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Foster's Sunday Citizen

Sunday, July 30, 2000

Shell game

Soft-shell lobsters are cheaper; hard-shell have more meat. How do you decide what’s best?

By ROBERT EMRO Staff Writer

Nothing but the harder variety of Homer americanus is available during the colder months, but the dog days of summer bring lobsters with a softer touch.

Hard Shell

Soft Shell

Which is better? "We have people that like both," said Steve Gelineau, an employee at Sanders Lobster Pound in Portsmouth. The question can be boiled down to one of quality vs. quantity.

For the uninitiated, the ease of cracking a soft-shelled, which can often be accomplished without the traditional lobster-eating hardware, coupled with its lower price at the market — as much as $3 per pound — make it an easy choice.

"The thing about a soft-shelled lobster, for a tourist, is that it’s very easy to eat because you don’t need all those heavy tools," said Sara Ellis, a marine biologist with The Lobster Conservancy, in Friendship, Maine.

But first-time eaters of the soft-shelled lobster may find that it is not all its cracked up to be. There is a reason why they cost less. "There’s not as much meat," explained Ellis, "because it hasn’t filled in its shell yet."

The cooks at Warren’s Lobster House in Kittery, Maine, have to crack six pounds of soft-shelled lobsters to yield a pound of meat, compared to five of the hard-shelled kind. "When you shuck a lot of it every day, you definitely get a feel for it," said owner Dave Mickee. "People who have never had lobster are sometimes shocked when they see how little meat is in a one-pound soft-shell."

But, for some, what is lost in volume is made up for in value. "I like the flavor of a soft-shelled lobster better," said Mickee. "I don’t know if it’s a psychological thing because the meat tends to be more tender, so maybe you associate it with a sweeter taste."

The chef at the Three Chimneys Inn in Durham, which started holding Sunday lobster bakes this summer, agreed. "We all prefer the soft-shelled," said Layne Thomas. "They seem to find the meat to be a little more sweet and succulent."

So did Ellis, the marine biologist. "I like (soft-shelled lobsters) and I’ve heard a lot of people say it, including the lobstermen themselves," she said. "They say, ‘I don’t know why anyone would bother with those hard shells.’

"As long as you’re not disappointed when you open it up and find less meat inside," she said, suggesting a simple remedy — just buy more. "If you can eat one hard-shelled lobster normally, you can plow down two soft-shells no problem."

But while some say they taste better, don’t expect to find soft-shelled lobsters at every gourmet restaurant. "We don’t buy the so-called soft-shell lobsters," said Aaron Morrissey, assistant general manager at the Wolfeboro Inn. "Customer perception is they don’t want soft-shells because they think they are cheap, and being an upscale establishment, we don’t want that."

And for some things, you just can’t beat a hard-shelled lobster, according to Gelineau. "If you are shipping or traveling," he said, holding one up in his hand, "this is much more durable."

With the pick of the pound, Gelineau said he likes lobsters somewhere in the middle. "I prefer the semi-soft shelled," he said. "I like to have a little bit of shell to it."

A lobster never stops growing, necessitating periodic shedding of its shell. Preparing for, undergoing and recovering from this cyclical process is continuous, except for females who take a break when breeding.

Molting, as it is called, has two main peaks, in July and September. The lobster first forms a new shell, complete in every detail, underneath its old one. Just before molting, the lobster drinks in water, which causes the new shell to swell, lifting the top of the midsection of the old shell.

Lying on its side, the lobster pulls its head and body from the old shell first. Softened joints allow the lobster to withdraw its shriveled limbs. Once the claws are free, a flip of the tail separates the lobster from its old shell. Escape takes anywhere from several minutes to more than half an hour, larger lobsters taking longer to remove their bulky claws.

At first, this helpless "rag" is unable to stand on its own legs. After 30 minutes, the lobster swells itself to full size with water, but keeps hidden for several days while its shell hardens. Eventually it emerges, to mate if it is a female, or if it is a male, to eat its old shell.

But the shell does not fully harden for several months, which is why so many soft-shelled lobsters are available in the summer and fall. The lobster continues to grow until it fills its new shell and begins the process again.

Information courtesy of the Lobster Conservancy.

© 2000 Geo. J. Foster Co.

©2003 The Lobster Conservancy.
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