How to Humanely Kill a Lobster for Cooking

Woman with live lobster
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Lobster is best when killed immediately before cooking. Unless you bought a frozen lobster, what you brought home from the market is alive and kicking and that leaves the task up to the cook. What is the most humane way to dispatch a lobster?

While plunging the live lobster into a pot of boiling water will surely be fatal, there is some debate as to whether it is cruel. The lobster's thrashing tail often makes a knocking sound inside the pot, sometimes loosening the lid, and that can make the cook—or those nearby waiting for dinner—a bit uncomfortable. But does the lobster suffer? The jury is still out on this one but most chefs agree that dispatching a lobster before cooking is the best approach.

Killing Before Cooking

There are a few ways to kill a lobster. By doing it before cooking, you have the option to boil, bake, steam, or cook it in another way.

  • Freeze the lobster by placing it in the freezer for 30 to 60 minutes before putting it headfirst into a pot of boiling water.
  • A quicker option is to plunge a knife straight down into the carapace (part of exoskeleton on the lobster's back). Place the tip of a sharp chef's knife behind the lobster's eyes, right below where the claws meet the body and halfway to the first joint. Swiftly plunge the knife down through the head. The legs will continue to move a bit afterward but the lobster is in fact dead.
  • Many chefs prefer a combination of the two: After freezing for 30 minutes, plunge the knife into the lobster. Some chefs prefer just 15 minutes, which is enough to sedate the lobster without freezing the meat.
  • As an alternative to freezing, you can desensitize the lobster by placing it in a large pot in the sink. Begin filling it with cold tap water and gradually increase the water temperature until it is very hot. You can then use the knife to dispatch the lobster.

Boil Frozen Lobster

If you don't want to go through those steps and plan to boil the lobster, there's another option. Freeze the lobster for 30 to 60 minutes, then put it in the pot of boiling water head-first. While the boiling water, rather than the freezer, will kill it almost instantly, the cold will immobilize the lobster so it won't thrash about.

Do Lobsters Feel Pain?

Research indicates that the lobster has no central nervous system or cerebral cortex to register stimuli. It's more like an insect—lobstermen often refer to them as such. While this makes it likely that it cannot feel pain, there is still some debate. Some studies have shown reactions of some sort to a stimulus in lobster and crab. That may be caused by pain, but it remains unclear.

Whether it is believed the lobsters experience pain or not, killing the lobster just before cooking is the preferred method. Perhaps this is for the benefit of the cook as a way to minimize trauma since most people are disconnected from the killing of animals they eat. This approach is also promoted by chefs who discovered that the lobster's muscles toughen with the shock of hitting the boiling water, meaning the meat will not be as tender.

In Switzerland and some parts of Italy, cooking live lobster is banned. The animals are often stunned with electricity or killed in some manner before cooking. Electric lobster stunning devices are available. At a cost of a few thousand dollars, however, they're unreasonable for most home cooks who enjoy the occasional lobster.

Professional chefs who regularly work with lobsters are equally divided on the issue. Generally, they use one of the methods to dispatch the lobster before cooking. It's always done quickly and speed seems to be the consensus on the most humane way to approach the task.

The least humane way is to dismember a lobster without killing it first—or at least stunning it with cold. In some restaurants, chefs would remove the tail and legs while the lobster was still alive then skewer it with a deadly blow. Microwaving is considered another inhumane option.