Lobstah! A Guide to a Successful New England Lobster Bake (a.k.a. Clam Bake)
Every summer for many years now, I have been heading to a beautiful island off the coast of Maine named Chebeague. The small, friendly island full of Chebeaguers welcome us highlanders, even if we come from as far away as the Bronx and don’t know a bow from a stern. The water on the ferry trip to the island is dotted with lines of lobster trap buoys… a certain sign that once you land, the crustaceans will be waiting.
My girlfriend’s family was gracious enough one year to revive a tradition of having a lobster bake for the Fourth of July. I watched them all prepare the food and her brother and father successfully bake a seafood feast on the shore of the island for 40 guests. When they rolled back the canvas cover on the bake pan, the bright red lobsters were an amazing sight to behold. And then eat.
Last year, everything was in planning for the bake when the day before I got some terrible news. I was in charge. The other bakemasters couldn’t be there for the event. So me and my brother–the boys from the Bronx–set out to do what seemed impossible to us at the time… run a lobster bake for 40 guests… most of which had been to many, many, MANY bakes. Would they trust two guys who do nothing when they visit except drink beer and quote lines from Jaws? We’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.
Sometimes when you do something so often, you don’t even think about how to do it. As I asked several island friends who had done this before for tips and tricks (and pleas for help) it became clear that this information that had been disseminated down from generations of islanders was too good to keep to myself. This would be an adventure that should be documented for Brian’s Belly. So with MUCH help from the people of Chebeague, here is our guide to a successful New England Lobster Bake on the beach. You’re gonna get the head, the tail, the whole damned thing.
Steam, Boil or Bake?
Let’s get this out of the way. My brother and I tried arguing that this isn’t a bake… we’re steaming the lobsters in a pan full of seaweed… it’s a steam (this method can also be called a seafood boil). The Chebeaguers would have none of our big city ridiculousness… this was a bake and I was a Bakemaster. That settled that.
The traditional New England Lobster Bake (a.k.a. Clam Bake) can be done in a fire pit on the beach over hot stones with plenty of seaweed, but I have been told that when using that method it is very hard to properly cook lobsters. Luckily, we have access to a stainless pan that that is about 3 feet by almost 6 feet and a foot deep that can cook up to 100 lobsters! Since we have such a beast, we’ll be using that to make our lives much easier.
Even though I would be known as Bakemaster, this can’t be done without a strong support team. I needed someone to get firewood, someone to build the fire, kids to collect seaweed, a kitchen prepping staff, a person to get me beer, etc. This is a group effort and the more willing your group is to help, the better your bake will be.
Aside from your staff, the next most important item is the lobsters. Or more accurately lobstas. Or most accurately lobstahs. They will henceforth be known as lobstahs for the sake of this article, internet focus keywords be damned. I prefer the local pronunciation of lobstah to my own Bronx-accented mutilation anyway (don’t get me started on the word scallop, which I clearly pronounce correctly and they don’t). Our lobstahs were coming from the very water we ferried over to get here, so they would be local, fresh and cheap! We already had our guest head count and put our lobstah order in a few days before (Maine lobstahs are typically 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 pounds, but 1 pounders are also legal). They would be delivered only about an hour before the bake and kept in the shade.
To determine all our timing for the day, we looked up the tide charts to see when the best time was to a) start setting up, b) start the fire and c) “pull” the lobstahs. So if you’ll be doing this on a shallow beach where a high tide may ruin your day, check your local tide charts. I found low and high tide times for Chebeague and we decided to start setting up at low tide, so that 6 hours later at high tide, the fire we lit would be exterminated. Speaking of fire, you most likely need a burning permit. We were told it is so that the information can be relayed to the coast guard in case of an emergency. Get that the morning of your bake.
