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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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).
You don’t need to do that to yourself. I figured that one out on my own.
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.
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.