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Lobster was the first meat that I ever cooked sous vide, and it's still one of my favorites. If buttery, tender, sweet poached flavor is what you're after, there's no better way to cook it. It's better than the best steamed or boiled lobster you've ever tasted. How much better? If I were in the mood for writing in hyperbolic tropes, I'd tell you that it's [insert arbitrarily large number here] times better. But, if I'm being honest, it's a lot better than boiled lobster, significantly better than steamed lobster, and plain old better than roasted lobster (see this post for more on those techniques). It's also a heck of a lot more foolproof than any of those methods, and affords the opportunity to infuse that lobster meat with extra flavor. Think: lobster with the butter built right into it. Doesn't that sound swell?
If you look over the literature on sous vide lobster, you'll find plenty of disagreement over temperature and timing. In Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide, Thomas Keller suggests an oddly specific temperature of 139°F (59°C). Meanwhile, Modernist Cuisine suggests going as low as 115°F (46°C). That's a big difference! I decided to cook lobster at intervals of 5°F between 115 and 150°F (66°C) to see how things shook out.
But first, some basic prep.
How to Prepare a Lobster for Sous Vide: Shuck and Go
Lobster, whether it's spiny rock lobster tails or live Maine lobster, needs to be removed from the shell before it can be cooked sous vide. Those shells just have too many sharp projections that can tear the bag. Even with a few small holes, you risk gumming up your circulator with coagulated lobster protein or butter. It's a risk I prefer not to take.
With a live lobster, I start by killing it in what is supposedly the most humane way possible: Treat it like a zombie from The Walking Dead, and plunge a knife straight into its head. This quickly destroys what flicker of consciousness the lobster might have had. After that, separating it into claws, tail, and carapace is a simple matter of twisting and pulling.*
* Save the bodies for stock, or roast them under aluminum foil if you like to eat the tomalley and pick the meat.
By the way, despite the fact that hard-shell lobster tends to get more praise than soft-, we at Serious Eats unanimously prefer the sweeter flavor of soft-shell. It's also far easier to shuck.
Lobster meat is extremely soft and delicate when raw. It's nearly impossible to remove the shell from a raw lobster without mangling it, so it's essential that you parboil the lobster before attempting to remove the shell.
In order to prevent the tail from curling, I like to lay it flat on the cutting board. Don't be alarmed if the tail continues to curl and jerk suddenly, even after it's been completely removed from the lobster's body—this is a reflex reaction, and I've seen it last up to two hours after the rest of the lobster is long dead. Once it's laid out flat, insert two wooden skewers, starting from the body end and exiting through the joints near the tail end, keeping them as close to the shell as possible to minimize internal damage.
Next, bring a large pot of water to a boil (you can also use a steamer), and plunge in the lobster for just one to one and a half minutes before transferring it to an ice bath.
Once it's chilled, it's easy to remove the meat from the tail, claws, and knuckles. To remove tail meat, start by squeezing the sides in firmly until you hear a sharp crack along the top side of the tail.
This should break or crease most of the cartilaginous material on the underside of the tail. Next, pull the sides outward firmly from the edges. The underside should separate quite easily. (If not, use kitchen shears to carefully snip through the cartilage, then try pulling the sides outward again.) Once the tail is cracked open, the shell meat should pop right out.
Claws are a bit trickier. With a soft-shell (i.e., new-shell) lobster, you can usually get through them with kitchen shears; if the shell is too hard for that, it's better to crack it with the blunt spine of a heavy knife. I start by breaking off the smaller pincer—carefully, so as not to remove the meat inside along with it!—then cut the bottom of the claw open with a pair of kitchen shears or crack it open with the knife spine. The goal is to cut just enough that you can extract the meat by jerking the claw downwards. (Think of the motion you'd use to get the last bit of shampoo out of the bottle.)
With the knuckles, the trickiest part is getting those small cavities open without falling victim to the spiny exoskeleton. Gloves or a good cotton kitchen towel for gripping will help. Use kitchen shears to snip open the sides of the knuckles, then either a chopstick or the back end of a wooden skewer to gently poke, prod, or fish the tender bit of meat out.
You can find a detailed slideshow on how to shuck a boiled lobster here.
