Making Lobster Bisque: A Rich History

Lobster bisque is an elegant soup known for its rich flavor and crimson color. The main ingredient in this coastal favorite is the king of the sea, Homarus americanus. Due to the relative fame and ubiquity of lobster in the state of Maine, lobster bisque has become a delicious culinary staple. Generally, “bisque” refers to a soup with a distinct velvety texture and utilizes crustaceans – crayfish, shrimp, crab, or (our personal favorite) lobster as the main ingredient.

Making Lobster Bisque

The majority of the flavor in a bisque is not derived from the meat of the crustacean, but rather from the shells. Some recipes use a bit of meat as well but at its most classic level a lobster bisque is shell based. Bisque is also used to enhance the overall flavor of creamy soups containing pureed vegetables such as tomatoes, squash and mushrooms without the meat. Popular in both North America and Europe, lobster bisques and other types of bisques made using seafood are believed to have originated in France. Here is a soup that denotes high style, and its method of creation is sometimes still used to judge the quality of a restaurant!

History of Lobster Bisque

Lobsters have been consumed by humans since prehistoric times, and culinary evidence confirms that ancient Greeks and Romans cooked lobsters in a way that is quite similar to how we cook them today. While lobster was highly esteemed by the British, American colonists initially weren’t too fond of the crustacean, despite its abundance in their region of settlement. It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that Americans developed a taste for the crustacean, when chefs realized that lobsters tasted much better cooked alive than dead. Soon afterwards, lobster became a very stylish, high class ingredient. Many food lovers even considered it an aphrodisiac.

The Name is Bisque—Lobster Bisque

Etymologically, the word bisque suggests a connection to Vizcaya, a Spanish province that borders the Bay of Biscay. The Bay of Biscay borders the western regions of Spain and France and is, not so coincidentally, full of shellfish. The term is also likely referring to the way the lobsters are ‘bis cuites’ or cooked twice during the soup making process. They are sautéed lightly first within their shells, simmered in wine mixed with other aromatic ingredients, and then strained. Next the cream is added and voila, a delicious bisque! Some historians have deemed the original version of lobster bisque a fisherman’s food, due to the use of crushed shells. It was designed to get every last bit of flavor out of the crustacean so that nothing was wasted.

Interestingly enough, the word bisque had an entirely different culinary meaning in 16th century France. It used to indicate a game bird, such as quail, that was pureed into a soup and served in high societal settings. The recipe evolved during its immigration to America when crustaceans were substituted as the primary ingredient. In the 17th century, a version of bisque came into existence that is more similar to the modern day soup. They even utilized the crushed shells of the crustacean. Back then it was a thicker mixture known as pottage, and the main ingredient was crayfish (aka the American rock lobster) rather than your typical lobster. Lobsters and crustaceans were over abundant in the New England region and thus were more frequently thought of as a lower-class food. Only later did lobster and lobster bisque gain the culinary status they have today.

Today’s Recipe for Lobster Bisque

Here is a how to video for how to make a classic lobster bisque from Chef Scott Samuel from The Culinary Institute of America.

Many modern versions of bisque often served at steakhouses contain very little lobster, and are completed with some brandy, sherry and cognac. In some places the recipe for lobster bisque is more like a broth and the lobster takes the form of a dumpling. In other regions lobster bisque is served with zucchini and julienne carrots! New England seafood maven, Brooke Donjny, says lobster bisque can also be made without the lobster bodies and instead with just lobster meat.  Just as New England has a whole variety of lobster boats, there are a myriad of ways to make a lobster bisque.

Making Lobster Bisque

If you’re going to make a great lobster bisque you’ll need to have some time on your hands but the extra work is well worth it for the end result! In essence, bisque embodies a rather unique method of extracting flavors from the crustaceans.  While many lobster bisque recipes exist, there are some common ingredients that can help you achieve that classic, quintessential flavor. It is also possible to find lobster bisques, ready made, in cans, including the frozen forms of the soup that only requires boiling water for it to be cooked. However, none of these options beats the thrill of preparing lobster bisque with your own ingredients and fresh lobster.  The process of making this soup, without much fanfare, generally takes 1-2 hours to complete.

While lobster bisque is generally a purist soup, vegetables are sometimes included. Those that are commonly used are onions, celery and tomatoes. Unlike the recipe for New England Clam Chowder, another northeastern favorite, lobster bisque does not contain potatoes. Essentially, ingredients are not added all at once but in stages inside the saucepan prior to  blending the cooked mixture into the right smoothness and viscosity. White rice is oftentimes used as a thickening agent but this method can yield annoying clumps, which is why many chefs choose to use flour instead. Fresh lobster is preferred by most people, but frozen and precooked lobsters can be just as tasty.

Simple Bisque Ingredients

A simple yet effective way of making bisque lobster includes 2-3 medium Maine lobsters, some clam juice, chicken stock, cognac, celery stalks, sliced onion, chopped carrots, cloves, bay leaf and some peppercorns. Essentially, ingredients are not added all at once but in stages inside a large saucepan prior to  blending the cooked mixture into the right smoothness and viscosity. White rice is oftentimes used as a thickening agent but this method can yield annoying clumps, which is why many chefs choose to use flour instead. Fresh lobster is preferred by most people, but frozen and precooked lobsters can be just as tasty. If you are using a recipe that calls for live lobsters, the crustacean is usually boiled inside a pot and once boiled as required removed from the large pot perhaps using a set of tongs. Rather than roast the lobster, a steamer can come in handy in cooking the lobster. When making a good lobster bisque, the lobster tail must be pureed or properly chopped.

Simmer the mixture for about half an hour before straining. In case you are using coral roe, mash it with some flour before pouring heated milk in it, stirring the mixture in the process until smooth. At the same time, you can also cook in butter the empty lobster shells to draw more flavors out of them to create a richer soup. Flatten the surface area of the shells before you cook them so that their contact with the pan is much better. If you puree some of the meat right into your bisque, the lobster quotient goes up while lobster chunks used for garnishing will make the soup deeply luxurious.

Julia Child’s Lobster Bisque

Lobster Bisque Julia Child Recipe

Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two

Julia Child’s famous lobster bisque recipe recommends using only the chests and legs of the lobsters and saving the tails and claws for use in another main dish. Remember how some recipes call for cognac? Well Julia Child calls for the flamboyant approach of adding cognac or sherry and then lighting the entire pan on fire as you continue to saute! This method is meant to increase the overall flavor of the bisque. After this step she proceeds to remove the best pieces of lobster from her mixture of simmering lobsters and vegetables, and strain the juices from the casserole dish into a blender. The lobster meat and rice is then added and it is all pureed. While Julia Child’s recipe is a classic dish created by one of the greatest chefs to ever live, it is but one way to cook a great bisque. One of the best things about lobster bisque is its versatility. Although there are a few specific ingredients that give it its signature taste, you (the chef) can have fun trying out different ingredient proportions and cooking times.

Here’s an episode of The French Chef (1963-1973) in which Julia Child explains how to cook and eat lobsters!

Lobster bisque is very sumptuous and delicious if served immediately; but by letting it to rest for a couple of hours the lobster taste will be amplified as the ingredients, especially if you have used a lot of them, will have enough time to completely marry. In effect, plain lobster is not heavy with saturated fat and mayonnaise, cream and butter are added to make the lobster bisque rich. Now all you need is some fresh French bread, a glass of red wine, and someone to share in enjoying the delights of this delicious dish!

Get the Bisque that Made Boston Famous

Don’t have time on your hands or want to send a special lobster lover a gift? Our bisque is made right here in the Boston area and shipped all over the country. Check it out.

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