How to Ensure a Great Fourth of July Feast

The big July 4th weekend is upon us. For many, it means a trip to the shore and a nice seafood dinner at one of the many seaside restaurants that offer Maine lobster specials at this time of year.

But wait. What’s going on here? It’s summer — and with a lot of people on vacation and dining out, demand for lobster is high. So you’d think that the price should go up, not down. Why, then, during peak restaurant season, are the crustaceans on sale in so many places?

What’s going on is that the lobster you’re getting on “special” probably isn’t a very good one. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, your summer feast could turn into a big disappointment.

You probably know that when Maryland blue crabs molt, we get soft-shell crabs. A rather expensive delicacy. Well . . . turns out that lobsters molt too. But the result isn’t as good.

As a lobster matures, it outgrows its shell and sheds it. At first, its new shell is more like a skin. It gradually hardens — but for a few weeks, it’s soft. It’s also large, giving the lobster room to grow. These new, spacious living quarters are good news for the lobster. But could be bad news for you.

If the lobster gets caught at that moment, he’ll be sold, roomy soft shell and all. At the restaurant or fish market, he’ll look big and he’ll weigh a lot — but most of that weight is nothing more that salt water filling the extra space.

After it’s been cooked and you open up that lobster for your big meal, you’re going to find:

  • a lot of water (and water weighs more than eight pounds a gallon)
  • a little tiny bit of mushy lobster meat

Not very impressive, coming from that big lobster that looked so enticing just a few minutes earlier. And even though it was on sale, you still paid good money for it.

Soft shell (or “new shell” as they are called in New England) lobsters are sold at a discount for several reasons:

  • High-end restaurants don’t want them. They know it’s not worth it to disappoint their customers with an inferior product.
  • Knowledgeable waterfront locals know the facts as well and usually won’t buy them.
  • New-shell lobsters are frail and can’t survive long after capture, so they have to be moved fast.
  • Summer is the molting season and so there is a glut of these “shedders” as they’re called.

Lobstermen try to put a happy face on the new-shell lobsters. “The meat is sweeter,” they say. Sure. And we’ve got some nice oceanfront property in Kansas to sell them for their boats.

Here’s what you can do to make sure you get a full, delicious, packed-with-meat, hard-shell lobster next time you want that special Homarus americanus dinner:

  • If there’s a sounds-too-good-to-be-true special — for example, two for $15 — you can be pretty sure they’re selling soft-shell lobsters.
  • If you buy live lobsters in a seafood market, be sure to ask the salesperson if they are hard shell or soft/new shell. If the salesperson doesn’t know, ask to speak to the manager.
  • If you order lobster in a restaurant, ask the waitperson. If they don’t know, ask the manager or chef.

If you still can’t get a straight answer but you’re dead set on eating lobster, the sure way to find out is to ask to see the live lobster and touch it. If you push on the shell and it feels rock solid, you’re in business.

But if you push on the shell and feel it give, it’s a soft shell. Order steak.