Lobster is one of the great luxury ingredients, but it is almost always handled the same way: either boiled or grilled. These are perfectly acceptable, but there is an even better, and in many ways easier, way to cook lobster--remove it from the shell first. Cooking lobster meat without the barrier of the shell improves texture and flavor.
The best way is to poach the tail in butter, or beurre monte --the butter enriches the meat and the lobster infuses the butter with flavor. As good as butter is, the poaching liquid could be as varied as vegetable broth or corn juice. In these instances, because the lobster gives so much flavor to the broth, it is best to treat the liquid as a cuisson , a poaching liquid that will then be reduced and seasoned and used as the finishing sauce.
Lobster freed from its shell can be cooked more carefully at a lower temperature, resulting in meat that is unusually tender--far from the rubber we’re often served. Poaching at about 190 degrees in butter or broth, or wrapped in plastic with aromatic vegetables (the boil-in-a-bag method) is gentle, as is roasting slowly in a 250-to 275-degree oven. This keeps the meat from seizing up the way it does at the harsh temperatures of the grill or a seven-minute boil.
You can start this process well ahead of time and, because the meat is removed before the final cooking, it is more elegant and easier to eat. Also you then have all of those shells at the ready to make a lobster stock or to freeze for later use.
Here’s how the method works. First, the outside of the meat must be cooked so it will pull away from the shell. Do this by pouring boiling water over the lobsters and letting them sit for two minutes. After two minutes the lobsters can be broken down into their separate parts. Twist off the tail and remove the meat from the shell by pinching upward from the closed end. Trim any stray, stringy muscle. Do the same with the claws (try to remove the meat intact), and cut open the knuckles with a pair of heavy scissors. Put all the meat on a paper towel-lined plate or in a container, cover tightly and refrigerate until you’re ready to cook it.
It will take only a few minutes’ poach in beurre monte to finish the lobster, then serve it as is, with the butter and a garnish of fresh tarragon if you wish. Or you might roast it with spices in a slow oven--sweet ones such as cinnamon, coriander and clove, or with curry spices.
Lobster is luxurious in texture and flavor, and it’s expensive as well. That’s all the more reason to cook and serve it in a manner that heightens all its distinctive attributes.
Keller is chef at the French Laundry in the Napa Valley. Ruhlman is author of “Wooden Boats: In Pursuit of the Perfect Craft at an American Boatyard” (Viking, $24.95). They are co-authors of “The French Laundry Cookbook” (Artisan, $50).