Is Making Your Own Lobster Rolls Worth It?

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

My first experience with a lobster roll was at a sea shack in Newburyport, Massachusetts, when I was about 14 years old. Before that, my family lived outside of Salt Lake City, where it wasn’t exactly easy to find a lobster roll at the time. I can still remember how excited my parents were to have whole lobsters, served on a deck overlooking the ocean they’d been fished from. But I went for the roll, and the cold, sweet lobster meat, tossed in a quality mayonnaise with a little bit of celery on a toasted bun with the sides cut off, was a revelation.

But not everyone has access to a sea shack, and the price of dining out shows no signs of going down. With that in mind, it’s worth asking how much effort it really takes to make a lobster roll at home. This was the question that I recently asked, and the answer, I found, actually varies.

To make a lobster roll from scratch, which I have done, 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 takes 4 pounds of lobster.”

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

After the lobster is steamed and rests a bit, you get to the challenging part: picking all that sweet meat from the tail, claws, and body. “You need a heavy-duty chef knife and kitchen shears,” Serpa says. “But the kitchen shears just let you get the tail meat out a little bit nicer.” When you take off the tail and cut it with shears, he explains, “it’s less likely to shoot juice all over the place. It’s a little less messy with the shears and you can get a nicer piece of the tail out.”

After tackling the tail, Serpa recommends using “the little shellfish tools, the little tongs sort of things, for all that knuckle meat because the knuckle meat’s obviously a little bit tougher to get out.” I personally use a very small fork (originally part of an oyster set) to pull out the knuckle meat.

Serpa also warns not to use your good knife for this; instead, choose a “heavy-duty knife that you don’t really care too much about,” he says. “Especially when they’re hard shells and you’re cracking the claws, you’re going to fuck the knife up.”

Once the meat is picked out (and the shell remnants are stashed for stock), the fun part starts. If you like a cold lobster roll, chill the meat for about an hour, then toss it with a mayonnaise of your choosing and whatever else you’d like to add — such as chopped celery, celery seeds, Old Bay seasoning. This is where you customize to make it your own. “I like Hellmann’s mayo, salt, cracked pepper, and then just lemon on top, chives,” says Serpa.

If you choose to go the warm lobster roll route, Serpa has some advice: “Put butter in a pan with the lobster and bring it up slowly, because if you bring it up too fast, it sort of breaks, then it turns oily. Whereas if you bring it up slowly with the lobster and the lobster juices come out, it becomes nice, creamy butter lobster.”

As for the roll itself, Serpa recommends using a heartier bread, “because it kind of soaks up the butter more. But for cold, he likes a Pepperidge Farm roll, toasted up with some butter.

If you don’t have access to fresh lobsters, or don’t view cooking a whole lobster as a satisfying challenge, then time to head to your seafood counter or local fish shop to pick up some picked lobster meat. Obviously, this will cost a bit more, but if you’re pressed for time it’s a totally acceptable shortcut, one that even chefs sometimes take. A pound of meat can make three to four rolls, and it will still cost less than one lobster roll at many restaurants.

Another option? Equally sweet and delicate crab meat is one of my favorite swaps for a simple summer seafood roll, and it’s often a few dollars less per pound than lobster. It works best cold, with just just a touch of mayonnaise and seasoning, on a toasted roll.

Making your own lobster rolls is absolutely worth the time and effort of starting from scratch and cooking your own at least once, if only to say you tried it. For me, it’s a fun afternoon project that leads to delicious results. But if time is short and the craving strikes, just pick up some lobster meat at the market, and remember that there is no wrong path to follow to a favorite summer sandwich.

Tanya Edwards is a freelance writer based in coastal New England. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Refinery29, CNN, Better Homes & Gardens, Food Network and more.
Lily Fossett is a freelance illustrator based in Bath, U.K. She has a passion for portraying narrative in her illustrations and uses digital media to explore color and texture.

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