When it comes to lobster, many of us first think of the quintessential New England crustacean. But if you are down South or in the Caribbean, you may find a spiny lobster on the menu, and wonder how it differs from the familiar Maine delicacy, which, actually, is in many ways.
It's not just the bumpy exterior and slightly different anatomy that distinguish spiny lobsters from New England lobsters. Biologically, they are only distant cousins, and when it comes to taste and texture, spiny lobsters are a bit tougher and are not as rich-tasting as a Maine lobster. Spinies (as they are known) also lack claws, so lobster lovers who tend to favor the claw meat in a Maine lobster may be discouraged. But that doesn't mean spiny lobsters are not delicious delicacies all their own.
Buying a Spiny Lobster
Spiny lobsters are found in tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico. A similar and larger species, the California spiny lobster is a rare treat, gathered in traps or by hand by divers and sold live in tanks. This makes the U.S. spiny lobster fishery a "best choice" if you are eager to eat only sustainable seafood. The same can be said for lobsters taken in Baja, Mexico, and Australia. Sadly, spiny lobster stocks in the Caribbean are being overfished, so avoid them if you can.
Spiny lobsters, pound for pound, have more meat than New England lobsters do. That means you will do well to buy whole, live spiny lobsters if you can find them. You want to look for a lively one (as you would with a Maine lobster), and never buy a dead lobster that has not been frozen as enzymes in the lobster rot the meat very quickly. When buying frozen tails, look for those that have been vacuum-sealed—they will last up to a year that way.
Cooking Spiny Lobster
If you are lucky enough to find a whole lobster, you can use the meat in a variety of recipes—from lobster Thermidor and lobster salad to a lobster sauce for pasta. Since the meat isn't as sweet and rich as a Maine lobster, recipes that have added flavors and ingredients work well. Once you've removed the body meat, you can make lobster stock from the body and legs.
Spiny lobster tails are traditionally grilled and basted with butter. They are also excellent steamed and roasted.
Eating Spiny Lobster
From an eating standpoint, most of the meat in a spiny lobster is in its tail. (Be sure to get the thin little strips of meat from the tail flippers!) Spiny lobsters go a long way toward making up for the fact they don't have any claws by housing an enormous amount of meat in their bodies—there's an especially yummy chunk at the base of each antenna.
Pretty much everything inside the body is edible except for the lungs—which are grayish and feathery and attached to the flanks of the critter—the sand sac between the eyes, and anything tube-like or crunchy. The coral or roe is excellent, and you can eat the tomalley (the soft, green substance in the lobster's cavity), but don't make a habit of it—it acts as the liver and pancreas and is where the lobster stores toxins.