Classic Lobster Bisque Recipe

Every Christmas Eve, for as long as I can remember, my family has served lobster bisque. Okay, some years, depending on where we were in the world, or, for that matter, where we were economically, the lobster was swapped for shrimp. But this dead-simple creamy, cheesy, boozy burgoo is a perfect light meal to proceed the festival of eating that is Christmas Day, and always makes my insides feel snuggly and warm, like my grandmother is giving my stomach a big hug.

There’s just one problem. There’s no recipe. I tried to recreate this soup for my father-in-law about five years ago, based on my mother’s over-the-phone directions that “you just kind of keep adjusting as you go.” I ended up with a thin, lumpy, watery bowl of yuck, utterly devoid of any kind of flavor. The ingredients were all present and accounted for; my proportions were just woefully off.

With my mom visiting this week, we made it our mission to finally get this old family recipe down on paper, into a form that was reliably reproducible. “But I don’t measure anything, I just keep tasting,” she explained. And though she resisted, we made her use measuring cups and call out the measurements of everything that went in, as she slurped, and sipped, and adjusted. We watched what she did, not what she said. “Okay, one cup of milk,” she would say, pouring a half of cup of milk into the pot. “Can we just say, ‘a healthy glug of wine,'” she would ask, while sipping white wine directly from the metal measuring cup, as she stirred, tweaked, hummed, and adjusted some more. When all was said and done, however, we ended up with not just a stunning example of this dish, but, for the first time in the family’s history, precise instructions on how to do it again. Here are those instructions.

Creamy Lobster Bisque
Serves 6

Ingredients:

  • 3 1 1/2 pound Maine lobsters
  • 1 stick salted butter
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 6 cups whole milk
  • 3/4 cup half and half
  • 8-10 dashes Tabasco sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 6 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Method:

Fill large stock or lobster pot with 2-3 inches water, and bring to a boil. Add lobster, and cover. Steam for 10 minutes. Drain in sink, allow lobster to cool, and remove meat from claws, knuckles, and tail. Coarsely chop lobster meat.

In a medium saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Stir in flour and cook until flour absorbs, whisking constantly, about one-two minutes. Slowly add milk and half-and-half, whisking constantly, and cook until mixture thickens, about 8-10 minutes. Whisk in remaining ingredients, including chopped lobster, and continue cooking over very low heat, stirring, for 8-10 minutes, or until desired thickness. (Be careful not to let soup simmer after you add the wine. It can break and separate.) Remove from heat, cover and let rest for 20 minutes before serving.

Our “Classics” series tackles some of our favorite dishes from Maine’s rich culinary tradition. You can think of them as “traditional” dishes, or more accurately, things you might have had for hot lunch in the fourth grade, had you attended St. George Elementary. To read more from this series, click here.

Malcolm Bedell is co-author of the critically acclaimed "Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road," as well as the junk food blog "Spork & Barrel," and "Brocavore," a blog about food trucks and street food culture. His contributions include Serious Eats, Down East, Eat Rockland, L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post and his food truck, "'Wich, Please," was named "Hottest Restaurant in Maine" for 2015 by Eater. Finally, he finds it very silly to be trying to write this in the third person.

20 Comments

  1. Eek! I came for the recipe, was freaked by the eyeballs. That right eye looks so pensive, so troubled. And yet… lobster! I remember eating a lobster feast in Jamaica, prepared by whacked out Rastafarians. The loaded tray of buttery, spicy tails was carried to us by one long-legged Rasta man who braved chest-deep water to reach us in our little rowboat anchored off the beach. But those eyeballs. “Add lobster and cover” sounds so innocuous. Are they like crabs? Crabs fight and claw to escape the pot. I can eat dead things. I just can’t murder live things to get there. Recipe sounds great though.

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    1. I agree, that ended up being a fairly haunting photo. I don’t know, though, I’m not squeamish about killing and eating them. I’m not sure about their ability to feel pain, and even if they can, I think it’s probably over for them pretty quickly; there’s not a lot of scrambling around inside the pot. I’m sure that preparing a live lobster at home is much, much less horrifying than what’s going on in most of our meat-packing plants.

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  2. Ack, who cares about a lobster’s eye? Some people say you should cook them in champagne, so they’re drunk on the way out…either way, they’re going to be red and delicious in a matter of minutes…
    And I think that’s a little too much mustard…TASTE as you go! And a little sip of the good wine you’re going to use (don’t cheap out and use something you bought at TJ’s on sale) helps you keep your head about the whole thing…
    ENJOY the bisque…and Merry Christmas!

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  3. My grocery store (Hannaford) will steam the lobster for me while I wait/shop. Much less angst than watching it flail about in the pan. This sounds divine. With a cold weekend coming up, I just might make myself a batch! Thanks.

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  4. @Lynne… yes, it’s the flailing that gets me. When those crabs in the pot were making that tiny whistling sound and trying to drag themselves out, I swore never again. This recipe sounds divine, though, so I’ll probably have to try it.

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  5. I have cooked a LOT of lobsters. I have to say that the “flailing about” is very rare. The lobsters that flail are just punks. They did the same thing when moved from trap to tank, and from tank to crate, and from crate to bucket. There just the punks and they think that they are going to show us that they are boss…. or something…? Anyway, these are the last kind of lobsters that you want to feel sorry for….. Punk ass lobbies !!

    If you think seriously about the wide range of animal meat that we consume, the lobster is probably among the most humanly treated animal in the whole food chain.

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    1. Absolutely! It reheats well. I would also make it without the wine, then, when you are ready to serve, reheat and stir in wine at the end. This should keep it from breaking. Good luck!

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