This column was originally published on January 26th, 2013.
Somewhere along the way, lobster became the symbol of gustatory luxury. You picture your stereotypical Person Of Means sitting down to a feast—me, I always picture olde-tymey plutocrats in top hats and tails, monocled, even the women and babies, because my experience of society's upper class begins and ends on the side of a jar of peanuts—and they are picking daintily at steaming red lobsters plated artfully atop beds of garnish greens, as stoic manservants bustle hither and yon with, oh, decanters of wine or goblets of molten gold or some shit, look, it's not the most detailed fantasy ever, OK? Anyway there are lots of lobsters in it, and in yours, too, or just humor me for a second, for chrissakes.
Or, imagine your stereotypical family of modest means, treating themselves to a nice dinner in their humble town's fanciest restaurant (back in the day when their humble town's fanciest restaurant would not have been a Cheesecake Factory, but rather some ridiculous little joint out on the main drag with a faux-French name like L'Auberge Chez Uncle Ted), and they are making naughty little conspiratorial faces at each other, eyes gleaming mischievously, and saying, "Ooh, let's get the lobster!" And then Dad is sizing them all up and saying, "Ah, what the heck, we've earned it, eh, gang?" And the kids are saying, "Yay! Lobster!" and high-fiving each other, and by now it has occurred to you that I have no idea how real people live or have ever lived.
Look, the point here is that lobster's place in the common American conception of foodstuffs is as a great and fancy indulgence that costs a lot of money but is worth it because of how much tastier it is than everything else. And, friends, that's a bunch of bullshit.
The truth about lobster is this: It is less flavorful, less sweet, more bland and chickenlike than virtually any of the other edible crustaceans. It is also a lot more expensive than most of them, and if you're cooking it at home, it is furthermore easier to fuck up. The primary selling point of the lobster—and one hell of a selling point it must be, since it sells so many lobsters at such high prices—is that its meat comes in larger, more easily extracted hunks than can be found in, for example, Chesapeake blue crabs, which, factually, are the most delicious things the world has produced or will ever produce, but which are approximately as onerous to consume as a large box full of live ferrets.
And of these assorted enormous hunks of lobster meat, none is larger or more pleasant to eat than the tail, which is why it is far and away the most popular portion of the lobster, and why a split, frozen, and packaged lobster tail can sometimes be more expensive than multiple whole, living lobsters. The problem is that, although the tail is tastier than the lobster's claws or any of the frightening viscera to be found inside its thorax, getting it right in your own kitchen is still a dodgy proposition. There's a vanishingly small window between the states of disgustingly raw and absolutely indistinguishable from a bicycle tire, except for its coloration through which the lobster tail must pass in order to taste pleasant enough to not make you feel awful about how much money you spent on it.
Inexplicably, the standard method for cooking lobster tails is to steam them, which yields a boring, flabby, bland result that tastes like nothing so much as nothing. Grilling tails has become a common preparation for people who don't like seafood but do like the idea of eating something as symbolic of extravagance as lobster; grilled lobster is wonderful if you enjoy chicken, but enjoy chicken even more when you've traded your child's college education for it. These are the most popular methods for cooking lobster not because they yield the best results, but because they are simple and involve no technique more complicated than putting the lobster tail in a hot place, setting a timer, and then not being abducted by aliens in the interval before it beeps; this way, when the lobster turns out disappointing, you can easily shift the blame to your clock, and bash it to atoms with a sledgehammer.
This is perhaps a little bit hyperbolic. Lobster is very rarely bad. What it very often is, though, is boring and unexceptional enough to make its cost seem absurd and offensive, and its purchaser seem stupid and wasteful. There are two things you must do to avoid this dismal fate.
The first is to cram your ego down into a drawer and buy small lobster tails instead of gaudy enormous ones. This will be extremely difficult to do if your reason for buying lobster is to prove to someone—your date, your in-laws, yourself—that you are Some Kind Of A Big-Shot, but you must do it. A nigh-infallible truth of seafood is that in nearly all cases, smaller specimens are tastier and more delicately textured than larger ones, and lobster is no exception. Buy small. Or, if you must buy big, buy big and small, cook both, taste both, and see for yourself that I am right and you are a dumbass.
The second is to forget about the no-work preparations and butter-poach your lobster tails. Yes, butter-poaching takes effort, at the beginning at least. Yes, it involves French words. Yes, undertaking it puts you and not your clock on the hook if you fuck things up. The good news is that, unless you literally do not know how to operate your stove or you decide that it will be a great idea to add some vegemite to the recipe or you attempt this procedure while your home is simultaneously being fumigated with toxic pesticides, you really cannot fuck things up.
