Red Lobster restaurants typically serve two types of lobster: Maine Lobster and Rock lobster. Rock lobsters are also known as spiny lobsters. You may notice that the Rock lobster only comes as tails, whereas you can get the Maine lobster as a whole lobster, or as a tail. What is the difference between the two types, which one should you order, and why are the rock lobsters only available as tails?

When you walk into a Red Lobster, you’ll probably see a tank of live lobsters in the lobby. These are the lobsters we typically think of when we think of lobster, the Maine Lobster. This is the most prized lobster, and undoubtedly the most popular at Red Lobster.

The Rock lobster, only available as tails, can be interchanged with Maine Lobster in recipes, but the meat, although similar, is generally coarser, dryer, and less flavorful. The Maine Lobster, with shells that appear quite red after cooking, is the namesake of the restaurant chain for a reason.

If you look under the Fresh Fish Menu you will see Live Maine Lobster listed as “Signature Shellfish” but no mention of the Rock Lobster. This is because the Rock lobster is not fresh. The Maine Lobster is priced according to the season and availability, and sold by the pound. In general, lobster lovers will want to go for the Maine lobster, and indeed, the price may not be all that different, when viewed on a pound for pound basis, but keep in mind that the weight of the live lobster includes the weight of the shell.

Maine Lobster

Maine lobster or American lobsters, which is also called the Northern Lobster (Homarus americanus), are found on the North Atlantic coast of America, not only from the waters of Maine, but also elsewhere on the North Atlantic coast, as well as the Canada coast. Their habitat stretches, generally, from the Eastern coast of Canada to the coast of North Carolina, but they are more abundant from Maine to New Jersey, growing scarcer farther south or north. These lobsters, with edible claws, are true lobsters, and are one of around 25 species of similar lobsters, which have big crushing claws and smaller serrated claws for cutting. Red Lobster buys Maine lobster live, which is how they are almost always sold. These are the most sought after type of lobster, being the most succulent and having the best texture and flavor. The exact waters that the lobster is caught in can influence the taste, because of diet and temperature, but they are always considered superior to Rock lobster. The Maine Lobster is either steamed whole in the shell, or roasted. The live Maine lobster can be purchased whole steamed, or roasted and stuffed. Tails can be had several ways, including roasted or wood-grilled.

Rock Lobster

Rock, or Spiny Lobsters are found in warmer waters. They are often called sea crayfish. One type, Panuliris interruptus, and caught along the southern Atlantic coast and the California coast. Another, Panilirus argus, is found in Florida waters, and are the most abundantly caught. They are, in fact, often called Florida Lobsters and are what people in Florida think of when they want lobster. These are found as far south as the Caribbean and can be found all along the keys.

Rock Lobsters or Spiny Lobsters do not have large edible claws like Maine lobster, but only tiny claws, which don’t have any edible meat. Whereas the American lobster has marketable meat in its claws, body, and tail, the spiny lobster only has marketable meat in its tail. This is why the Rock lobsters at Red Lobster only come in tails. Red Lobster buys Rock lobster tails frozen, which is how they are usually purchased. The tails are offered roasted, with the meat fluffed for easy eating.

Even though the Rock lobsters don’t have huge crushing claws, they are not defenseless. They are armed with very long and stiff antennae over their eyes which can be even longer than their bodies. They can whip these around to inflict some serious wounds. And the tail itself, like the Maine lobster’s tail, can be used as a weapon.

This article was originally posted on Culinary Lore, August 20, 2014.