Most people cook lobster in its shell, but once it's cooked, there's not a lot you can do to it anymore. Chefs at the French Laundry take a different approach, preparing lobster by flash-cooking the exterior layer of flesh just enough so that it will pull cleanly away from the shell, leaving the interior raw. After removing the flesh from the shell, chefs can influence the lobster's taste and texture as they complete the cooking process, treating the lobster as one would raw fish. Lobster meat prepared this way is subsequently roasted, chopped for a filling or poached in butter—a gentle technique favored by Thomas Keller that results in lobster so tender that some people think it's not completely cooked.
Preparing the Lobsters for Cooking
Steeping the Lobsters
It's crucial to work with the lobsters while they are hot, or the fat in the meat will congeal and make it difficult to remove the lobster from its shell.
- Place six 1 1/2 to 2 pound lobsters in a tight fitting container. Cover with cold water to determine how much you will need. Drain off the water, measure it and place the water in a large pot. Bring the water to a boil and add 1/2 cup of white distilled vinegar to every 8 quarts of water you are using.
- After the vinegar is added, pour the boiling liquid over the lobsters and let them steep for 2 to 3 minutes (3 minutes for 2 pound lobsters). Reserving the water, use a pair of tongs to remove the lobsters from the water. Place them on a sheet pan with sides or a board placed over the sink; it is messy to disassemble the lobsters.
- Using a towel or rubber gloves to help hold the hot lobster, grasp the lobster's tail, twist and pull the tail, to detach it from the body. Twist and pull the arms to detach them and return the arms to the hot water for an additional 5 minutes. Reserve the bodies.
Removing the Meat
- For the tail, hold the tail flat and twist the tail fan to one side; pull off and discard. Use your fingers to gently push the meat through the tail end, and pull the meat out through the large opening. Discard the tail shell. Lay the tail meat on its back and cut lengthwise through the middle. Remove the vein running through the top of the meat. Lay the finished pieces on a sheet pan lined with paper towels.
- For the claws, after 5 minutes, remove the arms from the hot water. Twist off the knuckle to remove it from the claw. Hold the claw in your hand and pull down to loosen the lower pincer. Crack it to each side and pull it straight off. The cartilage from inside the claw should be attached to the pincer and the claw meat should remain intact. You may not always succeed in keeping the claw meat in one piece, but with practice your success rate will increase.
- Still holding the claw, crack the top of the shell with the back of a heavy knife blade, about 3/4-inch from the joint where the knuckle was attached. You want to go through the shell but not damage the meat. Turn the claw over and repeat the procedure a second time. Wiggle your knife to loosen and crack the shell. Pull off the lower section of the shell.
- Shake the claw to remove the meat (if it doesn't fall out, cut off the very tip of the claw shell and blow through the hole to release the meat). Add the claws to the tail meat.
- For the knuckles, cut off the top joint of the knuckle that was attached to the lobster's body. Use a pair of scissors to cut away the shell along the smooth outside edge of the knuckle. Use your fingers to pry open the shell and remove the meat. Add the knuckle meat to the tails and claws. Cover the lobster pieces with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to a day.
- Pull back and discard the top shell of the lobster including the heads and antenna, remove the tomalley (gray), the roe (deep green), the feathery lungs, and the sack behind the head. You may want to reserve the tomalley and roe for other uses (they can be wrapped and frozen separately), but discard the lungs and sack. You will be left with the bodies and legs. Rinse them thoroughly under cold water and use them immediately or freeze them to make a lobster stock or a consommé.
Completing the Cooking Process
Thomas Keller's technique of butter poaching loads the flavor of butter into the lobster and cooks it so slowly and gently that the flesh remains exquisitely tender. Infusing lobster with butter in the cooking method itself is very versatile. Once the initial lobster-butter connection has been made (and what's the point of lobster without butter?), you can add many different garnishes: beets and leeks, peas and carrots, figs, foie gras.