And, if you do, you really cannot blame me. Let's get started.
Long before you do anything else, you'll need to thaw your pair of lobster tails to room temperature (assuming you bought frozen lobster tails, which you likely did unless you live in Maine or foolishly bought entire live lobsters, instructions for the dispatching of which I will not be providing). There are a couple of acceptable ways to do this; a good rule of thumb is that the more slowly they thaw, the fresher they'll seem when thawed. The best way to do it is to put your tails in a covered bowl or pan and sock this vessel into your refrigerator early a whole day before you plan to cook. If this isn't an option, wrap the tails tightly in plastic wrap, put them in a bowl, and stick the bowl under a cold tap. This is still going to take an hour or more, depending on how big the tails are, and it might yield slightly tougher, more rubbery meat, but it'll bail you out if you forgot to thaw them in the fridge overnight.
So your lobster tails are thawed, which is to say that they're no longer frozen. You still have to get them all the way to room temperature. That's easy: put them on the countertop for, oh, I dunno, a while, and be patient. You don't want to cook them while they're still cold, and you definitely don't want to try to speed up the process by holding them in the warm fumes wafting from your car's exhaust, even if that seems like a good idea, you very dumb person.
Now your lobster tails have made their slow way to room temperature (don't go stabbing them with digital thermometers or anything to be sure—if their meat is soft and not cold to the touch anywhere along their length, they're likely fine); the next step is to extract the gelatinous blobs of semi-translucent horror from their shells. This will be much easier (although still a little bit of an annoying chore) if you had the wisdom to buy the kinds of frozen lobster tails that have already had their shells split lengthwise prior to freezing. You'll just pry them open with your fingers, grumble "Motherfuck!" a few times as the jagged shells poke your sensitive fingertips, and be done in a minute. If you had the misfortune of bringing home fully intact lobster tails, you're going to have to do the maddening work of hacking through the shell with a heavy, sharp knife, without inadvertently bisecting its contents, and then extracting the meat, rinsing it under cold water, and using a small knife to open it up and extract the intestine with your fingers, with my bare fingers, oh man I don't know if I can do this, this is so fucking disgusting.
You could have had steak. Nobody held a gun to your head. Unless somebody did, which is a matter for the authorities.
So now your lobster tails are sitting there on your cutting board or countertop or other staging surface, all flabby and gross and ready to be cooked. It's time to boil a tablespoon or two of tap water in a small pot or saucepan, even though that seems like a completely ridiculous thing to do. I'm supposed to boil this? you'll think, looking at the pathetic sprinkling of water scattered across the surface of your pan. Shit'll evaporate before it even gets there! No, it won't. Go ahead and bring it to a boil, then bring the heat way down to low so that it doesn't boil away to nothing.
Now, working one tablespoon-sized square at a time and taking no breaks for your poor aching wrist, whisk two or three sticks worth of unsalted butter into the water in your pan.
(A note, here: The amount of butter you use will depend on how big your lobster tails are, and, more importantly, how wide your saucepan is. You'll need to end up with enough melted butter to cover your lobster tails when they are added to the pan; a good way to measure this is to set the lobster tails in the pan before it has been heated up, cover them with water, then remove the tails and either measure how much water is in the pan, or eyeball it or draw a mark on the side of the pan indicating the depth of the water or whatever the hell. Or you could just use a really obscene amount of butter, to leave no uncertainty. Point is, you're gonna need quite a bit of unsalted butter. You'll need less if you use a smaller pan, but don't get cute: If the pan is toosmall, the lobster tails will be all smushed against each other in there and there won't be enough room for each of them to poach in butter. You want a pan big enough to give the tails some space, but not so big that you need to use 500 pounds of butter in order to submerge the fuckers.)
Four things are very important, here: 1) The heat under your pan must be very low throughout this process (not quite the lowest setting on the stove, but close; you want to keep your butter between 160 and 180 degrees, if possible). 2) The butter you use must be genuinely cold when you add it to the pan. 3) You must add only one tablespoon-or-so-sized hunk of butter at a time. 4) You must not stop whisking for longer than the time it takes you to wag your whisking hand, run it through your hair, and mutter, "I fucking hate this shit."
What you're doing here is creating an emulsion of the constituent parts of butter: water, milk solids, and milk fat. In short, it's butter that has melted without breaking down, at temperatures at which butter would typically break down. The French call it beurre monté, the bastards, and it is glorious. Done correctly it looks not like melted butter, but like liquid butter—the exact same color and opacity as solid butter, only liquid instead of solid. You added the butter cold and you whisked it constantly so that it wouldn't be able to get hot enough to separate before you'd beaten it into an emulsification. It's a lot of annoying, tiring work, especially if you have carpal tunnel syndrome like everyone in the world, but it's worth it. Just you wait and see. Keep whisking. When you've melted the last of the butter, turn the heat all the way down to its lowest setting, if it wasn't already there.
