“The best-laid plans of mice and men / Go oft awry” – Robert Burns
As an amateur homecook there are certain levels of failure I’ve come to expect. I know that I’m going to butcher a fish filet here and there. I know any time I say we’re eating at 8pm, we’re probably not eating until 11. I know some flavor or texture is going to be missing which will compromise the intended design of a dish I’ve researched. I get that, it’s to be expected and my friends are well aware these shortcomings are part letting me take over a kitchen. God knows why they still let me take the reigns.
But one thing I have learned many times over, is to never, EVER trust an internet recipe. And yes, I’m well aware of the irony of a food blogger making that statement. Be skeptical. Trust no one. Don’t even trust me. And when you do drop your guard to see if someone can actually give you usable instructions, try it on yourself or a small group with cheap ingredients.
So when Sparkles and I decided we should rally our gang together for a good ol’ New England Lobster Fest, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking by ignoring my own advice. I figured doing a lobster bake would be interesting, fun and easier than individually boiling 8 lobsters. Fool that I am.
If you do want to steam a lobster(s) you need a lot of steam and pressure so that they will cook quickly and all the way through. Julia Child recommends putting a weight on the pot lid to pressure cook the lobster even faster. This is not a job for mild, half ass heat. If you’re still worried you may not have the right equipment just use the biggest pot you have, bring the water to a furious boil and add your lobsters (a couple at a time) head first to the water for 10-12 minutes depending on their size. Remove and cool.
The classic lobster bake, while frustrating, is still one of those indulgent events that does not fade quickly from memory. It’s an event that when done well is simply what I live for. When done poorly, it’s still an afternoon of friends, drinks and all the lobster you can eat. Tread delicately, but tread. What follows is a cautionary tail.
8-10 live lobsters (ideally 1.5 lbs each)
8-10 shucked ears of corn
5 lbs. quartered red potatoes pre-blanched in salted water
1 bottle dry white wine
6 lbs seaweed
enameled metal bin (about 16 gallons)
What we thought would be a good idea for the heat source was a good ol’ fashioned fire pit. Just a hole, a bag of coals, and a few bricks to insulate and elevate the pot while we played beer pong. Couldn’t be more simple right? I should know by now, thinking that though is an automatic jinx. The best tools, the best ingredients and the best intentions don’t equal good cooking if you don’t have a reliable heat source.
What we did: Dug a hole and surround that hole tightly with bricks. It seems silly now thinking back on it, but the importance of air being able to reach the coals was not our top concern.
What should be done: We did figure out that using 1/2 of the bricks so that there were large gaps between each brick will ensure air flow and stokability. The bricks help retain the heat, but in this case, concentrating the highest heat possible is priority # 1.
What we did: Emptied half a bag of quick lighting coal into the pit and lit. Later adding the 2nd half of the bag in an attempt to increase the heat.
What should have been done: Whole bag, normal strong burning coals, three layers of coals deep; in other words, make it crazy fucking hot. Normal coals emit more heat and retain heat longer than the quick light variety, so don’t skimp on this part. If you have a charcoal chimney to maximize stoking even better.
So there were a few flaws in our cooking method, but the truth is, even if we had done everything “right” that doesn’t mean the lobsters would have come out perfectly. While steaming tends to be one of the best methods to cook whole lobsters, to do it properly, you need a lot of steam and a lot heat.
If you are able to create a pit capable of steaming a bin full of lobsters and wine, the next step is layering your bake. A bed of 1/2 seaweed on the bottom, then your lobsters, then the clams, corn, potatoes and finally the rest of the seaweed. Use a wet towel to cover the whole bake pot.
It was a valiant effort but after 40 minutes of trying to generate enough heat to maintain a strong steam in our lobster bake bin, we ended up having to bring the pot inside and setting it over two stove burners on the highest heat possible for another 40 minutes. At long last, the steam was abundant, the lobsters turned red and the clams opened. Glorious.
Clarify some butter (melt 2 sticks of butter on low heat until milky solids and oil separate) and get your crackers/hammers out.
The lobster wasn’t perfect, a bit tough and chewy from the long slow cooktime, but a little butter, some cold beers and the carnal joy of tearing apart custracians with close friends on a lazy summer Sunday, how can I be that upset* the meal didn’t pan out as planned?
*Seriously though, don’t fuck with this method if you just dropped $225 on fresh lobsters unless you know what the hell you’re doing. Practice on crabs.