What is a Lobster Roll? Meet Maine’s Official Summer Sandwich
Lobster rolls are a special summer sandwich. Native to New England clam shacks and roadside stands, it’s the coastal brother of the popular hot dog. The lobster roll, like chili, is one of the most contentious foods out there; everyone’s got a favorite way to do it.
Traditionally, the best lobster rolls have been found in the states of Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut and in seaside hotspots like the Cape Cod peninsula. But did you know you can make this sandwich in the comfort of your home with a little know-how and a few simple ingredients?
How to make lobster rolls you ask? It’s easier than you think. Check out our Maine lobster roll kits containing classic split top rolls and pounds of sweet tail, knuckle and claw meat.
Lobster rolls taste better when they are made at home. It doesn’t matter if you’re an amateur cook or a professional chef, anyone can construct a good roll. Read on to find out why America loves this succulent seafood sandwich — from fast food joints to swanky restaurants.
The History of the Lobster Roll
Lobster rolls are native to New England’s six states (Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut). They can also be traced to the Canadian Maritimes (New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia). Today, lobster rolls are served from the hatches of food trucks, in award-winning restaurants, and out of seafood shacks along the oceanfront. America may have claimed this crustacean sandwich, but the lobster roll is proudly East Coast.
A Seriously Succulent Saga
The mighty lobster roll boasts a rich and colorful history with roots deep in New England and the Canadian Maritimes. It’s gone from small-town sandwich with humble beginnings to a North American icon in just a short span of time.
Before the roll went gourmet, lobster sandwiches were made by the very people who did the fishing—the lobstermen. It was a simple, cheap sandwich made with two slices of white bread with cooked lobster meat from less-than-perfect lobsters or from the days unsold catch.
Where are Lobster Rolls From?
While there are plenty of rumors about its original birth place, the lobster roll can be traced back to the Roaring Twenties to a restaurant called Perry’s in Milford, Connecticut. The story goes that Harry, the proprietor, invented the portable sandwich after a travelling liquor salesman swung by his eatery. The salesman was hankering after a “hot grilled lobster sandwich” to take with him on the road. Harry, being quick-thinking and nimble-fingered, created one on the spot.
Harry began perfecting his sandwich and noted that sliced white bread was a bit of a letdown. It was flimsy, soggy and kind of tasteless…and it didn’t hold the lobster well. He enlisted French’s Bakery in nearby Bridgeport,CT to make a special bun just for Perry’s. But unlike our top-split bun of today this was more of a submarine sandwich roll. Harry cut a v-notch wedge in the top for loading up the meat. The bread top was put back on and the sandwich was grilled and ready for takeout!
America is on a Roll with Lobster Rolls
The Perry’s trend caught fire and folks were soon enjoying this old-school grilled submarine sandwich up and down the Connecticut coast. In the 1950s, lobster shacks were springing up all along the eastern seaboard, delighting out-of-towners and local folk. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the lobster roll made major in-roads in foodie culture. Red Eats, a famous food stand on Maine’s Route 1, helped boost the sandwiches popularity.
Jasper White, a legendary Boston, Massachusetts chef, is credited with the lobster rolls’ rise in the 1980s. His dressed-up versions were enjoyed at his landmark waterfront restaurant Jasper’s and at his Summer Shack seafood eateries.
Lobster rolls really started to gain traction in 1996 when native New Yorker Rebecca Charles served her Maine-style rolls at Greenwich Village’s Pearl Oyster Bar. The fresh, steamed meat was piled into butter-grilled Pepperidge Farm buns before being lightly coated with Hellmann’s mayonnaise and garnished with chives.
Ever since, the sandwich has solidified itself as a true American classic, up there with apple pie, buffalo wings, hamburgers, and corn dogs. It has single-handedly put New England on the culinary map, not just in the USA but also the world.
Lobster Food Trucks are Rollin’
It’s full steam ahead for the lobster rolls craze. Seafood shacks are dropping anchor all across the country, some with waterfront views and others with views of the mall food court. Lobster roll trucks are rolling in cities like Cape May, Maine, Chicago, Illinois, Austin, Texas, and even Park City, Utah. As of this writing, there are five different lobster truck companies “clawing” it out in California alone.
Everyone is getting in on the action; including McDonald’s. Even Subway, the largest fast-food company by store count, is also shelling out crustacean sandwiches. The famed French restaurant, Balthazar, located in the swanky SoHo section of Manhattan makes rolls with their own in-house baked bread.
