When the subject of lobster arises, many of us first think of the quintessential New England crustacean with its big claws. But in the Southern United States, Caribbean, or the Mediterranean, you might come across spiny lobster on the menu and wonder how it differs from the more familiar New England variety.
What Is Spiny Lobster?
Spiny lobster, also known as "spinies," is found in tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mediterranean Sea. The first thing you will notice about it (besides its bright spotted coloring) is that it has no claws but does have rather large antennae, which serve to ward off predators by making a scary sound. While spiny lobster tails are often sold frozen, a similar but larger species, the California spiny lobster, is captured in traps or hand caught by divers and sold live in tanks. This makes the U.S. spiny lobster fishery a best choice if you are eager to support sustainable seafood. The same can be said for lobsters taken in Baja, California, Mexico, and in Australia. Spiny lobster stocks in the Caribbean, however, are being overfished, so avoid them if you can.
How to Cook Spiny Lobster
If you are lucky enough to get a whole spiny lobster, you can use the meat in a variety of recipes—from lobster Thermidor and lobster salad to a lobster sauce for pasta. Because the meat is a bit firmer than Maine lobster, spiny lobster tails are traditionally grilled and basted with butter and are also excellent steamed and roasted. They do well in recipes with pronounced spices and ingredients, and work especially well in soups (bisque or chowder), rice dishes (such as paella or risotto), and stews. Be sure to get the thin little strips of meat from the tail flippers and the tasty chunk at the base of each antenna.
Once all the meat has been removed, you can make lobster stock from the body and legs.
What Does Spiny Lobster Taste Like?
Generally speaking, spiny lobster tastes, well, like lobster, with medium sweetness and a bit on the firmer side, especially since it does not have knuckle or claw meat. Where it comes from makes a difference: Spiny lobster from the Mediterranean usually tastes a bit brinier, those from the Caribbean a bit sweeter, and California "spinies" combine both sweetness and saltiness. If you happen to get a female, the coral (roe) adds richness, and so does the tomalley (the soft, green substance in the lobster's cavity), though some people don't care for it.
Spiny Lobster vs. Clawed Lobster
The big dividing factor among lobsters is whether they have claws or not, which is also closely connected with where they come from. Species of the Nephropidae family, such as Homarus gammarus (the European lobster) and Homarus americanus (the American lobster) have two large claws, a large crusher claw, and a smaller shredder claw, as well as five sets of crawling legs, and generally prefer cold water locations. Members of the Palinuridae family also have five sets of crawling feet but no large claws. Instead, they have big, long, stiff antennae compared to the Nephropidae family's thin, wiry ones. Members of Palinuridae live predominantly in warm water locations. But within both of these families, there are numerous genera and species with notably different characteristics.
From a culinary standpoint, within the Palinuridae family of spiny, clawless lobster, there are a few species with notably different characteristics to keep a lookout for:
- Palinurus elephas is the Mediterranean version, named after an ancient Roman town called Palinuro in the Salerno province in the region of Campania, where these lobsters were quite prolific and much sought after. Most of the European spiny lobster is consumed locally.
- Panulirus argus is quite plentiful throughout the warm southern waters of the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Florida, and Brazil. A sizeable number of these lobsters are consumed within these areas by residents and tourists, and even more of them are commercially exported throughout North America as frozen lobster tails.
- Panulirus interruptus, the California spiny lobster, is found in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, from Monterey Bay in California down to the Gulf of Tehuantepec near Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. This is the type of spiny lobster most likely to be sold live in the United States.
Spiny Lobster Recipes
Spiny lobster is extremely versatile and can be used in just about every way a New England lobster can.
Where to Buy Spiny Lobster
Pound for pound, spiny lobster has more meat than New England lobster does. That means you would do well to buy live spiny lobster if you can find them. 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 can rot the meat very quickly. When purchasing frozen tails, look for those that have been vacuum sealed, as they can last much longer.
Storing Spiny Lobster
Flash-frozen, vacuum-sealed spiny lobster tails can last in the freezer for a year or more. When you want to use them, transfer to the refrigerator a day before to thaw. If you are using live spiny lobster, cook them as soon as possible. Any leftover lobster meat can be packed in airtight plastic bags or containers and consumed within two to three days or frozen for up to six months.