So now all your butter has melted without separating. It is warm in the pan, but not especially hot—I'm not going to advise that you do so, but you could probably stick your finger in there and not get burned. It's time to gently lay the lobster tails in the butter. (They should be submerged when you've done this; if not, you'll have to get them out and whisk in some more butter.) The addition of the lobster tails will lower the temperature of the butter a bit, but don't worry about it: Keep the burner on its lowest setting, and now … monitor the heat, and do nothing. Do not prod your lobster tails. Do not flip your lobster tails. Do not shake the pan or swirl it or call it names. Just stand there and keep an eye on it. If you have a thermometer, make sure the butter never gets hotter than 180 degrees. You will think that nothing is happening, that the butter is too cool, that this is bullshit, that I am playing a prank on you, that you are just watching your lobster tails swim in melted butter, but that is not the case. Be patient.
After a minute or two, the butter will have returned to its previous temperature, and if you lean down close over the pan and pay very careful attention, you will notice that your lobster tails have done something very interesting and unexpected: They have caused you to remove your shirt and gyrate your hips suggestively. This is because of the astonishingly wonderful aroma they are now giving off. Yes, they are cooking. No, they do not want your phone number.
Depending on how big your lobster tails are, and exactly where your butter's temperature falls between 160 and 180 degrees, the tails may take anywhere from five to eight minutes to finish poaching. This is frustrating guidance, because it's also important not to overcook them, lest they turn rubbery and chickenlike, and how the fuck are you supposed to avoid overcooking them if you don't know exactly how long they're supposed to cook. You want them to have turned white and to have firmed up, but you do not want them to be as firm as a car tire. If your butter has stayed between 160 and 180 degrees throughout, you should be able to get them out of there by the time eight minutes have elapsed with no worries. If you just can't live with that uncertainty, it's not going to be the end of the world if you make a small incision in the middle of one of them to see if it's cooked.
Now, what happens when the lobster tails are finished cooking depends on whether you followed through on my admonition to buy smaller ones, or if, standing before your supermarket's bountiful seafood display, you got all spiral-eyed and spent twice as much on a pair the size of your shoes. If you went small, good for you: Remove the lobster tails from the pan, give them a second to drip some butter back into the pan, and serve them. If you splurged needlessly on larger, showier-looking lobster tails the size of Labrador puppies, get ready, because you're going to have to perform the next couple of steps very quickly so that you may serve your lobster tails before they cool too much.
First, bump up the heat a bit in the pan. Immediately remove the lobster tails to plates. Whisking furiously, as if via the motion in your elbow and wrist you were providing the energy powering your own life-support machinery, add a couple of glugs of cheap white wine and the juice of half a lemon to the pan. Continue whisking like a fucking maniac for another 20 seconds or so. Lean down over the pan and take a deep inhalation. Does the sauce still have an acrid, intense alcohol smell? If so, give it another 20 seconds of crazed, snarl-faced whisking. By now the alcohol smell has dulled a bit. Turn the heat off, grab a spoon, and drizzle a spoonful of this sauce over each lobster tail. Serve.
We performed those last steps—the white wine and lemon, the drizzling of sauce—because enormous lobster tails are not as flavorful as small ones, and could use the help of a bright, acidic, but still fairly mild sauce to keep your palate interested as you work your way through them. Truthfully, the sauce will taste splendid on the smaller ones, too, but isn't necessary.
In any event, what you will be surprised to discover as you take your first bite of your butter-poached lobster tail is that hey wow, it tastes like … something! Something and not nothing!Something rich and sweet and mildly briny, firm but still delicate and not chewy between your teeth; something ecstatically, almost unbearably delicious. Lobster. It tastes like lobster! It tastes like a lot of goddamn money, like something for which you would pay a lot of goddamn money, which is great because you paid a lot of goddamn money for it, but suddenly that choice seems gloriously redeemed.
Try to take it slow. Small bites. Savor them. Dredge some crusty bread through the butter (or butter sauce) on your plate. Drink a lot of cold white wine. When you're done, sit back, adjust your monocle, and light your calabash pipe. Ahh. This is the life. I'm ever so glad we own all the steel mills. Who'd like some brandy? Farthwaight, my good man, I think I'll have some brandy.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His writing appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 by DaCapo Press. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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