What is Lobster Roll Made of? The Anatomy of a Lobster Roll
Let’s discuss what makes the best lobster roll. What’s in a lobster roll? The short answer: fresh, simple ingredients! This sumptuous seafood sandwich is made with a handful of foods that are easily stored in your pantry and fridge. When you deconstruct a lobster roll, you realize it’s easier than making a BLT! There’s nothing like a properly made lobster roll. It consists of three main ingredients:
- Fresh lobster meat
‘Simple’ will be the recurring theme to assembling a great lobster roll on any coast.
#1 Lobster Meat
Rule #1: Never skimp on the ‘Maine’ ingredient! It all starts with fresh, succulent lobster meat, and lots of it. But never forsake quality meat for quantity. Real good lobster meat is not cheap. Unfortunately, many restaurateurs who have jumped on the lobster roll bandwagon cut corners to increase margins and boost profits.
Unless there’s filler, a good lobster sandwich is not cheap. It takes two live lobsters to make 8 ounces of lobster meat.
The star of the roll should always be succulent chunks of lobster meat, freshly cooked and shucked locally or properly fresh-frozen lobster meat.
With advanced processing technologies, you can now get premium frozen lobster meat that can be far superior to cooked meat that has been stored a day or two too long. And of course, there is also poorly processed lobster meat on the market.
Lobsters should be cooked live, iced to prevent overcooking, with the meat picked on the spot. When you order lobster rolls from Lobster Anywhere, you’ll get the best Maine lobster delivered to front door.
Did you know there are differences in the meat from the different parts of the lobster?
- CK meat: Claw and knuckle meat is known in the trade as CK meat. It is the most widely used for rolls.
- TCK meat: Tail, Claw and knuckle meat is called TCK meat. This mix includes the best parts of the lobster, with the tail meat being the most expensive.
- CKL meat: Claw, knuckle and leg meat.
You’ll find each part of the meat will have a different flavor profile and texture. We like big chunks of claw and knuckle meat and, if you’re lucky, you may find the more expensive and biggest piece of meat—the tail added. You may find the tips of the lobster claws to be chewy or even spongy depending on the cook. Some prefer to clip off the claw tips with scissors. The tail meat should have a firm, snappy texture. Don’t overlook the knuckle meat as it offers sweet and tender morsels.
Some rolls, on the other hand, are made with cheap alternatives like a mix of leg or broken meat. Some add body meat to further bring down the cost. Sadly, some lobster rolls are made with diced up or shredded lobster meat. This may pass for a lobster salad, but not for a good roll.
Uncut lobster meat also tastes the best and makes for a better, more authentic presentation. In short, the meat makes the lobster roll!
#2 The Bread
What’s the best bread for a lobster roll? A lobster roll is not called a lobster roll for nothing. The New England hot dog bun is also know as the frankfurter roll, split-top bun or top sliced roll. If you live outside the six New England States, real rolls may be hard to come by.
Lobster rolls are traditionally served on a roll: a top-split buttery grilled roll. A split roll is sliced down the top (instead of the side), making a delicious pocket for your filling. A typical soft New England hot dog roll features straight-up, white sides for coating in butter and for grilling. It absorbs the most butter when grilled in a pan, plus the inside stays soft.
The top-loading hot dog bun was invented in the 1940’s by Iconic Maine bread maker, J.J.Nissen bakery for the roadside restaurant chain Howard Johnson’s. They required a roll that could could be filled upright with their “Tendersweet” fried clams. It was served in a paper boat.
J.J. Nissen is best known for its endorsement by Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams in the late 1980’s. The bread company survived the Great Depression and both the First and Second World Wars.
This East Coast fast-food sandwich was designed to be portable. Rolls will stand upright with lobster meat loaded, ready to carry and enjoy on the go. It is the Uber to your lobster meat.
Under the Orange Roof. As of 2019, only one Howard Johnson’s restaurant remains: in Lake George, New York. The hotel and motels were purchased by Wyndham Hotels & Resorts. On a side note, the clam strips were supplied by Ipswich, Massachusetts based, Soffron Brothers Clam Company.
Fresh-off-the griddle buttered rolls make a huge difference. The only prerequisite for the bread is that there is not too much of it and it is light and fresh. Again, the star of the sandwich is the meat. You always want a generous portion of freshly cooked meat, not heavy bread.
