Bringing home a live lobster, or having one delivered, is just the first step to preparing a spectacular lobster dinner. Here are 10 tips to help you choose, store, and yes, kill, a live lobster.
Storing a Live Lobster
Once you get the live lobster in the door, cook it that day. Until then, keep it in the refrigerator, in the crisper drawer, and leave the bands on its claws as not only can they give you a nasty pinch, they can maim each other if you store more than one lobster together. You could line the crisper drawer with damp newspaper, but don't go overboard creating a habitat—you're not keeping it as a pet.
To handle it, grasp it around the big part of the shell, behind the claws.
How to Tell If Lobster Is Fresh
A fresh lobster will be alive and kicking. It should move legs and claws vigorously, and curl its tail. Lobsters can live for several days out of water, but they must be handled properly, kept cool and moist. If a lobster seems lethargic, it's probably dying and should be cooked right away—but you should cook a live lobster the day you get it anyway. If you bought it live from a bubbling tank, it's fresh.
Otherwise, a dead whole lobster is not something you want to cook. Dead lobsters decompose rapidly and the meat won't be any good. Frozen lobster tail is fine, but skip a whole frozen (uncooked) lobster.
How to Kill a Lobster
The best way to kill a lobster is by immersing it head-first into a pot of boiling water after first freezing it for 30 to 60 minutes. A short spell in the freezer won't kill it outright, but it will knock it out so it doesn't thrash around in the pot. Freezing also helps prevent overcooking. Note that stabbing a lobster in the head before boiling will kill it, but will also cause the lobster's version of blood, called hemolymph, to drain into the cooking liquid, depriving the meat of much of its flavor.
What Size Pot to Cook It In
For boiling, your pot must be large enough to accommodate the lobster and enough water to ensure the water temperature doesn't drop significantly when you add the lobster. Figure 3 quarts for every 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of lobster. A standard lobster is between 1 1/4 and 1 1/2 pounds.
For two lobsters, an 8-quart stock pot will suffice. Remember, you won't fill the pot all the way. Three-fourths full is about right.
For 3 or 4 lobsters, use a 16-quart pot. If you're cooking more than that, either use multiple pots, or cook the lobsters in stages.
Before you go larger, consider whether you can carry a full 20-quart pot from your sink to your stove.
Boiling a Lobster
Boiling is the traditional way to cook a whole fresh lobster, and probably the most foolproof. Bring a pot of salted water (1/4 cup of Kosher salt per quart of water) to a boil, add the lobsters head-first (per the above instructions), cover, return to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes for a 1 1/4 pound lobster or 20 minutes for 1 1/2 pounds. For even more flavor, cook them in a court bouillon instead of water.
Steaming a Lobster
Steaming is another traditional way to cook a lobster, and it's the most straightforward flavorwise, since steam doesn't impart any additional flavor: you can salt the water all you want, but there won't be any salt in the steam.
Steam in a steamer basket, covered, for 18 to 20 minutes for a 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pound lobster. It will be bright red when it's cooked all the way. Watch to make sure you have enough water in the pot (about two inches) so it doesn't boil away.
Grilling or Broiling a Lobster
Grilling (or broiling) a whole lobster requires splitting it down the middle with a sharp knife. It also usually involves either parboiling it for 5 to 6 minutes, then splitting and grilling it, or splitting and grilling it first before finishing it in the oven.
Both methods have their advantages, but broiling is convenient because you can top it with seasoned bread crumbs, which protects from overcooking. Besides, if you're going to boil a lobster for 5 to 6 minutes, you might as well just cook it that way.
To broil a lobster, brush the flesh with melted butter, top with bread crumbs, then broil six inches away from the broiler until the bread crumbs are browned, then transfer to a 400 F oven and cook until the meat is opaque.
Using a Knife to Split a Lobster
To split the lobster for broiling:
- Keep the bands on the claws.
- Lay the lobster on its back on your cutting board.
- Pierce the head to kill it.
- Rotate the lobster, with the point of the knife in the notch you just made in the head, drive the knife down along the body, pressing the back of the blade down with your hand to split the lobster in half.
- Spread the lobster open, cracking the back of the shell. Remove the stomach (the sac immediately to the rear of the eyes), and the green tomalley (liver).
- Cut off claws and arrange alongside for broiling.
How to Crack Open a Cooked Lobster
The first step to dismembering a cooked lobster is to twist off the claws. Use a nut cracker or the back of your knife to crack each claw and knuckle and remove the meat. Using a knife is recommended for those with advanced knife skills.
Twist the tail off of the body and use a pair of kitchen shears to cut through the scaly shell on the underside of the tail to expose the meat.
Using a fork, carefully pull out the tail meat, taking care to keep it in one piece.
To extract the meat from the leg joints and the legs themselves, you can crack them with a knife and pull the meat out with your teeth.
What Parts You Can Eat
The parts of the lobster you'll eat are the meat from the tail, the claws, and the legs. The tail meat can be removed in one piece. The claw meat can be a bit trickier to extract, but has an especially rich and intense flavor, so it's worth the trouble. To get the leg meat, you'll have to suck it out as through a straw. Some folks eat the tomalley and/or the roe, and if you're one of those folks, you probably know that about yourself already.