The Food Lab: How to Kill, Cook, and Shell a Lobster

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

Shelled lobster tail and claws, ready to eat

[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt. Video: Vicky Wasik and Natalie Holt]

This week, we've already discussed how to buy and store a lobster and tasted soft-shell lobsters blind against hard-shells (we unanimously preferred soft-shells). Now the real question: What's the best way to cook them? Boiling? Steaming? Roasting? And what about killing the sucker before you do it? Should they be boiled alive? Frozen to death? Bludgeoned with a rubber chicken?

Let's take a look at all of those questions (except the chicken one, silly).

The Best Way to Kill a Lobster

Let's get one thing straight: Lobsters aren't humans. They aren't even mammals, or fish. Their anatomy is much more similar to that of, say, a cockroach or a beetle, grown to gargantuan proportions because they live a life unfettered by gravity at the bottom of the ocean.

That said, lobsters do have nerves, and a very real (if very primitive) nervous system that can react to outside stimuli. Current research is unclear on whether or not their brains have the capacity to process such stimuli as pain and undergo emotional trauma when it's administered (a feeling we'd refer to as "suffering"), but many people still like to minimize the chance that the creature is suffering before it's consumed.

The fastest way to kill a lobster is the same way you'd dispatch zombies in a Walking Dead scenario: stab it in the head.

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Press the tip of a knife in the crack that you'll find set slightly behind the eyes on the head, and press down firmly and quickly, splitting the head completely in half. This will instantly sever the main nerve ganglia in the lobster's carapace—though it does nothing to the ganglia around the rest of its body, which is why you'll see its tail and claws continue to move for a long time after the lobster has been dispatched—as well as most of its vital organs.

That a lobster will continue to crawl around and, well, act like a lobster even after its head has been removed is a good indication of the primitiveness of its nervous system. Like a cockroach's, its body can still move even without a central brain to control it.

Boiling or steaming the bugs is also an option, and in reality, not much more cruel. The lobsters will continue to show some movement through reflexes for several moments, but their central brain functions will cease within the first few moments of hitting the water.

How to Cook a Lobster

There are a number of recommended ways of cooking lobster. Let's take a look at them and see if we can't figure out what's really the best.

Method 1: Boiling

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Very old recipes for lobster call for cooking times as long as 10 minutes per pound. Ten minutes! Per pound! How the heck did anyone ever eat those rubber balls? As we now know, when you're cooking meat, temperature is a much better indicator of doneness than time. For optimal tenderness and texture, lobster meat should come to around 135°F (57°C), or maybe 140°F (60°C) maximum, which ends up translating to just around four or five minutes of boiling for a one- to one-and-a-half-pound lobster. (Use a thermometer.) Any hotter, and you'll end up in rubber-band territory. How you get the lobster to that perfect final temperature is another matter entirely.

But first, an interesting aside. Lobsters turn red when you cook them in much the same way that leaves change color in the autumn: The underlying color is there all along, waiting to be released. In the case of lobsters (and other crustaceans), the bright-red hue comes from a heat-stable carotenoid pigment called astaxanthin. It's this pigment that turns the flesh of salmon and the feathers of flamingos—animals that feed heavily on crustaceans—into the familiar pinkish-orange color. (Farmed salmon have pigments added to their diet to color their flesh—without them, they'd be totally white.)

When astaxanthin is mixed with the many other pigments found in a lobster's shell, you get the familiar range of bluish-purple to green or dark-orange colors of a live lobster. Heat them up, and the other pigments break down, leaving just the carotenoids behind.

Why do I know all of this? Because every year during our annual Christmas lobster course, my grandfather—who by this point has already got two Martinis, a couple of glasses of Chardonnay, and half a pour of vin jaune down the hole—insists on telling me.

While this tidbit is certainly interesting, it doesn't exactly help me on my quest for perfectly cooked lobster meat. What does, however, is the other bit of wisdom he feels compelled to bestow from on high every Christmas: the best way to cook a lobster.

