How to Make Shellfish Stock

Years ago, on a little island off the coast of Marblehead, Massachusetts, a friend’s aunt showed me how to eat a lobster, including the fine art of sucking the tender meat and juice out of the spindly legs. It was July, when lobsters are in season, and we had a huge pot of them for our gang. Aunt Judy then explained that one makes lobster bisque from the leftover shells. I still recall my astonishment. How could something so delicious come from boiled shells?

While New England has its summer lobster season, we in Northern California have our winter Dungeness crab season. In anticipation of making stock for seafood bisques and stews, I have been collecting our leftover shells from each crab feast and freezing them. Making seafood stock is similar to making chicken stock; it takes time and attention, and the final result makes it worth the effort. Best to do on a weekend afternoon. Make a big batch and freeze what you don’t need.

How to Make Shellfish Stock

  • Yield: Makes 2-3 quarts.

Ingredients

  • 4-6 cups shellfish shells, from shrimp, lobster, and/or crab
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 large yellow onion, sliced or chopped
  • 1 carrot, roughly sliced or chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, roughly sliced or chopped
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 sprigs of thyme
  • Several sprigs parsley
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 10-15 whole peppercorns
  • 2 teaspoons salt

Method

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1 Break thick shells (lobster and crab) into smaller pieces by putting in a sealed, thick plastic bag and either rolling with a rolling pin or hitting with a meat hammer to crush. Cut up thinner shrimp shells with a chef's knife. Don't crush or cut too small. You can even skip this step if you want, if you are already dealing with broken up shell pieces (like cracked crab). Place in a large roasting pan and roast at 400°F for 10 minutes (this step you can skip, but it greatly enhances the flavor).

Put the shells in a large stock pot and add enough water to cover the shells with an inch of water.

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2 Put the stove temperature on medium high and slowly heat the shells in the water. As soon as you see that little bubbles are starting to come up to the surface, reduce the heat to medium. Do not let it boil. You want to maintain the temperature at just below a simmer, where the bubbles just occasionally come up to the surface. Do not stir the shells. Stirring will muddy up the stock. As the bubbles come up to the surface a film of foam will develop on the surface. Use a large slotted spoon to skim away this foam. Let the shells cook like this for about an hour; skim the foam every few minutes. The foam comes from shells releasing impurities as their temperature increases.

3 Put the thyme, bay leaves, and parsley in cheese cloth. Secure with kitchen string to make a bouquet garni.

4 Once the stock has stopped releasing foam, you can add the wine, onions, carrots, celery, tomato paste, herb bouquet garni, and peppercorns. Bring to a low simmer and reduce heat so that the stock continues to simmer, but not boil, for 30 minutes. If more foam comes to the surface, skim it off. Add salt and remove from heat.

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5 Dampen a few layers of cheesecloth and place over a large, fine mesh strainer, over a large pot or bowl. Pour the stock into the strainer. Discard the solids. Either use the stock right away, or cool for future use. If you aren't going to use in a couple of days, freeze (remember to leave some head room at the top of your freezer container for the liquid to expand as it freezes.)

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Links:
Williams-Sonoma Mastering Soups and Stews - great book for cooking techniques. I got the basic method for this shellfish stock from this book.

18 Comments

  1. Bea at La Tartine Gourmande

    Wow, you Americans impress me with all the relatives you have everywhere! I used to work in Marblehead and I am *just* in the middle of deveining prawns to make fish stock for a risotto. That is a coincidence! How appropriate to get to this post!! God I like Internet! Merci!

  2. Elise

    Hi Bea, actually, Aunt Judy is a friend’s aunt. I lived in Boston right after college and made lifelong friends there. If you used to work in Marblehead, you may have heard of Baker’s Island, the island I’m referencing. I love the New England coast in the summer, we have nothing like it here. You’re welcome for the recipe. Now in addition to chicken bones I’m saving shellfish bones. The stock is fabulous. Makes all the difference. Bon appetit!

  3. Caroline

    I was wondering– what makes homemade stock so much better than canned? I don’t think I’ve ever had homemade stock (of any kind), though I’m guessing there’s less salt and more flavor. Normally I make everything from scratch, but it seems like an awful lot of work to make an ingredient that will play a minor role in a dish.

