Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.
A little bird once told me that Jasper White’s lobster rolls are genius. I should have pinned that bird to a wall until it told me which Jasper White lobster rolls.
Because for the past 20 years, White’s lobster rolls have been so ever-present—so definitively the lobster roll recipe to use—that every time I started to look into them, I’d find myself lost among the slightly different versions skittering around the internet (and then quickly move along to something more clear-cut, like my boss's #1 favorite crab cakes).
But this year, with summer bearing down and no Maine road trips in sight, I committed to keep digging. I started by fashioning a crude chart to compare each of White’s many lobster roll recipes side-by-side to find the common themes.
Genius lobster rolls: an investigation
All his recipes had lobster, mayo, and a buttered, griddled bun—these are a given for a Maine-style roll. It was the quirkier characters that darted in and out: lemon, Tabasco, Dijon, tarragon. The occasional leaf of Bibb lettuce. As committed as I am to you all, I wasn’t about to test every subtle variation to find the one true Genius Recipe—what am I, made of lobsters?
But I did notice that every recipe on my master chart featured two other curious, not-at-all-traditional ingredients: cucumbers and scallions. A clue! I tracked down White on the phone in Cape Cod to find out why these two ingredients have been non-negotiable for so long—and how his ideal roll had evolved over the years.
“Well, I haven’t really changed it much for the last couple decades,” White told me. Case closed. Huh. Maybe all the variation in recipes had come from each test kitchen translating White's original recipe for their own audiences—regardless, the good news is: There is a clear path to victory.
Here’s how the New England-raised lobster roll expert—who wrote the definitive book on cooking lobster, Lobster at Home; who still runs three Summer Shack restaurants; and who even holds a patent on a system for the most expedient way to cook many lobsters—gets to what he considers a perfect roll.
The very best way to cook a lobster
The biggest, and perhaps only, hurdle is cooking and relieving the lobsters of their meat. According to White, steaming lobsters has a number of very appealing advantages over boiling them. “Boiling is not a good idea ever,” he told me. Steaming means that the meat poaches in its own salty-sweet juices, rather than allowing water to permeate the shell and dilute them.
Steaming is also a slightly slower, gentler, and more forgiving method—if you leave your lobsters in the pot an extra minute, they won’t go tough on you. And, happily, you’ll only need to wrangle about an inch of boiling water, rather than a large pot, gallons-deep.
I’ll be honest: For us landlubbers who haven’t spent our summers at seafood shacks by the shore, the lobster excavation process can feel intimidating—until you think of it just as a messy voyage of discovery. Watch our video. Watch White do it, bibless, sitting casually with a glass of wine. Then just feel your way.
Dressing it up right
Once you’ve done the hard part, of course you want the seasoning to do the lobster justice. “Some places just use lobster and mayo out of the jar,” White told me. “But it deserves a little more.” This is where those surprising star ingredients come in.
Nothing you add should overpower the lobster, but act as a nuanced magnifier of its flavor. White swaps out the traditional strong, grassy flavor of celery for the sweeter, subtler crunch of cucumber, and similarly tones down the classic raw onion with scallions instead. Even at that, “The scallion is very, very minimal,” he says.
His recipe in Lobster at Home gives you two options for the mayo: a homemade tarragon mayonnaise, or regular Hellmann’s from the jar—which might explain where all the different permutations on the internet sprang from. A third option is to use some of the seasonings from the tarragon mayonnaise to doctor up jarred mayo, which is the path we took in the photos here. The mayo shouldn’t actually taste like tarragon, White says. “It should just be a whisper.”
So, when can we eat?
The last things to consider are the sidekicks. To drink, a lager or light white wine, like Portuguese vinho verde. Bags of kettle potato chips. A pickle of some sort to chase it all down. (White’s favorites to keep at home? Homemade pickled beets.)
And maybe the most important of all: making sure the bun is still warm, with buttery, freshly griddled sides to contrast with the rich, cool, just-right salad.
“If you close your eyes and you’ve never had it and you take a bite," White said. "You’d think it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever tasted.”
- 1 pound fully cooked lobster meat, or 5 pounds live lobsters
- 1 medium cucumber (5 to 6 ounces), peeled, seeded, and finely diced
- 1/2 cup Special Tarragon Mayonnaise (recipe follows); or bottled mayonnaise; or bottled mayonnaise mixed with the seasonings in the Special Tarragon Mayonnaise recipe below, to taste
- 3 small scallions (white and most of the green parts), thinly sliced
- kosher or sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 6 New England-style top-split hot dog buns (or regular hot dog buns, with about 1/4-inch of the sides shaved off to make a flat surface for griddling)
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- pickles and potato chips, for serving
Special Tarragon Mayonnaise
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon leaves
- 1 cup salad oil, such as safflower, sunflower, or refined peanut (avoid full-flavored oil)
- juice of 1/2 large lemon
- 1 tablespoon ice water
- kosher or sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- cayenne pepper or Tabasco sauce
Photos by James Ransom
Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]—thank you to the little birdie on Facebook back in 2011 for this one!