What You’ll Need
- Bake pan (in our case, 3′ x 6′ x 1′)
- Canvas to cover pan
- Blocks or rocks to support pan
- Charcoal briquettes are helpful
- Newspaper and kindling
- Some say have starter fluid on hand
- Heat tolerant gloves
- Matches or a click starter
- Buckets for seaweed collection
- Mesh steam bags for food prep
- Plastic containers or cups for butter
- Oven-safe pot to heat butter
- Sturdy plates or platters
- Paper towels or napkins
Food is a little harder to figure out. We did 36 lobsters for this bake all the while knowing that some of us would eat two, some would eat none, and that some kids might only eat a red hot dog and completely forgo any of the other delectable items that come out of the pan. So adjust accordingly…
- Small to medium sized white potatoes
- Small onions
- Red or traditional hot dogs
- Hot dog buns
- Corn on the cob
- Eggs in cardboard containers
Other things to consider:
- Anything you think would be delicious steamed
Prep as much as possible back at home
Place carrots, potatoes, onions and hot dogs into their own mesh steam bags. Multiple bags of each are fine if necessary. Butter should be melted and can be funneled into a jug or vessel that can be capped and then later heated in a pot and poured into smaller containers. Corn should be de-silked but can be kept in the husk.
After several hauls down to the beach with the pan, wood, beer, etc., set up was easier than we expected. I dubbed my brother Danny Firemaster and we set up the pan and firewood in the location we picked the day before when the tides were similar and we could see the high tide line. Level your pan (use water to check). The fire should be built as evenly as possible under the pan and you should have enough wood to burn for at least an hour.
Add two inches of water and seaweed as a base layer to the pan. Soak your canvas top in one of your buckets. Now add the bake ingredients in the following layers, placing seaweed on top of each layer:
- First Layer: Potatoes and Carrots
- Second Layer: Onions and Hot Dogs
- Third Layer: Corn
- Fourth Layer: Lobstahs
Check my accompanying photos for this article for lobstah layout. They are placed tail to tail and claw to claw to keep them from moving around too much. A lobstah dance sounds like it would be fun, but it’s better to keep them from shuffling around (lobstahs swim backwards by flipping their tail, so they’ll be trying to back up out of there). Be sure to remove any claw bands. Also be sure not to remove any fingertips. Cardboard egg cartons can be placed on the outer edges.
Cover the pan with the soaked canvas, being sure to tuck in the edges so they can’t catch fire.
Light the fire. Approximately–and keep in mind, this is approximate–twenty to thirty minutes later, your water will boil and your canvas and pan will start to steam. This will be obvious! And amazing! Place your butter pot in a corner of the bake pan on top of the canvas. Now, here is the important part… wait twenty minutes. Don’t wait 10, don’t wait 30. Earlier I said that we had a pound and a quarter to a pound and a half lobstahs, so 20 is a good safe number in a pan this big and temperature diverse.
The flesh of undercooked lobstahs is translucent and unhealthy to eat. The USDA says cooked lobstah “should turn red and flesh should become pearly and opaque.” Also, their tails will curl. But truly, the best way to tell if a lobstah is done is to yank on an antennae (or one of the small walking legs). If it pulls out easily, it’s done. Pull back a corner of the canvas and after the steam clears, grab an arthropod appendage. I had my girlfriend Shelly do this, as I didn’t want to burn my delicate city hands.
We had four burly guys pull the pan from the fire and lay it aside. Get all your guests to line up and watch as you pull back the canvas and reveal the remarkable red lobstah pile. This is a photo op!
Still using gloves, remove the food from the pan. We placed everything into cardboard boxes to make a catering line easier to manage.
After we enjoyed our bake, we watched the tide roll in and extinguish our fire–right on schedule. “Not bad for a highlander,” I recall someone saying.
All it all, it wasn’t a boating accident… it couldn’t have gone any better. And we couldn’t have done it without a big support staff of food preppers, seaweed gatherers and even guests who helped me with a tip or two along the way knowing it was my first bake. Chebeague as you know, means friendship.
I can’t wait to do it again, and I will. As with all of our guides, I will keep expanding and updating based on your comments, suggestions and experience.