Lobster has a well-deserved reputation as a luxury seafood, partly because of its sweetly delicate flavor and partly because of the budget-busting price it usually commands. If you love the taste of lobster more than its price tag, lobster tails may be your better option. They're often available at surprisingly reasonable prices, and steamed lobster tails give any meal an instant upgrade.
A Quick Lobster-Tail Primer
Lobster tails come in a range of sizes and colors, but they all boil down – no pun intended – to kinds of crustaceans. The first kind are tails of the American lobster, usually from Maine. You won't see these as often because Maine lobster is typically sold whole, but a portion of the catch is frozen and sold as tails. The second variety is the spiny lobster or rock lobster, which also has a sweet and juicy tail but lacks the distinctively large (and tasty) claws of its Northern cousin.
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Among spiny lobsters, there's a second distinction that's also important. Some come from warm-water fisheries in places like the Caribbean. Others come from cold-water fisheries off the coasts of New Zealand, South Africa or South America. Most chefs consider cold-water lobsters (including New England lobsters) to have better texture and flavor, and they typically command a higher price as a result.
Steaming Lobster Tails
Most lobster tails are rather small at 3 to 6 ounces, so you don't need a large steamer pot for them. Even a small saucepan with a steamer basket will hold two or three. Place an inch or two of water in the pot, add the steamer basket and bring it to a boil.
Open the lid, taking care to have your hands and face away from the hot steam, and place the tails in the basket. Replace the lid and steam for roughly 45 to 60 seconds per ounce – if your tails weigh 4 ounces each, for example, they might need four minutes. They're done when the thickest part of the tail reaches 135 degrees Fahrenheit when checked with an instant-read thermometer. Remove them from the steamer immediately because otherwise they'll quickly overcook and toughen.
Serve them immediately or rinse them with cold water to prevent them from cooking any further.
Serving Steamed Lobster Tails
Of all cooking methods, steaming causes the least change to your lobster tail's flavor. They're ideal for dishes where you want the lobster's delicate taste to shine through, like a lobster roll or lobster salad or for more traditional dishes like lobster Thermidor, where a rich sauce becomes the star. You can also use the steamed lobster as a garnish for omelets, risotto and other dishes or as the co-star in a surf-and-turf meal.
A Few Points of Finesse
Lobster tails are almost always thawed before cooking because otherwise the meat clings to the shell and is more difficult to remove. You can thaw them overnight in your refrigerator or on the countertop in a bowl of cold water if you're in a hurry. If you do choose to cook them directly from frozen, increase your cooking time by 50 percent.
Some recipes call for splitting the shell of the tail and lifting out the meat, which is optional but makes for a nicer presentation. This will skew your cooking time to the shorter end of the scale, so allow 45 seconds per ounce and start checking for doneness a bit sooner.
If you'd like to add some flavors to the lobster as it cooks, you can add aromatic ingredients such as wine, wine vinegar, garlic, spices or fresh herbs to the water in the steamer. You could also rest them on a bed of aromatic ingredients such as lemongrass and ginger or fold fresh herbs, seaweed or banana leaves around them before they're steamed. Alternatively, you might simply brush the steamed tails with a vinaigrette or marinade before serving them.