfather used to do this, too. Rather than steaming the lobsters in water, he swore by steaming lobsters in a pot with a bottle of beer.
Whether or not you use ocean water or salted water is again a preference. Lobsters have quite a bit of ocean water underneath their shells and when they are steamed, it allows the lobsters to be cooked in their own juices, or what many Mainers call the liquor.
Seaweed is used at the bottom of a pot to keep lobsters up and out of any water. Many pots specifically for cooking lobsters come with an insert or rack that keeps the lobsters or clams or whatever you are steaming out of the water.
When steaming lobsters, add two inches of water to a pot, cover, and wait for the steam to start rolling out from under the cover. Then place the lobsters on the pot and cover. (Make sure to add the lobsters in claws first to avoid the tail flipping and splashing hot water out of the pot.)
When boiling lobsters, the method is not that much different. Fill a pot with water and let it come to a boil. Then, add the lobsters in claw first.
How long do you cook them?
The nice thing about most seafood preparations, including lobsters, is when you overcook it, it will still taste good but likely be a bit dry (fish) or rubbery (shellfish).
Once the lobsters are in the pot it’s time to watch the clock. The lobsters will turn red somewhat quickly, but that doesn’t mean they are done. For two lobsters it should take about 10–12 minutes. For four lobsters, about 12–15 minutes. One trick Mainers use is to check the antennae. If you pull an antenna from the lobster and it pops off easily, the lobsters are done. If you have to tug a bit, let them cook for a little bit longer.
You can let your lobsters rest and cool, or you can throw them in some ice. I prefer letting them rest because I don’t want any freshwater to dilute the juices (or liquor) underneath the shell.
Don’t forget the poop.
Mainers often watch cooking shows in horror as someone picks a lobster clean and proceed to put the tail into their mouth, without having first deveined it. The black vein (poop) can be found in the tail of the lobster and should be removed, along with any red bread (eggs) or tomalley. (Although, many old-timers love to spread the tomalley on toast.)
Serve with warm, melted butter. Or bread. Or mayo. Or like the previous set of instructions however you’d like because there doesn’t seem to be just one way.
After posting about cooking Maine lobster on Aragosta Mama, I sought input from friends, family, and followers, “How do you cook your lobsters?” It quickly became apparent that many preparations were based in preference and tradition, and that Maine lobster can endure quite a few different preparations: Steamed or boiled; with or without bands; salted or unsalted water; and, anywhere from 10–20 minutes depending on size, the firmness of the shell, and with whom you’re speaking.
Here are some of the comments from social media.
Steam never boil! I always take the bands off but know lots of people who don’t. Couple inches of Budweiser in the bottom of the pot. Cook till red if the antenna comes off easy they’re done. No rinse after just serve with butter and enjoy! (Born and raised on the island of Vinalhaven, Maine)
Steam. When done turn them on their backs on a cookie sheet and refrigerate. Once cold serve with hot butter.
I’m a Maine native❤️ Steam always, salt pot, add a stick of butter and remove bands. About 9–10 minutes per pound. I don’t put them in cold water after. Enjoy!
Use very little water and add lots of sea salt. Cook 1 1/2 lbs and over 20 minutes. Crack outside and drain them before plating.
I steam them outside in a large pot with a little water. No idea how long… Never time, just until an antenna can pop off.
1/2 and 1/2 ocean water to fresh water. The stock in the claws is to die for!
I worked part-time at a restaurant kitchen and they had a continuous “ boiling pot” they’d throw the lobsters in and when they floated they were done.
Put it on the grill wrapped in seaweed to steam.