Choosing the Right Bread for Your Lobster Roll
Our favorite store bought roll is made by Pepperidge Farm, founded by Margaret Rudkin in 1937 in New Haven, Connecticut. It was named after her family farm. She started making preservative and artificial free bread for her son who was allergic to commercial breads. To this day, the rolls are made with good quality ingredients. A important distinction with these New England rolls is that they are baked with a brown crust on the sides, however, they taste wonderful butter grilled and hold up well.
Country Kitchen Rolls is another local favorite baked by Lepage Bakeries (Lewiston, Maine) a 109-year-old-company- purchased by Georgia based, Flower Foods in 2012.
We’ve found “lobster rolls” made with some inventive bread choices, including:
- Croissants (See our recipe for Croissant Lobster Sandwiches)
- Artisan Bread (See our recipe for Lobster Grilled Cheese)
- Kaiser bun
- Martin’s potato bun
- Sub rolls
- Italian Bread
- Challah roll
- Hamburger buns
- Pain au Lait (it’s a small, slightly sweet, buttery bun enriched with milk)
- Mini slider buns for a big crowd
- King’s Hawaiian hot dog buns
If you can’t find a “top-loading” hot-dog bun, give a brioche roll a try or even a nice buttery croissant.
In Kennebunkport, Maine, there’s one popular spot that serves up fresh lobster meat on a hamburger bun with butter or mayonnaise served on the side. It works well. When top-loading hotdog buns are not the bread, is it still a lobster roll? This is up to debate, but who doesn’t love a great lobster sandwich!
Local, fresh baked breads are always a real treat, but be sure your bread doesn’t outweigh the meat. Remember the roll is merely the vessel to hold your luxurious lobster meat. Too much bread and you will sink your lobster roll!
#3 Lobster Roll Dressing
We are proponents of simple, light dressings such as a glaze of mayo or a drizzle of hot butter. These are what you call traditional lobster rolls: cold Maine-style with mayo and Connecticut-style hot buttered. We like to use Cains mayonnaise since it’s all-natural and local. Use just enough mayonnaise to hold the lobster meat together. Remember there is no saving a soggy roll drowning in too much mayo! Again, purists prefer just a touch of mayo, and a pinch of salt and pepper.
Some add a bed of lettuce or diced celery blended in the mayo for a little-added crunch. But don’t go overboard, you don’t want to be guilty of adding filler! A squeeze of fresh lemon on the roll is always sublime. Drawn butter and mayo may also be served on the side.
You will also find rolls dressed in aioli sauce. What is aioli? It’s like mayo although it is garlic-based and made with olive oil, not vegetable oil. It’s good stuff if it’s made simply. Love that lemon aioli!
For a slightly sweeter roll, whip in the salad spread, Miracle Whip in place of your standard mayo. Tarragon, celery salt, or fresh chopped chives,can be tasty compliments to a lobster roll as well.
“As the old adage goes, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig”. The same can be said for the lobster roll. No amount of fancy dressing will disguise mediocrity. But if the lobster meat is really good, the sandwich will stand on its own.
Unconventional ingredients can put an exciting twist on the lobster roll but unwittingly, they can disguise the true, sweet ocean flavor of the meat (unless the meat is poor quality to begin with).
Pro Tip: Make sure you can visibly see lobster meat in the roll, like a whole claw or two, or even a big piece of tail meat. Lightly dressed rolls are the best.
All Killer, No Filler? Simple Lobster Roll Recipes
You can’t go wrong with lobster roll recipes that focus on the sweet taste of lobster. On the other hand, some people (we won’t name names), like to cover up the fresh briny succulence of the lobster meat with fancy ingredients, like aioli, tarragon, Old Bay seasoning and so on…
In New England, you’ll find two different schools of how to make lobster rolls: chilled with mayo or served hot with butter. The latter, also know as the Connecticut-style or naked lobster roll is just fresh chunks of lobster on top of a grilled hot dog bun drizzled with warm butter.
The No-Mayo Lobster Roll: Gourmet (July, 2009) magazine featured a recipe for no-mayo lobster rolls with lemon vinaigrette dressing. The rationale is that the simple dressing will not mask the sweet, briny flavor or bright red color of the lobster meat.
