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5 Rules for the Perfect Lobster Roll

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A split-top bun is nonnegotiable, according to bona fide expert Amy Traverso

The lobster roll at McLoons in South Thomaston, Maine
Bill Addison

The lobster roll is a quintessential summer foodstuff, particularly for New Englanders, and perhaps no one knows them better than Amy Traverso. On a recent episode of the Eater Upsell, Traverso — the senior food editor of Yankee Magazine and co-host of the PBS series Weekends with Yankee — joined hosts Helen Rosner and Greg Morabito to discuss her recent trek across New England to find and rank the very best lobster rolls the region has to offer.

“It's a perfect dish,” Traverso says. “It's so simple. It's so beautiful in its simplicity.” But even the simplest dishes can also be complex, and so she graded each lobster roll with an exacting set of criteria, evaluating each one for portion, texture, sweetness, sourcing, bun, extraneous additions, and ambience.

Here now, Traverso’s five rules for the perfect lobster roll:

  1. The best lobster rolls come from Maine. “I eat a lot of lobster rolls everywhere I go, and I have not had one that surpasses the better lobster rolls I've had in Maine,” Traverso says. “Maine lobster tends to be the best lobster, and that's even more true as lobsters are heading north as the waters warm. The best ones are [found] in the colder water.” (She admits that Connecticut also produces some excellent lobster rolls, but those are served warm with melted butter vs. Maine’s mayo-dressed version, which is served chilled.)
  2. A split-top bun is essential. This is no time for hot dog buns — a proper lobster roll is traditionally served on a split-top bun, which is highly important “because you want it to be griddled and absorb the butter and get crispy on the sides,” Traverso explains. (Not familiar with split-top buns? Think hot dog buns, but baked touching in a pan and then separated after baking so that the sides are soft and white, rather than crusty and brown.)
  3. Lettuce is prohibited. “Lettuce has a bitter, vegetal quality that, in my mind, does not pair well with lobster,” Traverso says, also pointing out that “lettuce in the presence of mayonnaise goes soggy and slimy.” (McDonald’s tragic fast-food lobster roll includes lettuce, naturally.) The slightly sweet crunch of celery, however, is acceptable and even encouraged, as are chives.
  4. Go easy on the mayo. Care should be taken in how much mayonnaise is used, lest it overwhelm the delicate flavor of lobster. Traverso’s number-one-rated Maine lobster roll spot, McLoons Lobster Shack in South Thomaston, deviates from the norm by only using mayo as a spread on the bread, which is a pretty clutch move: “The thing I like about McLoons, actually, is rather than tossing the meat with mayo — if it sits too long [the mayo will] denature the meat and make it squishy, and make it taste like mayo more than anything else — they use it as a condiment, which is what it is.”
  5. Atmosphere counts. Don’t underestimate the importance of scenic views, which make just about anything taste better — but particularly lobster rolls, which are often served at quaint seaside shacks offering picturesque waterfront views.

To hear the complete interview with Amy Traverso in which she discusses her quest for the platonic ideal of a lobster roll, as well as the rise of new New England cuisine and and why Boston is home to so many terrible restaurant names, subscribe to the Eater Upsell on iTunes, or listen below. You can also get the entire archive of episodes   right here on Eater.

All Episodes of the Eater Upsell [E]
• The Eater Upsell: Amy Traverso [iTunes | Spotify | Art19]