New England

The (Genius) Secrets to Jasper White’s World-Famous Lobster Rolls

June 20, 2018

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).

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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.

You’d think it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever tasted.
Jasper White, on lobster roll nirvana

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?

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“It's also a good recipe for shrimp or crab salad by substituting them for the lobster”
— Martha P.
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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.”

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!

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8 Comments

Eric K. June 20, 2018
Thank you, Kristen, for considering the (Genius) lobster.
 
ChefJune June 20, 2018
Ah, Kristen, I agree at long last, this is indeed a "Genius Recipe."<br /><br />Jasper White has been a friend and colleague for decades, and I'll go out on a limb and say that anytime you come across an authentic Jasper White recipe, you should consider it Genius!
 
Martha P. June 20, 2018
I bought "Lobster at Home" on a trip through Maine in 2000. This has been my standard recipe for lobster rolls. I use Hellman's straight out of the jar. It's also a good recipe for shrimp or crab salad by substituting them for the lobster
 
Barbara G. June 20, 2018
Sounded great...till I saw the tarragon word ! Hate the stuff ... Any thoughts on an alternative ?
 
john June 20, 2018
How about the second option given, plain mayo, straight. from the jar?
 
Amanda H. June 20, 2018
I'd try basil!
 
Barb June 20, 2018
I love tarragon, but either use plain mayo (Duke's if you can get it) or use an herb you like.<br />
 
Emma L. June 20, 2018
I'd try minced chives—lots of 'em!