    But I do love the thought of using the shells, which would otherwise be thrown out.

    Note from Elise: Oh, where to start? There really is no comparison. Homemade stock is so much better than anything you can buy canned or boxed. Once you’ve had a soup made from good homemade stock you will understand why people go to the trouble of making it.

  4. Heidi

    I am thrilled to see this. I am the friend, as is my cousin, and Aunt Judy was making this stock at Aunt Bobby’s house on the island.

  5. Scottie

    Shell broth is indeed tasty, and flexible too, since you can use it in so many dishes. One suggestion I would make is broil the shells just prior to boiling. Just lay them out on a tray or iron skillet and put them under the broiler until they are just starting to darken. I think this really brings out the flavor!

  6. Craig Hatfield

    Ah, but the all the minor roles in a dish add up quickly and to great effect. Making stock does take time, but it’s the mother of everything and it’s where a great dish begins.

    I’ve found that boutique soup restaurants always have great stock on hand as it’s the basis of what they sell. The one I go to locally sells chicken, veal and fish stock for a paltry $13 a gallon. (!) I buy it all the time, usually reduce some into demi glace and fill ice cube trays with it, so I’ve always got it at the ready to bulk up dishes that need it.

  7. Katharine Gates

    Hello, I was wondering… do you use all of the lobster’s leftover body, i.e. including all of the green stuff inside the body and other messy innards?

  8. Gina Hardin

    What recipes do you use the crab shell stock in?

    Crab bisque or any seafood stew. ~Elise

  9. Clarissa

    I made crab legs tonight and wanted to try making stock. I googled and found this recipe. It’s just about done, then it will go in the freezer for a rainy day. Thanks, the explanations were very thorough and helpful.

  10. Jen Yu

    I love you, Elise. Love love love love love you! Thank you – this is the second recipe today that I’ve gotten off your site. You are the bomb, lady. xo

  11. Mary

    I’m a stock maker also; however, not seafood stock. It stinks up the house. Rather use a base for this one.

  12. Judith

    I am starting with raw shrimp shells (Maine shrimp are in season now). Do I roast the raw shells before using them to make stock?

    Yes, you do. But keep an eye on the shells in the oven. They might start to burn at 10 minutes, so check after 5 minutes. You want them dry and a pretty red color. ~Hank

  13. Geoffrey

    Ive been saving water from steaming of shellfish for the purpose of making a stock. I freeze, than take out and use again to steam. I have done this 3 times so far. What do you think? Might it work as a good base for seafood stock? I just came across your post today. Guess I’ll start saving spent shells.

    Yes, it sounds like a great base for stock, all you need to do is strain out any sand or shell bits. ~Elise

  14. Sylvia

    Hello, I came across your site last night looking for recipes that explained what to do with post lobster dinner shells. I decided to try your recipe and am almost done. I see that someone else asked a question regarding the innards and whether to include them in the simmering process but there is no reply. I decided not to as I envisioned them clouding up the stock. Was this the right decision?

    I only make it with the shells and the legs. Don’t know about the innards. ~Elise

  15. TERESA

    making it now..what else is there to do during a hurricane? Smells wonderful and can’t wait to enjoy lobster And crab bisque tomorrow, Thank you for sharing this recipe. looking forward to it

  16. Juanita

    I was wondering if it is possible to make seafood stock with whole seafood, meaning seafood that’s not shelled.

    Yes, but why would you? You cook the heck out of the seafood making it pretty much inedible. And if you are dealing with something like a crab or fish, you still have to gut them. Better to eat or freeze the seafood meat, and use what you don’t eat, like fish heads and lobster shells, for stock. ~Elise

  17. Mary

    Noticed it posted a couple of times as a question, but do you include the “crab butter” and other innards in the stock? Also, does it sound ok to just freeze shells etc. until you have enough for stock? Sometimes just me, but don’t want to waste the shells. Thanks.

    I don’t include the innards, just the shells and any extra meat that might be hanging on to the shells. I often freeze the shells until I make stock. ~Elise

  18. Heather

    I modified this for the slow cooker, which is how I make all my stock, simmering roasted lobster, crab and shrimp shells on low for the first four hours and addding the herbs, wine and veggies for the last four. It made a rich and delicious stock, and the best seafood chowder ever! Thanks for a great recipe!

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