I am not a lobster expert. Raised in a kosher household, I cooked my first lobster when I was 19 years old and alone in my college dorm for Thanksgiving. I’d been reading Mastering the Art of French Cooking in my non-school reading time, and, averse to offal, decided that lobster was the fanciest (and most rebellious) way I could celebrate the holiday.
That first time—as with so many things done for the first time—I made a mistake at nearly every step. I went to the supermarket the day before Thanksgiving. (Chaos!) I intentionally bought the largest lobster they had. (Ignorant!) I carried it home in a clear plastic garbage bag on the subway. (Normal for New York!) I couldn’t bring myself to kill the poor thing before putting it in the pot (as Julia Child recommends), which was too small to hold the enormous sea spider and so I decided to cook the head half first before grabbing it from the pot, flipping it over, and cooking the tail half. (Amateurish! Idiotic! Terrifying!)
Once the ordeal was over, of course, I found myself with this thing I had to crack open and eat. I had none of the tools—not a nutcracker nor a hammer nor a tiny fork—and this was in the days before YouTube (imagine), which meant I couldn’t simply Google this video of Food52’s own Merrill showing me how it’s done.
By the time I decided to phone a friend (my mother), my friend was drunk. (It was Thanksgiving, who can blame her?) My sweet mom, ever supportive of my culinary curiosity and throwing off the yoke of religious restrictions, explained to me how to shell a lobster. “Pull off the claws. Find something heavy, and smash the claws, then pull out the meat. Then take the tail off and push all the meat out. Guys, Sarah’s making her very first lobster! Yes, she’s in her dorm! No, I don’t think it’s going well at all!”
I followed her advice to the letter (obviously) and spent the next hour breaking down the lobster. This mostly involved bashing the lobster with a wine bottle, pulling small shards of shell off one by one, accidentally cutting my fingers again and again, and covering every surface of my tiny dorm kitchen in lobstery juices and shell fragments. I was committed to this lobster (we’d both been through so much) and I was determined to get every tiny bit of meat out.
The claws were easy enough for me to figure out (mom was right), but the tail and every other part proved a bit more challenging. Instead of considering the lobster’s anatomy and working backwards (what did I know about lobster anatomy!), I just kept smashing it. I smashed the tiny legs and peeled them open for the tiny amount of meat inside. I smashed the knuckles, which went flying across the room. I smashed the body, which had the same effect as smashing a water balloon filled with crustacean guts. I smashed and I smashed, and I picked and I picked and I picked.
When it was all done, I scrubbed. I washed the counters and the walls and the sink and the floor and the wine bottle and the bobby pins I’d tried using to pry the meat out of the belly. I washed my pruney fingers and my lobster-covered shirt and pants.
And then I ate. For days, all I ate was lobster. I ate it for breakfast cooked into scrambled eggs and for lunch as a mayonnaise-dressed sandwich and as a snack dipped in butter and for dinner over pasta. By the time my roommates returned to the dorm from their Thanksgiving holidays, there was no evidence of the journey I’d been on. But I was changed.
I’d learned my lesson(s!), and I was ready to master this skill. Since then, I’ve shelled and eaten many whole lobsters. I’ve steamed them and boiled them and grilled them. I’ve eaten them on a dock in Maine and at an open-fire shack in Connecticut and in my apartment in New York. I still make a mess (who doesn’t) but I know how to do it in style, and in (waaaaay) under an hour.
Lesson #1: When you’re trying something new, always ask for advice.
My mother (that angel) is very good at many things, but was not the ideal resource in this particular situation. Susan Povich, the owner of Red Hook Lobster Pound in Brooklyn, is a true expert on the topic, which is why I recently called her up to get her professional tips on choosing, cooking, and breaking down a lobster.
Lesson #2: Buy a smaller lobster.
They’re sweeter (and easier to carry on the subway!). “Ideally a lobster is between 1 1/4 pounds and 1 1/2 pounds,” says Povich, who says she won’t eat any lobster over a pound-and-a-half. “It takes a lobster seven years to get to a pound, and the larger the lobster gets, the tougher the meat gets. It just doesn’t taste good. Think of it like you think of coq au vin, like an old rooster. Lobsters are really like old roosters at that size: they’re tough.” Now I get it. But that’s not the only reason to seek out smaller lobsters. “Ecologically, lobsters mate with like-sized lobsters and they can live a long time,” she tells me. “The larger lobsters, they’re the ones that keep the species sustainable. So generally you don’t want to take too big of a lobster out because they’re the mega-breeders. In addition to tasting like old rooster.”
Lesson #3: Kill the lobster before cooking it, only if you must.
Killing a lobster before cooking it isn’t really more humane; as far as we know, lobster’s don’t actually feel pain. “If you’re going to boil a lobster, there’s no reason to kill a lobster before you cook it,” Povich says. “A lobster going into a super hot pot of water is probably just as humane as sticking a knife in its head; they die instantly.” If you’re squeamish, however, killing it may be more humane for the cook: You won’t have to fight a living thing into a pot of boiling water, struggle with your feelings as you hold the lid down on it, and confront your own mortality while you’re trying to get dinner on the table. “If you’re going to cook it any other way except putting it into a pot of rolling, boiling water, you should kill it first,” Povich adds. “I would not put a live lobster on a grill; I would kill it, knife through the head, slice it in half, and then put it on the grill.”
Lesson #4: If you don’t have a big enough pot, find another way to cook a lobster.