Here's his problem with boiling: When you cook a lobster in a large pot of water, take it out, then look inside the pot, what do you see? That's right: cloudy, murky water with weird white gunk floating on top. Now stick your nose in there and inhale. What do you smell? Yup. Lobster. And here's one thing I can guarantee: What's in that pot is not in your lobster.

The massive amount of water circulating in and out of the lobster's body can quite efficiently wash away many of the flavorful compounds you find inside the meat. Not only that, but for larger lobsters, the high heat of boiling can cause the exterior to overcook while the interior remains raw (one of the reasons why larger lobsters often seem so much tougher than smaller lobsters that cook faster).

So plunging them into boiling water is not the way to go.

Method 2: Steaming

At first glance, you'd think that steaming would be a gentler method of cooking than boiling. Surely very dense water at 212°F (100°C) should heat faster than steam, which is not very dense at all, at 212°F? The denser the medium, the more efficient it is at transferring heat, right?

True, but this doesn't take into account the latent heat of vaporization of water. It takes about five times the amount of heat energy to convert water into steam as it does to raise either water or steam's temperature by 1°C. This energy is stored in the steam molecules, and as they hit the surface of the food being cooked and re-condense into water, the stored energy is released onto the surface of the food, heating it.

While steaming does offer the advantage of not diluting flavor like boiling does, it does nothing to solve our fast-cooking problem.

This finally brings us to...

Method 3: Roasting

Now this seems promising, and it's the method my grandfather has always recommended. According to him, rather than diluting and washing away the flavorful compounds in the lobster's flesh, roasting will heat the lobster through, cooking it and simultaneously evaporating some of its excess moisture. The result should be meat that is more intensely flavored, not less.

He's absolutely right. Roasting a lobster in the oven—I found that bringing it up to 135°F in a 350°F oven worked very well—gives you extraordinarily aromatic meat with a much more intense, sweeter flavor. Roasting is also a slower cooking process than steaming or boiling, leading to more evenly cooked meat

I Am Rubber, You Are Glue

But, just as every rose has its thorn and every cowboy sings a sad, sad song, this good method comes complete with a couple of problems of its own. The first you'll notice is that roasted lobster meat is much harder to remove from the shell than boiled. This is because as the proteins in the meat slowly heat up, they chemically bond with the interior of the shell. Rapid heating, on the other hand, causes them to shrink too fast for them to form these bonds.

This leaves us in a rather sticky situation. Cook too fast by steaming, and some of the meat gets rubbery. Cook too slowly by roasting, and the meat sticks to the shell.

Solution? Steam or boil the lobsters just until the very exterior of their meat sets—about one minute—remove them from the steamer, then finish them off in the oven.

With easily shelled, evenly cooked, and intensely flavored meat, we're almost there. There's just one last hurdle to overcome. The trouble is with enzymes mostly located in the dark liver in the central carapace. These enzymes break down the protein structure of the lobster's muscles, becoming highly active after the lobster's death (the main reason you should always look for lively lobsters), particularly at warmer temperatures. Cook too slowly, and you give these enzymes too much time to work, delivering tail meat that borders on mushy near the carapace end.

The only two ways I know of to prevent this from happening: Either cook it all the way through very rapidly (already out of the question), or completely remove the tail and claws from the carapace (and offending liver) before cooking. The latter seems the more sensible option, and you can always cook the liver separately if you're one of those who like to eat it.

Keep 'Em Separated

There are other distinct advantages to cooking tails and claws separately from the carapace. For one thing, it allows you to address the fact that the tail is much thicker than the claws or knuckles, and therefore needs a little more cooking time. It also allows you to keep your carapaces intact to use as desired (I make mine into stock to cook my paella in).

Finally, it solves the pesky old curly-tail problem. You know, when your lobster tail curls up into a little ball like a pillbug (an isopod which it very closely resembles)?

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Straight tail on the left, curled on the right. I want the left.