Bagging and Cooking
When cooking red meat sous vide, I don't recommend adding fat to the bag, as I find it can actually dilute flavor: The meat doesn't really absorb it, while fat-soluble compounds end up dissolving in the fat and eventually get discarded.
With lobster, it's a different story. Lobster meat has a much looser structure. We also serve lobster straight out of the sous vide bag, with no intervening searing or finishing step. The butter that's added to the sous vide bag clings to the lobster and stays there until you eat it.
Fat in the bag also allows you to add aromatics, such as parsley or tarragon, which contribute their flavor to the fat and subsequently work their way into and around the lobster meat. Try doing that with your boiled or steamed lobster!
I seal up the bags using the water displacement method (no need for a vacuum sealer here), then dunk them into their water bath.
But what's the best temperature and timing for that bath? Glad you asked!
Timing and Temperature
In my tests, I found that 115°F yielded lobster that was almost off-putting in its softness (though I know that some folks like it). It was completely translucent and slippery internally, like half-cured lobster ceviche. This is a texture that works fine when the meat is sliced thinly and served cold, with, say, some soy sauce or yuzu juice, but it's not what I think of when I want to eat hot, buttery lobster. The minimum temperature I'd recommend cooking to is 120°F (49°C).
What I found especially interesting was that the claw meat had to be cooked to a completely different temperature from any other part of the lobster. Even at 140°F (60°C), lobster claw meat is almost jelly-like in its softness. Only at around 150°F (66°C) does it firm up to pleasant levels. This makes sense: Just like the white and dark meat in chicken, the claws and tails of a lobster are used for very different things—the claws for steady poking, prodding, and moving, and the tail only for sudden, quick bursts of movement.
For tails, whether Maine or rock, I recommend the following temperatures:
120°F (49°C): Soft and Translucent
At the lowest end of the scale, the lobster is just barely set. It remains lightly translucent in the center, with a slick texture, like sashimi from a particularly buttery fish (think hamachi or toro). This lobster can be served with drawn butter, but I find that it's best enjoyed chilled in a simple, mayo-free salad, like this Thai-style lobster salad.
130°F (54°C): Tender and Succulent
This is my favorite temperature for cooking lobster. It turns out fully firm and meaty, but it's much more tender than lobster cooked via more traditional methods, due to the evenness of the cooking from edge to center. This lobster is succulent and delicious, whether you serve it hot with drawn butter or cold in a roll.
140°F (60°C): Close to Traditional
At 140°F, your lobster becomes as firm as if it were cooked via traditional methods, though it still has the flavor advantages offered by sous vide. This might be a good temperature if you're serving a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander who insists on lobster the old-fashioned way. It might well convince them that sous vide is something special here.
As for timing, it takes about 20 minutes for the tail from a one-and-a-half-pound lobster to cook through, though anything up to an hour, or even a little longer, won't hurt it much. Cook it too long and it'll begin to suffer, turning mushy.
What About Those Claws?
As I mentioned, lobster claws need to be cooked at a higher temperature—150°F—to come out firm. If you've got only one sous vide device, this can be a problem.
Initially, I was using a rather fiddly method. I started the water bath at 150°F, cooked the claws, then dropped the controller to 130°F, added cold water to rapidly reduce the temperature, and added the bag with the tails to cook. (There's no need to remove the claw bag when you add the tails; the claws will hold just fine at 130°F.) Once the tails had cooked for half an hour, I was ready to serve. Like I said, fiddly.
This was the method I used until I had an important revelation: Just as chicken thighs are more forgiving than chicken breast, lobster claws are far more forgiving than lobster tails. The solution is less elegant, but faster: During that initial boiling or steaming phase, just leave the claws in until they're fully cooked. This'll take about five minutes. You can then shuck the claws and add them directly to the same bag with the tails so they'll absorb some buttery flavor. They won't be quite as tender as if they were cooked fully sous vide, but, again, claws are forgiving.
Once everything has gotten warm and happy for half an hour, take the lobster out of the bag, discard the spent tarragon, then serve the meat with copious amounts of warm clarified butter and a squeeze of lemon.
Thank the Maker! This butter bath is going to feel soooo good! the lobster seems to say. And it's right.