You can't have summer on the coast of Maine without knowing how to make a seafood boil. For me, that means steaming hot piles of lobster, clams, corn, and potatoes spread out over a newspaper-covered table, with lots of warm melted butter and chilled white wine. It's a meal that instantly feels like a party, no matter how many share it. Manners go out the window and guards are let down as you crack and pull those curious crustaceans apart and eat everything with your hands.
The seafood and the spices might change depending on what part of the country you're from, but the spirit of a seafood boil remains the same. As does the technique, which is easier than you might think: it takes less than an hour, you don't need any special equipment, and you definitely don't need a recipe. (An extra-large pot helps, but you can manage without one.) Here's how to make a seafood boil:
You can add as few or as many different ingredients as you want to your seafood boil. I like to follow the classic combo of potatoes, corn on the cob, sausage, and two kinds of shellfish—usually one bivalve (clams or mussels) and one crustacean (shrimp, lobster, or crab). Here's a list of the most common ingredients, with recommended cooking times and amount per person. Each ingredient will cook at a different rate, so you want to start by adding the slowest cooking ingredients first. The amount per person all depends on how many other ingredients you're adding, so scale up or down depending.
Potatoes: 1/4 to 1/2 pound per person; 20 to 25 minutes, depending on size. Small new potatoes are best since you don't have to peel or slice them. If using larger potatoes, cut them into smaller pieces.
Lobster: 1/2 to 1 lobster per person; 12 to 15 minutes depending on size. Buy and cook your lobsters live for optimum freshness.
Sausage: 1/8 to 1/4 pound per person; about 10 to 15 minutes. Use smoked or fully cooked sausages such as linguiça, kielbasa, or andouille, or go with sweet or spicy Italian.
Corn on the Cob: 1/2 to 1 cob per person; 10 minutes. For optimum fresh sweetness, shuck just before cooking.
Clams: 3 to 6 per person; about 10 minutes. Use littleneck, Manila, or steamer clams, and scrub them well before cooking.
Blue Crabs: 2 to 4 crabs per person; about 10 minutes. For the freshest flavor, buy and cook live crabs.
Crawfish: 3 to 6 per person; about 8 minutes. Buy and cook live crawfish for the best flavor
Mussels: 3 to 6 per person; about 5 minutes. Wash and de-beard mussels before cooking.
Shrimp: 4 to 6 per person; about 3 minutes. Use shell-on (head-on if you're brave!) jumbo shrimp—the bigger the shrimp the better for a shellfish boil.
Before you start boiling all your shellfish, you need to build a flavorful broth to boil it in. But we're not going to spend hours simmering a stock—we're making a quick stock, or "court-bouillon," by boiling water, acid, and aromatics together for a few minutes before starting to cook with it.
Fill your largest pot 3/4 full with water, and bring it to a boil. While it's heating up, think about how you want your shellfish boil to taste, and start adding those aromatics to the pot. You'll want to add some salt no matter what (add more than you think you need), and then something acidic. I like to pour a bottle of cheap white wine in there. Or you can use lemon juice, then toss the squeezed-out lemons in for extra flavor as well. Orange juice and/or zest can be nice too, or straight-up vinegar. Or you could use beer, or a combination of beer and citrus. Some garlic (slice a whole head in half and toss it in, skins and all!) and/or onions or shallots are great for rounding out the flavor, with or without carrots and celery. And don't forget to spice things up a bit: a bay leaf or two is never a bad place to start. Hot sauce is a classic Louisiana-style addition, or you could use Old Bay Seasoning. Or put an Italian spin on it with crushed red pepper flakes and fresh thyme sprigs.
After you've added the flavorings, let the water boil for about 10 minutes, and then give it a taste (careful—let it cool before slurping it off the spoon!). You want your quick broth to be noticeably salty and acidic and exciting—if it's not, adjust it until it is. Now you're ready to start cooking.
If you don't have a large-enough pot or you're cooking an extra-large amount of food, use multiple pots, and get the same broth going in each one.
Using my list above, add your ingredients in order from longest-cooking to shortest-cooking. Make sure your broth is at a rolling boil over high heat, then set a count-down timer for 25 minutes and add each ingredient as its time comes up, beginning, of course, with the potatoes. Once you hit 15 minutes, add the lobster and sausage; once you hit 10, add the corn and the clams; and so on and so forth depending on the ingredients. Cover the pot between each addition to make sure it stays as hot as possible in there.
Keep a close watch on the pot as you go, so you'll know if your ingredients take longer or shorter to cook than expected. You're looking for the bivalves to open wide and the crustaceans to turn bright red. If they do this sooner than the suggested time, pull them out of the liquid so they don't overcook. If they take longer to get to this point, keep boiling them until they get there.
If you have a steamer or pasta pot with a perforated insert, it's helpful to use it to make your shellfish boil so you can simply lift everything out of the pot when it's done rather than struggle with pouring a huge pot of hot things over a colander in your sink. Another way to get around that steam bath is to use tongs or a spider to grab the finished ingredients out of the hot water. Transfer everything to a baking sheet or lay it out on a table covered with newspaper to catch the drippings.
Everyone will want sauce for dipping as they eat, right? Melted butter is the most classic condiment, perhaps with some lemon wedges alongside, but feel free to think outside the butter box. Try a spicy green dipping sauce, or maybe a horseradish sauce. Or put out bottles of your favorite hot sauce or bowls of the flavorful cooking broth. Or all of the above. Add some nut or lobster crackers and perhaps some skinny little forks or crab picks to the table and don't forget the napkins—eating a shellfish boil is a hands-on, messy kind of business. Which is all part of the fun.