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Selecting (and Buying) Maine Lobster
When is lobster season?
Maine lobsters are harvested year-round, but seasonal peaks and dips occur. As always, prices follow the market, rising with scarcity, dropping when landings are high.
In late spring or early summer, Maine lobster fishermen eagerly await signs of the “shed” when lobsters start moving inshore, shedding their shells and looking for food, and swarming into the lobstermen’s traps. Following the initial shed, the majority of lobsters landed during the summer and fall will have new shells that gradually harden up as the season progresses.
As the weather gets colder in late fall, the lobsters move offshore and become sluggish. Fishermen often have to set their traps 20-30 miles from shore. The lobsters’ natural inactivity and distance from shore combined with bad weather result in lower harvests of Maine Lobster over the winter and spring months. During this time, the majority of lobsters are landed with hard shells.
Hard Shell or New shell?
Lobsters grow by molting—shedding their old, hard shell which is replaced by a new, soft shell that is underneath. Juvenile lobsters molt several times a year; mature lobsters about once a year. The new shell gradually hardens up over the year, and the lobster meat inside expands to fill the new space.
Many people like these new-shell or “shedders” because they are easy to crack open and their flavor is sweeter. They have water in the shell that can be used to flavor stocks and bisques. Hard shell lobsters are hardier than their recently-molted peers and they have a higher meat yield. Their flavor is brinier than a new shell lobster.
Male or Female?
Although some people have a preference, most aficionados would say that male and female lobsters are equally tender and tasty. But only the females have the “coral” or roe, the internal egg sac that turns a vivid coral color when cooked, and can be used to enrich some recipes. If you use the roe, you’ll need to learn how to recognize the females.
Turn the lobster on its back and look at the swimmerets, the tiny flippers on its tail. The pair of swimmerets closest to the head are the reproductive organs. If hard, they’re male. If soft and feathery, they’re female.
Maine Lobster comes in a variety of different product forms to meet the needs of different operations.
Live lobster provides the freshest lobster available and allows the chef to use the whole lobster, including the meat for select dishes, the shell for stocks and the roe for additional flavor in a variety of dishes. Whole boiled or steamed lobster is also a classic and appealing dish. Live lobsters should be feisty, not sluggish or listless, and they should feel heavy for their size. When you lift them, their tails should curl and they should flail at you with their claws.
For chefs who want to use just the lobster meat, buying fresh, frozen or blanched lobster meat might be the best option. It provides a more stable product with no waste.
Lobster tails are also a popular item and come in a variety of forms including in or out of the shell, fresh, frozen or raw meat.
Maine Lobster dealers also produce a variety of value-added products including bisques, soups and other ready-to-heat dishes.
Frozen lobster offers several advantages beyond just stable pricing. One great benefit is that the lobster is processed, not just frozen, allowing the operator many more recipe options. Salads, pasta or rice dishes, grilled tails, surf & turf, stews, bisques, and many other dishes can easily be created with reduced labor costs, faster prep time, on-hand inventory, better inventory and ordering control, controlled food cost, and predictable margins. Operators can choose the most suitable part of the lobster in the exact portions they need.
Choose Your Size
Lobsters are ordered by size. Although some tasters think smaller lobsters are sweeter and more tender, lobster authority and chef Jasper White says he notices no difference in quality until the lobster surpasses five pounds.
Culls: lobsters missing a claw
Chickens: about 1 pound
Quarters: about 1-1/4 pounds
Selects: 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 pounds
Jumbos: over 2-1/2 pounds
Selects usually cost more per pound because they are most in demand. If you aren’t serving the lobster whole, culls could offer a good value
Order Direct from Maine
Instead of ordering lobster through your seafood distributor, who may not know the lobsters’ origins, consider buying direct from one of Maine’s many suppliers, so you can be sure you’re getting product from Maine’s clean, sustainable fisheries. Click here for a database of Maine lobster suppliers
Originally published in CIAProChef.com