The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

The Food Lab: How To Buy A Lobster

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A face only a mother could love--to eat, that is. Lobsters are cannibalistic.

As a native New Englander, lobster is supposed to be in my blood, if not my belly. Lobster rolls, grilled lobster, lobster salad, full-on clam bakes (which should really be called "lobster buries"), or the simplest, steamed lobster with drawn butter are more than a way of living, they're an entire tourist and export industry unto their own.

But as someone with a mild allergy to lobster who can't eat more than two bites before I wish I'd remembered my epi-pen, I need to make extra sure that those two bites are worth it every single time. This means care and attention at every stage of the process, from buying to storing to cooking.

We'll be talking lobster all week, starting with the best way to buy them, and moving on to a taste test of hard versus soft shell lobsters, as well as an analysis of the best way to cook and shuck them. Of course, we'll have brand new recipes for you all week as well.

When buying lobster, there are several criteria to consider. Here they are, in order of importance.

Criterion #1: Species

There are dozens of species of lobster, but you're likely to only run into two at your fish market.

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Spiny Lobster

Spiny lobsters are a claw-less species of lobster that come from warm Caribbean waters. If you're buying frozen tails, usually they're from spiny lobsters (you can tell by their distinct white spotted pattern).

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Maine (American) Lobster

Maine lobsters come from cold Atlantic waters, and in most cases, are sold live. I vastly prefer cold water Maine Lobsters for their firmer, sweeter flesh,* particularly the claw and knuckle meat, which is more tender than the tail.

*And I'm not just saying this as a New Englander.**

**Maybe I am, but I'll never know.

Criterion #2: Liveliness

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A lobster needs to be alive, or at the very least just-killed when you cook it, full stop. All seafood tends to go bad more quickly than their land-based counterparts (this is because the bacteria on seafood are used to operating at icy cold ocean water temperatures), but lobster and other similar shellfish face a different problem: enzymatic breakdown. See, lobsters and shrimp digest their prey via enzymes in their upper digestive tract located in their heads. Once killed, the lobsters turn into crustacean zombies, their digestive enzymes eating at their own bodies.

This can result in off-puttingly mushy meat in the upper areas of the tail within as little as an hour or two after death. Removing the tail and claws immediately and shipping them frozen can solve part of this problem (that's why you'll rarely if ever see frozen whole lobsters for sale), but better is to keep them alive until cooking.

When a healthy lobster is picked up, it should lift its claws, move its legs energetically, and raise its tail, perhaps flapping it a few times. Lobster with limp claws or little movement should be avoided.

Criterion #3: Hard Vs. Soft

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Lobsters grow by shedding their old shells, revealing a softer shell underneath. They then puff themselves up with water, stretching out the new shell, which eventually hardens. This molting process occurs once a year, starting in late June and ending around December.

While recently-molted "soft shell" lobsters are not so soft that they can be eaten shell and all (the way a soft shell crab can), there are still some key differences between freshly molted soft shell lobsters and older-shelled hard lobsters. To spot the difference between soft and hard shell lobsters, give the carapace a gentle squeeze. A soft shell lobster should give slightly.

  • Ease of Shucking: Soft shell lobsters are far easier to shuck. Generally, their shells are soft enough that you can cut through them easily with a set of kitchen shears, or even just rip them apart by hand. Hard shell lobsters can require some brute force, lobster crackers, or the back of a knife, particularly to get at their claw meat.
  • Flavor: This one is debatable. Some folks find soft shell lobsters to be sweeter, more tender, and more flavorful. Others find that hard shell lobsters have a more intensely briny "lobster-y" flavor. We're planning a full blind side-by-side taste test, so stay tuned.
  • Yield: Since soft shell lobsters are filled with water, you get much less meat per pound of live lobster than with hard shell lobsters. About 30% less, give or take. This is especially noticeable in the claws: a hard shell lobster will be filled to the brim with meat, while with a soft shell lobster, the meat will occupy only about half the space.

Criterion #4: Size

Did you know that lobsters are biologically immortal? Most species of animals and plants have a pre-determined lifetime; As their cells repeatedly divide, eventually they suffer DNA damage and shortened telomeres (the buffer zone at the end of a chromosome that prevents damage to the important bits). Eventually cells can't reproduce, and the animal or plant dies. This doesn't happen to lobsters; Their cells are able to divide and reproduce indefinitely, meaning that were it not for outside influences like disease, predators, or their innate tastiness, a lobster could conceivably live and grow forever. Whoa.

The largest lobsters ever recorded have been in the 40 to 50-pound range, but in the real world, you're more likely to see lobsters between 1 and 3 pounds, perhaps up to 7 or 8 pounds if you head to a specialist.

The larger a lobster, the more you're likely to pay per pound, but increase in price does not indicate increase in quality.

Some folk seem to think that large lobsters are tougher or less flavorful than small lobster. I don't find this to be true. What is true, however, is that they are far harder to cook evenly. With most cooking methods, by the time you cook them through to the center, the exterior is hopelessly overcooked. Smaller lobsters don't have as much of a problem with this (though they still do to a degree--more on this later).

I buy smaller lobster simply because they are cheaper, easier to handle, and have less of an impact on the health of the lobster population. With a yield of around 30 to 40%, you should plan on about on 1 1/2-pound lobster per person, giving you 6 to 8 ounces of actual meat.

Where to Buy Lobster

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Warm Connecticut-style lobster rolls

Like all fresh seafood, the best place to buy lobster is directly from the fisherman or a small-scale fishmonger. If you live in the Northeast, this isn't hard. There are lobster pounds all over the coast that get live lobster in daily and keep them alive in large tanks.

If you're in the middle of the country or on the opposite coast, it's not quite so easy. Hard shell lobsters are hardy enough that they can be shipped live cross-country via air, but you're unlikely to see soft shell lobsters too far from the coast. Your best bet is to order your lobster online. Most online lobster shippers will ship lobsters live with seaweed and ice packs to keep them moist, cold, and docile. Ordering pre-steamed fresh lobster meat is also a good option if you can't find live.

Over 80% of the lobster consumed in the U.S. comes from Maine, and over 80% of that is in the form of soft-shell lobsters during the summer and fall season. Lobsterfrommaine.com has a comprehensive list of all of the mail-order lobster dealers in the state.

Get The Recipes!

Wicked Good New England-Style Cold Lobster Rolls »

Connecticut-Style Warm Buttered Lobster Rolls »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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