“One should not break lobster down before you cook it unless you’re going to be grilling it or using it in a different application,” Povich says. “You don’t break a lobster down and then put it in boiling water, it won’t taste good.” If you’re without a large enough pot, you still have options, like grilling, making ceviche, or roasting it in a 350°F oven (until it reaches an internal temperature of about 135°F).
Lesson #5: Avoid the supermarket the day before Thanksgiving.
You don’t need to do that to yourself. I figured that one out on my own.
Lesson #6: Keep these instructions for how to shell a lobster with you all summer long.
Susan sells “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pounds of lobster a week.” That’s a lot of lobsters to shell, and she’s gotten the act down to a science. You may have to practice a bit, but that’s the (deliciously!) fun part.
- Twist off the claws. One at a time, grab the arms with your hand and “twist off the whole arm, the claw and the knuckles, at the body joint,” says Povich. Do it swiftly and with confidence, and it’ll pop right off.
- Separate the claw from the knuckle. The knuckle is the jointy part that connects the claw to the body. “You twist the knuckle and the claw off the body, and then you twist the knuckle off the claw,” says Povich, “so you end up with the claw piece and then the knuckle piece.”
- Remove the shell of the small claw first. Povich says to start with the dexterous part of the claw: pull it on its hinge backwards and work it back and forth a bit, then “rip it and pull.” The shell will break off and you can gently slide it off the meat inside.
- Crack the large part of the claw in its thickest spot with a lobster cracker or nut cracker (or hammer or rock or wine bottle!). You want to do this with some force so that you get a clean break, and depending on how thick the shell is or how large the claw is, you might have to make a few cracks. Then peel the shell off with your fingers and pull the claw meat out. Then admire your (beautiful!) work.
- Take the meat out of the knuckles. “Break the knuckle with a cracker to loosen it up,” says Povich. Depending on the size of your lobster’s knuckles, you might want to crack them in a few places to make life easier for yourself. “Then take a toothpick and pull the meat out,” she says. You can also use your fingers or a tiny fork or the end of a chopstick, or whatever small tool you might have. “Some people, including me, think that the knuckle is the best, sweetest part of the lobster.” (Agreed!)
- Separate the tail from the body. “You separate the tail from the body by just sort of twisting it and ripping it off,” Povich says. Hold the tail in one hand and the head in the other, and twist in opposite directions. Do this over a sink or a bowl, to catch any water that might have collected inside. Or don’t, and be prepared to get sprayed.
- Break off the tail flippers. A lobster tail has little fins on the end, which you should remove. To get them off, “you don’t pull, you actually bend them back and forth and they crack off,” says Povich. She says that given how little meat is inside you can just “chuck them.” But if you’re the kind of person who wants to see for herself, you can tear the wide end off the flipper and either suck the meat out with your teeth or pull the soft shell apart to reveal the meat inside.
- Remove the meat from the tail. “The best thing to do is to take the tail and turn it one quarter way so it’s on its side, and the inside of the lobster tail and the hard shell are perpendicular to the table,” says Povich. “Press down on it it and you can gently crack the underside of the shell and the outside of the shell,” which will loosen the meat inside. To get it out of the tail, “put your thumb in where the flippers were and push; the meat will come out the larger side.”
- Clean the tail. Once you’ve gotten the tail meat out, you’ll want to remove the vein hidden inside, just as you would with a shrimp. “You peel the top of the flesh off,” says Povich, “and you take the vein out.” Simple. You also might find some other goodies hidden inside. “There’s something green called tomalley, which is essentially the liver, which is perfectly edible,” she says. “The other thing that’s in there might be some cooked red roe, if it’s a female, which is also good to eat.” When I asked how she likes to eat it, she said, “Eat it! Dip it in butter! I like it on Ritz crackers, but that’s how I grew up.”
- Deal with the legs. There’s not a lot of meat in lobster legs, but they are fun to eat. To remove the legs from the body, grab each leg near the joint where it meet the body, twist, and pull. “Then sort of bite them and suck the meat out.” See, fun!
- Work the body. A lot of people stop at this point and throw the body away. But waste not want not! “The body is edible,” says Povich, “but it’s hard to eat.” To separate the body from the shell and the head, pull the sides of the shell outward, which should loosen the body enough to pull it out. Grip the body and pull up, and the whole thing should easily come out of the shell. Again: Do this over the sink or a bowl (to avoid the mess). Toss the shell in the pile with your other shells, then get to work. “On the outside of the body are the lungs, which are kind of like in crabs, those feathery things,” she says. “You don’t want to eat them.” Using your hand, scrape out everything from the body (it’s mostly more tomalley, so grab that sleeve of Ritz), until you can see the patchwork of cartilage that’s holding the remaining morsels of meat. Then, holding one side of the body in each hand, pull your hands away from each other to crack the body in half. You can pick the meat out with a fork or a toothpick, or “with your hands and your mouth,” she says. “Eating a lobster body is kind of personal.”
- Make stock. You can throw away the lobster shells, but you can also make lobster stock out of them. “Rinse them off, make lobster stock, and turn that into lobster risotto,” says Povich. “I usually put the body in when I make lobster stock, which you can use even though it’s already been cooked once.” And there you have it!
We’re all always learning and making mistakes as we go. We try new things, we make a huge mess, our moms encourage us and laugh at us, and then we get better. We find new resources, we develop new skills, we stop going to the grocery store the day before Thanksgiving, we get to eat a lobster every once in a while, and we grow.
What are your best tricks for breaking down a lobster? Share your trials and tribulations with us below.