This first appeared in Bangor Metro’s June/July 2021 issue.
Perhaps the original “one-pot” meal, seafood boils are a great way to feed a crowd while celebrating the local bounty of delicious crustaceans and crops. Different regions of the country have their own versions of seafood boils, but no matter your preference, making your own at home is a seafood-loving crowd-pleaser.
Different areas have different seafood boil traditions. A New England seafood boil is fairly simple, “spiced” only with salty seawater and consisting of whatever comes out of the docks that day. In contrast, a Cajun seafood boil, like you might enjoy in Louisiana, is a spicy affair.
“[Seafood boils] are a celebration of seasonal foods,” said Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine, who grew up in Louisiana. “In the spring, crawfish are bountiful. Crawfish boils are almost more about the sense of community and celebration and people getting together. There’s nothing like a seafood boil to bring people together for hours to enjoy great food and enjoy being together.”
Dumas said that in the South, hosting a seafood boil can also be a show of hospitality.
“It’s not cheap to put on a seafood boil,” Dumas said. “There’s quite a lot of money that goes into that pot.”
You can of course make any seafood boil that you want, or combine the elements that you like, but as with any food-base cultural event, knowing the heritage is a great place to start. Dumas said to think of a seafood boil like a summertime Thanksgiving.
“It goes back to cultural events being centered around harvest,” Dumas said. “The Thanksgiving menu is what’s seasonally available in New England in November. Seafood is no different. There are times of the year when different products from the sea are harvested either because they taste best at that time or are accessible at that time.”
Step 1: Get your seafood
Fresh seafood is the most important element of a successful seafood boil.
“In any seafood boil the most important concept is to use the ingredients that are most fresh and available in your region,” said Kara van Emmerik, Sous Chef and Instructor in the Culinary Arts program at Eastern Maine Community College. “In Maine, for example, the essentials include lobster, steamer clams, mussels and occasionally Jonah crab legs.”
Kelly Corson, co-owner of the Travelin Lobster in Town Hill, said that at her restaurant, seafood boils will consist of whatever her husband, Paul, who is a lobsterman, brings in from the ocean that day.
“Sometimes depending on the season, if he does get some Maine stone crabs, he’ll bring those in and we’ll give the option to be able to throw those in well,” Corson said. “Basically, it’s whatever he gets his hands on that day. People love it.”
If you don’t have that option, van Emmerik said to buy the freshest, most available regional seafoods available to you.
“I also try [to] make a point to buy from the fishermen and retailers who are local to me,” van Emmerik said. “It’s the perfect opportunity to support our hard working fishermen and small businesses.”
Step 2: Get your mix-ins
Fresh, regional vegetables are also important for your seafood boil. Other additions can also add flavor and nuance to the pot.
“Here, we tend to always include corn and potatoes because not only are they delicious, but they are easily accessible and abundant crops in our region,” van Emmerik said. “If you would like, a smoky sausage like andouille or kielbasa can be a welcome addition to a seafood boil, though this is more common in southern seafood boils.”
You might want to add some spices and herbs. Van Emmerik said that Maine seafood boils usually use only halved lemons and fresh parsley or thyme, if they use anything at all.
“In Maine, we want to taste the seafood without it being masked with strong spices [but] you can be as bold or as simple as you’d like,” van Emmerik said. “Add different citrus, add some more adventurous whole spices or herbs. The possibilities are endless, but to me, the star of the show should always be our fresh ocean resources and the other flavors should be supporting characters.”
Down South, seafood boils are all about the spices.
“That seasoning is typically done with a blend of peppers — cayenne, black pepper, white pepper — [and] you’re going to have a lot of salt [and] some sort of vinegar,” Dumas said. “Some people buy pre-made seasoning mixings for it. A lot of folks will put in lemons, garlic and onions to create court-bouillon, an acidic highly flavored cooking liquid.”
Step 3: Get your equipment
Because of the scale of a seafood boil, it will require some special equipment — namely, a large pot and an appropriate burner.
Dumas said a great seafood boil is always going to have a propane burner, pot with strainer, as well as a hose and several coolers. Corson said that she uses a turkey fryer as a pot for her seafood boils, while van Emmerik said she prefers a heavy bottomed stock pot with a cover.
No matter what you use to heat your boil, make sure you can do it outside.
“If you do a seafood boil inside, your whole house will smell of seafood for days and you will create a sauna of steam,” van Emmerik said. “I use the gas burner on the side of my grill, and it works great. I have also done this over a fire on the beach, which is the most Maine experience you can have.”
Depending on how many people you are cooking for, you might even want multiple pots or do multiple batches.
“Sometimes your boil pot isn’t big enough to do just one,” Dumas said. “Once you have that flavored court-bouillon, you can get spicier and more flavorful batches. Typically those second or third batches get to where I’m sweating when I’m eating.”
Step 4: Heat your water
Once you have your equipment ready, it is time to fill your pot with water and whatever spices or aromatics you want to use.
You can use water with a generous helping of store bought sea salt, but Dumas said that local seawater will add an extra flair to your seafood boil — specifically, a sense of merroir, a taste of the local ocean similar to how wine from different regions have terroir.
“It also contains more than just salt, like little organic things that give distinct and unique flavor,” Dumas said.
Also, seafood “boil” is something of a misnomer. You want to heat the water to more of a simmer than a boil — Dumas said that between 186 and 188 degrees Fahrenheit is an ideal water temperature.
“In Maine, we tend to use less water and create more of a steam than a boil,” van Emmerik said. “This is to more gently cook the delicate seafoods like clams and mussels so as not to make them rubbery by boiling them. This also preserves the natural flavor and brine from the lobster and other seafood.”
Step 5: Add your ingredients
When it comes to adding the various elements into the water for a seafood boil, timing is key.
“Then there’s the kind of critical thinking step of like, ‘What am I going to put in my boil and how do I layer it in sequentially so everything is ready at the end?’” Dumas said.
When everything is said and done, Dumas said that the seafood boil will take between 10 and 15 minutes to cook. Start with the potatoes, as they will take the longest to cook. After a few minutes, toss in the lobsters, which will take about 10 minutes to cook.
After five minutes, toss in the corn, steamed clams and mussels.
Finally, in the last few minutes add the fast-cooking shrimp and crawfish, as well as the smoked sausage if you are using it.
Step 6: Enjoy
Use the stainer to lift the cooked seafood out of the broth. You can present the seafood boil on a large platter or in a presentation pot — or you can take a more informal route.
“My favorite way to eat seafood boils is by lining a table outside with newspapers or a plastic tablecloth and piling the seafood and other ingredients generously on the table,” van Emmerik said. “You can then gather around the table with family and friends and pick seafood until you’re full. This also keeps the mess outside and out of your house.”
Dumas said that at a Southern seafood boil, there will also be several loaves of crusty French bread, extra seasoning for spice lovers and cold beer to wash it all down.
For a Maine seafood boil, along with the proper tools for picking the meat out of the lobsters, Corson said she will serve the seafood with a side of butter, crackers and maybe a bowl for broth to rinse the steamed clams, which she said can be “a little gritty.” She also suggests ending the meal with a slice of homemade blueberry pie.
Once you have the basics down of a seafood boil, you can add your own unique flair to make it your own. For his part, Dumas said that he would like to have a boil using Maine’s produce and seafood, but Cajun spices and sausage.
“I would like to try really seasoning up that liquid, adding the lobsters in [and] cooking them,” Dumas said. “I may have to embark on that journey.”
Sam Schipani, Bangor Metro