real life test kitchen: my first kill — or how to boil a lobster


I really should be a vegetarian. It’s something I grapple with on a morale level but the closest I’ve come is subscribing to the Bittman-way of limiting my meat intake and just being fussy about what I eat. You see, if push-came-to-shove, I know I would have a really hard time killing an animal for food. I ask myself these questions all the time. Could I kill cow? No. A pig? definitely not. A chicken? I used think, maybe, but I have met some really gorgeous and playful chickens recently (spend a day at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary and you’ll see what I mean). Somewhere stirring in my conscious, I know that eating animals I would not be willing to kill myself is wrong — no matter how free range or happy their organically-raised lives have been. Well, I can say with certainty that I can kill a lobster, after cooking up my first ever lobster dinner last week in Maine.

Eating lobster while you’re in Maine is more than a indulgence, it’s a duty. So much of the local communities we enjoy there revolves around the lobster fishing industry, it’d be a crime not to support them as much as possible. I’ve tried to eat lobster back here at home in the NYC area, and it’s just not the same beast. Fresh lobster in Maine has a sweet, delicate flavor that gets lost the moment that crustacean is put on ice and shipped over state lines. I prefer the soft shell kind, which you never find outside of the state. They are slightly younger, and haven’t yet developed their sturdy exoskeleton. You can crack them open with your hands, and I kind of like that primal ritual as well.

Until this trip, I have always solely relied on others to cook my lobsters for me. I’ve gone through the process mentally in mind, wondering what it would be like to drop on in the pot myself. I’ve watched them do it lobster pounds (Thurston‘s is my favorite) and I can see that it’s easy. But I’ve heard rumors that they sometimes make a high pitch “scream” like noise (not true) and have read suggestions that kindest way to kill them is essentially lobotomize them with a quick incision through the head before placing in the boil. All of this, I now can say with confidence, is over kill.  Just put them in the pot. It’s that easy.

Before embarking on my own culinary adventure, I did consult a few authorities. I wanted to make sure I was preparing the lobster properly — not just to give the creature the swiftest death possible, but also to make sure that our meat came out tender and not rubbery. The site of the Maine lobster council gives some good advice, and this step-by-step from Bon App is also helpful. I also asked some locals: A feisty octogenarian I met in Seal Harbor. The proprietor of “Rats” seafood garage-based seafood stand where I bought our critters. How do you do it? Head first, tail first? The jury seems split, but there is one strong consensus: Make sure the water is really boiling before you drop them in.

On the day of our planned lobster cook-off, we were all very excited. We had the silly idea to buy one extra lobster that we would “free” back into the sea. Initially our plan was to hold a lobster race, but as any YouTube video on the subject will confirm, cold, captured, out-of-water lobsters really don’t move too much. So we let Isadora choose which one would return to the ocean. She picked the smallest one, cause he was “just a kid.” We took the selected fella (or gal?) and trudged down to our little rocky cove. First we perked him up in a tidal pool. He instantly came back to life once he the water. Then we placed him on a rock, snapped free the rubber bands on his claws, and let Iz toss him in. We watched him for a minute, as he scooted down into a seaweed and rock filled crevasse. Was he happy to free? I don’t know, but I will say he sure looked right at home in the water.

After letting Leroy go, we trudged back up to the house to begin cooking. Our kitchen was equipped with a monster of a pot that was big enough to easily submerge four lobsters and a couple of cobs of corn. It took a long time to get the thing to a raging boil, but once it was ready, we each took a turn dropping one in — even Isadora, who didn’t hesitate at all. Until that moment we kept the lobsters in the fridge. I read that cold slows them down and helps diminish movement while cooking. We opted to place them in head first. There was no noise, no “screams,” no wiggling in the pot. Putting the cover on and walking away helps ease any lingering guilt.

I let the lobsters, which weighed about 1.2 lbs each, to boil for about 10-15 minutes. They instantly turned a gorgeous red. Taking them out of the pot was almost more tricky then putting them — these babies are hot, hot, hot. I let them sit for a few minutes in a big bowl before moving them to table. I can honestly say it was the best lobster meat I have ever eaten.

So what did I learn from my first attempt at cooking lobster? Here are 10 basic tips on how to cook a live lobster.

1. Buy your lobster fresh.
Ours were caught that morning.
2. Keep your lobster cold until you are ready to cook. We stuck ours in the bottom drawer of the fridge.
3. Make sure you have a pot big enough to fully submerge them all. Use two pots or do it in batches if you have to.
4. Bring really salty water to a ranging boil. I used about a quarter cup of sea salt for our huge pot. I debated trudging down to the rocks to scoop out some real sea water, as some suggest, but decided against it. (Laziness?)
5. The easiest way to pick up a lobster is to grab them from behind the head, so your hands are wrapped around the body but there is no way for a tail flick to cause you to drop them.
6. Put them in head first. I’m not hundred percent sure it matters, but it seems like this would be the quickest way to kill them in the boiling water.
7. Check a recommended cook time for the weight of your lobster. This site is helpful. Our soft shells cooked about 10-15 minutes, which sounds too long, but the results were great.
8. Let them cool a few minutes before serving or you’ll scorch your guests. Take them out and place them in a strainer over a large bowl.
9. Serve little bowls of the cooking liquid on the table — along with melted butter, of course. Sometimes, I like to “clean off” my lobster meat before eating… it depends what you find on the inside once you remove the tail.
10. Bibs help! Don’t be shy. Cover up!

Do you have any experience cooking lobsters? A friend told me last night that her mom always baked them. I’d love to hear your suggestions!

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