It doesn't make much difference in flavor, but sometimes it's nice to have straight tails for presentation purposes.

Here's how you do it:

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That's right, just flatten it on a 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. I've seen it last up to two hours after the rest of the lobster is dead.

Once you have it flat out on the board, spear it with a couple of stiff wooden skewers, starting from the body end and exiting through the joints near the tail end. Of course, insert the skewers as close as possible to the shell to minimize muscle damage.

If ripping the claws and tail off of a lobster that you've just impaled through the head with a knife leaves you cold, you can always perform the par-steaming step first, then use kitchen towels to grasp and dismember the dead beasts before continuing with the roasting steps. (You won't be able to get a straight tail this way, BTW.)

Nothing More Than Peelings...

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There's no easy way to break it to you: Peeling a lobster is messy, painstaking work.

Whether it's hard or soft, the best way to peel a lobster is to start with the tail. First, squeeze it firmly from the sides, pushing the edges of the shell together underneath the tail until you hear a series of cracks.

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This should break or crease most of the cartilaginous material under the tail. Next, pull apart the edge of the shell. It should separate quite easily. (If not, use kitchen shears to carefully snip through the cartilage, then try pulling it apart again.) Once it's cracked open, the shell meat should easily pop out.

Claws are a bit trickier. With a soft-shell (new-shell) lobster, you can usually get through them with kitchen shears. I start by breaking off the small claw (carefully, so as not to remove the meat inside with it!), then cutting the bottom of the claw open with a pair of kitchen shears. 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.

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For very hard-shell lobsters, some more force is required. I start by wrapping them in a clean dish towel and whacking them sharply all over with the back of a heavy cleaver. The goal here is to crack them like eggshells, not smash them into smithereens.

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Once they're good and crackly, I break off the knuckles (protecting my hands with more clean dish towels—yes, I go through lots of them), then gently break off the small pincer. If I'm lucky or feeling extra talented, I manage to get the shell off the pincer without ripping the meat off the rest of the claw. More often, I have to fish out the little nugget with a skewer or a chopstick.

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Finally, fish the knuckle meat out with the help of kitchen shears and a chopstick or the dull end of a wooden skewer.

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What you should end up with is a nice big tail, solid pieces of claw meat, and four little knuckles. The legs I don't bother pre-shucking, but you can serve them on the side in their shells for people to pick the sweet meat out of directly with their teeth.

Your lobster meat is now ready to go. Chop it up and dress it for some Wicked Good Lobster Rolls, toss it into a Thai-Style Lobster Salad, or just heat it up with some butter and serve it with lemon.

Picked lobster meat can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two days.

How to Kill, Cook, and Shell a Lobster, Step by Step

Step 1: Kill It

Driving the point of a knife into the back of a lobster's head to kill it

It's not necessary, but if you'd like to kill the lobster before cooking it, do so by driving a knife into the center of its head and pushing down to split it open.

Step 2: Grab the Tail

Holding the tail and carapace of a lobster to pull off the tail

Grab the tail and the carapace firmly in your hands.

Step 3: Twist It Off

Twisting off the tail of a lobster while holding the carapace in the other hand

Twist off the tail, being careful not to stick your fingers into the underside—the lobster tail can still contract quite forcefully through reflex reactions, even when completely separated from the body, pinching your fingers.

Step 4: Set Aside

Dispatched lobster with tail fully separated from the body

Set the separated tail aside.

Step 5: Twist Off the Claws

Twisting off the larger claw of a lobster below the knuckle

Twist off the claws below the first knuckle. The goal is to keep as much edible meat as possible.

Step 6: Repeat

Showing the underside of a dispatched lobster as the second claw is twisted off

Repeat with the second claw.

Step 7: Ready to Steam

Dispatched lobster in parts (carapace, tail, two claws), ready for cooking

All the pieces are now ready to cook. The head can be frozen and saved for stock if you'd like. Otherwise, take off the legs and discard the rest of the head.