The Great Lobster Roll Debate Rages On…
Served warm with drawn butter or chilled with mayo? That is the million-dollar question! The best way to make a lobster roll is a topic of debate between seafood purists and culinary adventurers. There are three types of lobster rolls that reign supreme: The Connecticut, The Maine and The Maverick. Which one do you like most? Read our guide to make a decision.
The Connecticut Lobster Roll
Those nice Nutmeggers* believe that lobster rolls should be served one way only: warm and unadorned. Succulent lobster meat is heated in butter, dressed with salt, pepper and lemon juice, and generously loaded into a toasted split top bun.
The Connecticut-style or naked lobster roll is just fresh chunks of lobster on top of a grilled hot dog bun drizzled with warm butter.
*Fast Fact: Nutmegger is a nickname for people from the US state of Connecticut!
How to Make Hot Buttered Lobster Rolls (Hot buttered CT Style)
- Grab a saucepan and melt our Maine sea salt butter over a low heat.
- Add our fresh lobster meat to the warmed butter and toss gently. Be careful not to overheat or cook the meat.
- Brush each side of our Pepperidge Farm split rolls with butter and toast in a skillet.
- Load the bread with cooked lobster meat and finish with a squeeze of lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and a shake of pepper.
- Serve up immediately since the butter can soak through the bread and no one wants soggy bread.
The Maine Lobster Roll
The good folk of Maine like to dress their chilled lobster meat with creamy mayo. Some call it a cold lobster salad, but we think a lobster salad is something a little different. The chilled meat is generously loaded into a toasted split top roll, before being finished with a spritz of lemon juice and a shake of salt and pepper.
How to Make Classic Lobster Rolls with Mayo (Maine-Style)
- Grab a large bowl and mix our cooked lobster meat with quality mayonnaise.
- Add a squeeze of lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and a shake of pepper.
- Fold all the ingredients into each other until the lobster meat is lightly covered.
- Brush both sides of of each Pepperidge Farm buns with our Maine sea salt butter and toast in a skillet until golden (about 2 minutes per side).
- Open the top split roll and pile in your chilled lobster meat until your roll is overstuffed. Don’t forget to supply a fork to get every chunk of lobster meat that spills out.
Now you have a classic Maine lobster roll even if you live in the small town of South Boston, Virginia.
Loved by the gastronauts of the foodie world, these lobster rolls break all the rules. The meat is finished with aioli, wasabi, Old Bay seasoning, pickled mustard seeds, cucumber, and Tabasco…just to name a few! There are plenty of chefs who attempt to put a “gourmet” spin on the roll. We’ve even heard of lobster meat being swamped with mac and cheese or stuffed into Asian slaw. While we not fans those kinds of adaptations, we give full marks for imagination!
The truth is, the star of the show is the lobster itself — succulent, sweet, and beautifully briny. We source our Maine lobsters from a sustainable fishery, caught by independent lobstermen.
Hot dogs are not the only comfort food served with toppings. Have you tried the California version of the lobster roll served with avocado, white cabbage, pico de gallo, and Sriracha? Along with avocado, you’ll find rolls topped with bacon, pickled mustard seeds, cucumbers, caramelized onions, tomatoes, hot giardiniera (Italian relish), Old Bay seasoning, black truffle, panko crumbs, and crushed potato chips (might give this a try). It’s okay to embrace creativity, but always remember to know the source, keep it fresh and simple.
A Top-Secret Condiment
Read On for the Big Reveal!
You never want to over-complicate a lobster roll, but there is one secret topping that will add a hit of salty sweetness. Pick up a box each of Lorna Dune Cookies, Keebler Club Crackers, and Ritz Crackers.
- Place a handful each in a zip lock bag and mash em up fine.
- Just before you serve your rolls sprinkle a little of this mixture on the top of your rolls for a flavor extravaganza!
- Give each roll a squeeze of fresh lemon.
Where to find the Perfect Lobster Roll?
Your itinerary to Maine would not be complete without a stop at a roadside stand for this beloved New England favorite. A great little book documenting some of the best rolls in not just Maine, but in all of New England is Lobster Rolls of New England: Seeking Sweet Summer Delight, by the Lobster Gal, aka, Sally Lerman.
If you’re hunting down the best lobster rolls in New England,below are some hot spots to fill your trap with a good crustacean sandwich.
