Header image: Lobster Rolls from CHOW
The ideal place to enjoy a lobster roll, without question, is at a seafood shack down by the New England shore. I’m talking about the sort of place where you might just rub elbows with the lobstermen who caught the crustaceans you’re eating that same morning. If you’re further than shouting distance from the waters of Maine or Massachusetts, however, there’s no need to despair. Lots of restaurants have gotten on the lobster roll bandwagon, serving passable, if overly chef-ified versions of the summertime classic. Or if you’re willing to take matters into your own shell-cracking hands, you can make your own at home, toasted bun and all.
There are a few things to know before attempting a homemade lobster roll. Like all great sandwiches, there is an art and a fine balance to maintain within between those bready ends. Read on for a guide to the do’s and don’ts of lobster roll artisanry.
1. DO: Learn how to properly cook, crack, and clean a lobster
Lobster rolls are all about the lobster. Everything else is secondary. This may seem obvious, but the scores of not very good rolls out there prove how easy it is to lose sight of this fact. For the best tasting, sweetest, and plumpest meat, you’ll want to start with live, kicking and crawling lobsters. Frozen meat is pretty dull and feathery, while pre-cooked lobster from the store often gets rubbery and tough. Sure, the task of slaughtering, steaming, and breaking down a whole crustacean may seem like a lot of work for one itty bitty sandwich, but the results are well worth it. Our steamed lobster 101 will take you through the process from start to finish. Get our Basic Steamed Lobster recipe.
2. DON’T: Turn your lobster roll into lobster salad
After you’ve picked your meat out of the shell, it’s easy sailing, right? Not quite—one of the biggest no-nos you can commit is turning your lobster into a mushy, mince meat salad with teeny tiny pieces. You want to keep it extra-chunky, with very coarsely chopped meat—not so large that you have to tear at it with your teeth, but big enough that you can still appreciate each morsel’s tenderness. This means that you’ll want to use only the tail, claw, and knuckle meat. Save the heads, smaller walking legs, and leftover shells for making a lobster stock.
3. DO: Keep your seasonings simple
Sorry, but a wasabi-ginger-bacon lobster roll is enough to make any true seafarer groan. The classic Connecticut-style roll is the simple standard for how to do it right: butter, herbs, salt and pepper to season. That’s it. You barely even need a recipe for it, although ours will certainly help you keep things on track. Get our Lobster Rolls recipe.
4. DON’T: Go overboard on the mayo and other dressings
The only acceptable alternative to the butter-dressed roll is a New England-style one with just a smidge of mayo and a sprinkle of finely diced celery. Seriously, a smidge and a sprinkle. The mayo shouldn’t overwhelm the meat or create a gloopy, creamy mess, while the celery is there to add just a hint of crunch. And forget your flavored mayos—the simple old plain variety will do just fine. Get our New England Lobster Rolls recipe.
5. DO: Butter and toast your buns
Some purists argue that the only acceptable vehicle for a lobster roll is a top-split white bread hot dog bun, the kind that is flat on the sides. We won’t go so far as to tell you that, but it is important that regardless of what bread you use, it should be liberally buttered and toasted. That gently-browned flavor is an essential complement to the meat inside. If you like to DIY it, our homemade hot dog buns are a fine choice—you can carefully trim a slice off the sides of each roll for a faux top-split finish, then butter up those surfaces and toast ‘em in a pan. Get our Hot Dog Buns recipe.
6. DON’T: Get too precious with the bread
You may not have to use a top-split roll, but there should be a few ground rules when choosing the bread with which you’re going to swaddle all that precious meat. It should be substantial enough so as not to fall limp under the weight of your fillings, but not so hefty or crusty that it distracts from what’s inside. An eggy brioche or a potato roll might pass muster. This isn’t the time to break out your seed and nut-encrusted, fifteen-grain bread recipes, though—anything too strongly flavored is just going to be a distraction. If we wanted to get creative with our lobster roll bread, we might opt for something like these tender pretzel rolls. Get our Soft Pretzel Rolls recipes.
7. DO: Remember the pickles and chips
Lobster rolls may look humble and rustic, but in actuality they’re one of the more decadent things you can eat. Amazingly sweet and succulent flesh coated in butter/mayo and plopped in a bun coated in more butter? That’s pretty freakin’ rich. There’s a reason why they almost always come with a pickle and chips (preferably in a flavor like salt and vinegar): to cut through all that fat and provide a bit of palate-cleansing respite between bites. While you’re out shopping for those clawed friends you’ll be bringing home, make sure to pick up a jar of dill spears and some crispy spuds. Or better yet, make your own. Get our Garlic Dill Pickles recipe.
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.