Step 8: Steam

Dismembered lobster in steamer basket on stovetop, ready for cooking

Start cooking by steaming the lobsters over boiling water. The goal is to steam just long enough to get the meat to set. This takes just about two minutes.

Step 9: Done Steaming

Bright-red steamed lobster parts in steamer basket

Sometimes the lobsters' tails will still be twitching a tiny bit even after the initial two-minute steam. This is a reflex reaction. Don't worry about it.

Step 10: Roast

Steamed lobsters on a foil-lined baking sheet, going into the oven

Transfer the lobsters to a 350°F (180°C) oven and roast until each piece hits 135°F (57°C). That's about seven minutes for the claws and 15 for the tails.

Step 11: Take the Temp

Testing the doneness of a lobster tail with an instant-read thermometer

Make sure to use your thermometer! This tail was slightly overcooked. Oops.

Step 12: Start Cracking

Holding a cooked lobster tail under running water, with a bowl of water and other lobster parts below it

To peel the tails, start by running them under cold water to cool them a bit.

Step 13: Press Hard

Squeezing a cooked lobster tail under running water, with other lobster parts and water in a metal bowl below

Crack the tails lengthwise by squeezing them hard. This will make it easier to split them open.

Step 14: Pull Open

Pulling the shell off a cooked lobster tail under running water

Pull the tails open lengthwise.

Step 15: Pick the Meat

Removing tail meat from lobster shell

Pull the tail meat out in one large piece.

Step 16: Wash Out the Gunk

Washing out the digestive tract of a cooked lobster under running water

Lobsters sometimes have gunk running down their tails ("gunk" being the technical term). You can wash this out by running cold water into the tract, or, if you're chopping the meat anyway, just wash it out after splitting the tails in half.

Step 17: Break Off the Pincer

Breaking off the small pincer on a cooked lobster claw

Break off the small pincer. If you do it carefully, you can break it off and remove the shell without taking the meat with it. This is the goal. But it's okay if you don't meet it.

Step 18: Remove the Cartilage

Removing the cartilage from the small pincer of a lobster claw

Oops, I broke off the small bit of meat. That's fine. Once you've removed it, pull out the cartilage that extends into the main compartment of the claw and discard it.

Step 19: Pick Out Any Hangers-On

Fishing meat out from the small pincer of a lobster claw using a chopstick

Sometimes meat gets stuck inside the little pincer, in which case you may have to fish it out with a chopstick or skewer.

Step 20: Attack the Claw

Placing the large part of a lobster claw on a dish towel

Place the large part of the claw on a clean(-ish) dish towel.

Step 21: Smack It

Hitting a cooked lobster claw with the back side of a knife to crack it

Fold the towel over and rap the claw hard with the back of a knife to crack it. If you have an exceptionally soft lobster, you can cut through the shell with just a pair of kitchen shears.

Step 22: Cracked!

A cracked lobster claw on a dish towel

If you did it right, you'll have cracked through the shell while leaving the meat intact.

Step 23: Pull Out the Meat

Exposing the large piece of meat inside a cracked lobster claw

If you did it wrong, however, you'll end up accidentally cutting the claw meat in half. This is not the end of the world. Pull out the meat from inside the shell.

Step 24: Go for the Knuckles

Pulling the meat out of a lobster knuckle

The knuckles have plenty of good meat in them, too, see? It's the sweetest, most tender part of the lobster, and my favorite bite.

Step 25: Twist Them Apart

Holding a dish towel over a lobster claw to twist off the knuckle

Twist off the knuckles using a dish towel or sturdy rubber gloves.

Step 26: Separate the Knuckles

Exposing the meat inside a detached lobster knuckle

Each claw will have two knuckles attached to it. Separate them from each other.

Step 27: Push Out the Meat

Using a chopstick to push meat out of a lobster knuckle

Push the meat out of the knuckle with the back of a chopstick.

Step 28: Done!

Shelled lobster tail and claws, ready to eat

Your lobster, perfectly cooked and ready to eat!