- Red Eats, Wiscasset, Maine
- The Clam Shack, Kennebunk, Maine
- Lobster Landing, Clinton, Connecticut
- Five Islands Lobster Company, Georgetown, Maine
- The Lobster Pool, Rockport, Massachusetts
- The Village Restaurant, Essex, Massachusetts
What Goes Best with Lobster Rolls?
What to serve with lobster rolls? Again, you want to keep your sea sweet sandwiches simple. Though not a required, it is comforting to receive good sides with your roll. Good comfort food deserves a good comfort side.
As mentioned above, it’s best to keep the “sides” out of the roll itself! The usual sidekicks are a lemon wedge, the standard pickle, coleslaw (also known as slaw), or a bag of potato chips.
For starters, go for a nice cup of clam chowder with oyster crackers. And when in New England why not have some steamer clams or even fried clams with your rolls.
If you’re lucky, you may receive a fresh batch of lightly battered onion rings, hand-cut French fries, or even house-made potato chips (you can’t go wrong with Kettle chips) with your roll! You can also serve ramekins of mayo and/or clarified butter on the side.
For a sweet side serve watermelon slices and for dessert bake up chocolate chip cookies, brownies, or whoopie pies—the official state treat of Maine.
Here’s more ideas for what to serve with lobster rolls.
- Mac and Cheese (See our recipe for Lobster Mac n’ Cheese!)
- French Fries
- Clam Chowder
- Potato Salad
- Potato Chips
- Onion Rings
- Corn on the Cob
See our post for more sides for your lobster. And what to drink with your rolls you ask? Retro, all-natural sodas have made a comeback. You may find an assortment of flavors at a local seafood joint available to wash down a roll or two. Or, how about freshly squeezed lemonade? And there’s always chilled chardonnay or an ice cold, local craft beer to accompany your lobster roll feast.
Lobster Roll College
It’s a tough call but the good news is this — The Connecticut and The Maine are ridiculously delicious! Why not try both and then decide? Two lobster rolls are never enough anyway. On hot days, you can’t beat refreshing chilled lobster coated in dreamy, creamy mayo. On cooler days, nothing beats the taste of butter-drenched lobster. It’s a win-win if you ask us.
Those in the know claim that 3.5 ounces of succulent meat makes a perfect lobster roll. You can reduce the portion size or add to it depending on your greed level. If your throwing a big lobster bash, you can get about sixteen 2 oz. mini-sliders from our 2 pound package of lobster meat.
Claw and knuckle meat, freshly shucked or bought dry-pack frozen. Our lobster roll kits are shipped all over the US and come with split-top rolls and sea salt butter. We include cooked meat with tails as a tastier premium product.
Always cut the meat into chunks — big, hefty lumps of lusciousness. Shaving, dicing or mincing is sacrilege. The seafood gods would scream in horror!
While we never dis anyone who adds extra filling, the truth is that a drizzle of butter or a spoonful of mayo really is the best. Simplicity and freshness is key here — focus on the lobster, not the garnish. We recommend a pinch of salt, a sprinkle of pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice for added tang. If you really must have something more, then a little diced celery is second to none.
Keep it old fashioned like we do in New England and cut your hot dog buns at the top. Just run your knife along the center of the bread so it becomes the perfect pocket. For store-bought rolls, you can’t go past Pepperidge Farm Bakery Classics: Top Sliced Hot Dog Buns. We include them in our popular lobster roll kits and they’re a major hit with our customers!
This versatile crustacean sandwich can be enjoyed anytime, anywhere! Serve lobster rolls at dinner parties, barbeques, lunches, picnics, pot lucks, and special events. You can dress them down for Super Bowl weekend or dress them up as wedding appetizers. Lobster rolls are a hit with everyone.
While there are plenty of places in the USA that serve a mean lobster roll, you can’t go past those special joints. Below are some of the landmark haunts that have won the hearts of diners everywhere and made New England proudest.
Where to Buy Lobster Rolls (and All the Rest)
It’s Easier than You Think!
Can’t make the road trip to a lobster shack? Test the waters at LobsterAnywhere; we’ll ship a lobster roll kit to just about anywhere in the USA.
Our DIY lobster roll kits are available in two different sizes and can be next day delivered. You get succulent Maine lobster meat, Pepperidge Farm split rolls, Maine sea salt butter and luxurious sea salt butter.
What’s more, you’ll receive a bag of genuine salt water taffy candy just for fun! If you want to make the best lobster rolls in the comfort of your kitchen, we’re the team to buy them from.