Q: Some people say the best way to cook a live lobster is to boil it. Others insist that steaming is better. Which method should I use?
A: To find an authoritative answer I went to Maine and interviewed several leading chefs and lobstermen. (Well, that's really not why I went to Maine; I went there to stuff myself with as many lobsters and fried clams as possible. But I did interview the experts.)
I found two distinct camps: the staunch steamers and the passionate plungers.
"I plunge," defiantly declared Daniel Grant of the Aubergine Bistro and Wine Bar in Portland. He plunges his lobsters into boiling water laced with white wine and lots of peeled garlic and no salt.
But, according to chef de cuisine Alan McGrath at Chef Sam Hayward's Fore Street Restaurant in Portland: "Boiling extracts too much flavor from the lobsters. You can even see the water turn green from the tomalley [liver] that leaks out. We steam our lobsters over fish stock or vegetable broth."
Chef Chris Moran at Freeport's Harraseeket Inn at first pledged allegiance to the "boiling-draws- out-flavor" school of thought and said he steams his lobsters over salted water. "They wind up with less water inside," he said. But when pressed, Moran said that for flavor: "Both boiling and steaming are good. [To argue over it] is splitting hairs."
The latter sentiment was echoed by Pete Innis of the Innis Lobster Pound in Biddeford Pool, who has been fishing, selling and cooking lobsters for 40 years. "I used to steam them for about 20 minutes," he said. "I have customers who insist that they absolutely must be steamed in salted water. Everybody has an opinion. Now I boil them in sea water for about 15 minutes." A believer in the philosophy that the customer is always right, Innis refused to list to port or starboard and recommend one method.
My conclusion? Double, double, toil and trouble; lobster steam or lobster bubble. It's a draw.
Timing Is Everything
The one thing that everybody seems to agree upon is that steaming takes longer. Why, I wondered? Theoretically, when water boils, the steam is the same temperature as the water. But are they, really? To answer this question I repaired to my kitchen "laboratory."
I put a few inches of water into a three-gallon lobster pot, brought it to a boil, covered the pot as tightly as one must when steaming foods and then measured the temperature of the steam at several distances above the water's surface with an accurate laboratory thermometer. (How I managed to rig the thermometer bulb inside the covered pot while I read the temperatures from outside will be explained upon receipt of a self-addressed, stamped envelope and a check or money order for $19.95 to help defray my medical expenses.)
Results? With the burner set high enough to maintain the water at a rolling boil, the temperatures at all distances above the water were exactly the same as that of the boiling water: 210 degrees. (No, not 212. My kitchen--along with the rest of my house--is 1,000 feet above sea level, and water boils at lower temperatures at lower atmospheric pressures.) But when I turned the burner down to a slow boil, the steam temperature dropped substantially.
My explanation is that some of the steam's heat is always being lost through the side of the pot (which in this case was rather thin), and the water has to be boiling fast enough to keep replenishing that heat with fresh, hot steam.
Conclusion: Steam your lobsters on a rack over vigorously boiling water in a tightly covered, heavy pot and they will be exposed to exactly the same temperature as if they were being boiled.
The mystery, then, is why all the chefs tell me that they steam lobsters for a somewhat longer time than when they boil them. In his comprehensive book, "Lobster at Home" (Scribner, 1998), for example, Jasper White recommends boiling a 1 1/2-pound lobster for 11 or 12 minutes or steaming it for 14 minutes. (These times are shorter than the professional cooks report because they cook several lobsters in a batch and it's a simple case of more meat, more heat.)
The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that liquid water can hold more heat (Techspeak: it has a higher heat capacity) than vapor or steam at the same temperature, so it has more calories of heat to donate to the lobsters. Moreover, liquid water is a much better conductor of heat than vapor and steam are, so it can deliver those calories more efficiently and the lobsters will cook in a shorter time.
Now, I'm not a chef. But on the other hand, chefs are not scientists. So the chefs I interviewed can be excused for making some scientifically erroneous statements. Here are a few of them and why they're wrong. I won't identify who made them.
* "Steaming makes a higher cooking temperature than boiling." As my experiments showed, the temperatures are the same.
* "Salted water makes higher-temperature steam." Well, perhaps a trifle, because the boiling temperature is higher, but by a few hundredths of a degree at most.
* "Sea salt in the steaming water gives a better flavor to the steam." Salt does not leave the water and enter the steam, so the type of salt--or no salt at all--can have no effect. I even doubt that the essences of wine or stock in the steaming water could penetrate the lobster's shell enough to have any effect on the flavor of the meat. Lobsters are well-armored beasts.
The Down-East Way
Chip and Nancy Gray, owners of the Harraseeket Inn, told me how real Mainers cook lobsters at the shore: First, procure a 4-to-6-foot length of stovepipe at a hardware store. At the shore, build a campfire. Now plug one end of the pipe with seaweed and throw in a couple of lobsters and a handful of clams. Stuff in a second plug of seaweed and top it with more lobsters and clams. Continue alternating seaweed and shellfish until you run out of either lobsters or stovepipe. Top it all off with a final plug of seaweed and lay the pipe across the campfire. As the food cooks, baste it continually with a cup or two of sea water poured into the higher end of the pipe; it'll turn to steam as it rolls down to the bottom. After about 20 minutes, dump the contents of the stovepipe out onto a sheet on the ground.
"It's wicked good," says Chip.
Y1K note: The expiration date on my jar of Nathan's Herring Tasti Tidbits in Wine Sauce reads "May 1000." For thousand-year-old herring it was really quite good.
Robert L. Wolke is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of "What Einstein Didn't Know--Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions." Send your food or cooking questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.