How to Boil and Eat Lobster

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We don’t have American lobsters out here in California. (Well we do, but they’re shipped in from New England, and frankly they just aren’t as good as lobsters bought near the sea shore on the East Coast.)

So whenever I’m in New England in the summer (according to my local friends, summer is the best time for lobsters, they’re more plentiful and therefore less expensive) I make a point to have some.

Now, there are many ways to cook lobster, and probably just as many ways to eat it. Boiling is the most straightforward way to cook lobster, though you can easily steam them too.

The steps I’ve laid out here are as much for my benefit as they are for yours. I don’t eat or cook lobster that often, so it helps me remember what to do when I do get the chance.

I like my lobster dipped in hot melted butter, so that’s what is presented here. Some people just like a squirt of lemon juice, or dipped in mayonnaise. Some people meticulously extract the meat from every little leg. I skip them and go for the claws, knuckles, and tail.

For me, cooking lobster is something you do for a gathering of friends and family. It’s so much fun, so messy, and so good, it’s just meant to be shared.

 

How to Boil and Eat Lobster

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If you end up with leftover cooked lobster meat, chop it up, mix in with mayo, and serve with lettuce on a buttered and toasted hot dog bun to make a lobster roll.

Ingredients

  • Live lobsters, 1 per person
  • A large pot of salted water
  • Butter
  • Bread for dipping into the lobster-infused butter (optional)

Method

How to Boil Lobster

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First consider the size of your pot for boiling the lobsters. An 8-quart pot will easily take one lobster, a 16-quart pot, 2 or 3 lobsters. If you are cooking a lot of lobsters you'll either need to cook them in stages or have more than one pot of water boiling.

If you value your fingers, keep the rubber bands holding the lobster claws closed on the lobsters. Only remove them after you finish cooking the lobsters.

1 Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil: Fill a large pot 3/4 full of water. Add 2 teaspoons of salt for every quart of water. The water should be salty like sea water (in fact you can use clean sea water if you have it). Bring the water to a rapid boil.

2 Lower the lobsters into the pot: Grasp the lobster by the body and lower it upside down and head first into the boiling water. Continue to add the live lobsters to the pot in this manner. Cover the pot.

3 Boil lobsters for 12 to 20 min, depending on size: Note the time at which the water comes to a boil again. From that point, boil the lobsters for 12-20 minutes or longer, depending on the size of the lobster. 12-15 minutes for 1 lb lobster, 15-20 minutes for a 1 1/2 pound lobster, 20-25 minutes for a 2-3 pound lobster. The lobsters should be a bright vivid red color when done.

Note that larger lobsters will turn bright red before they are completely finished cooking, so you do want to time your cooking, and not just go on color alone.

Unlike with fresh scallops or fish that you can eat raw (think sashimi), you don't want to eat raw or undercooked lobster. Translucent undercooked lobster meat really doesn't taste good. It needs to be opaque through and through. If you cook it too long, the meat will get rubbery, so keep an eye on the time.

4 Remove lobsters from pot to drain: Remove the lobsters from the pot with tongs and place on a plate to drain and cool.

 

How to Eat Lobster

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Before you get started, you'll want to assemble some essentials. You'll need a nutcracker, a large bowl to hold the shells, a small dipping bowl for melted butter, and what's missing from the above photograph—a lot of napkins! Eating lobster is messy, you'll need them. There's a good reason they give diners plastic bibs at restaurants when serving lobster. You may also want to use some kitchen shears and nutpicks in addition to a nutcracker.

After the lobster comes out of the pot, let it cool for a few minutes, otherwise it will be too hot to handle.

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Pull off the rubber bands from the claws, if they are still attached. Twist the claws away from the body at the joints that connect them to the body. Separate the knuckle from the claw.

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Pull back the "jaw" of the claw until it breaks, but do it gently, so that the little bit of meat that is in the small part of the jaw stays attached to the rest of the meat (it's easier than trying to fish it out of the small shell).

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Use a nut cracker to crack the main claw shell. Depending on the season and the size of your lobster, the shell may be easy or hard to crack with a nutcracker. If necessary you can take a mallet or hammer to it, but do it gently, just enough to break the shell without crushing the meat inside. Pull away the broken shell pieces and pull out the meat inside. Any white stuff attached to the meat is fat, which you can choose to eat or not. Dip into melted butter or not, and eat.

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To extract the meat from the knuckles, use kitchen shears (if you have them) to cut the shell along its length. Pry open the shell where you made the cut and you can pull out all the knuckle meat in one piece. Alternately, you can crack each section of knuckle with a nutcracker and pull the meat out in chunks.

If you have a very large lobster, you can eat the legs. Get to the meat from the legs in a way similar to pulling off the “jaw” of the claw. Bend the joints of the legs the “wrong” way, which breaks them. You should have a piece of meat attached. Simply bite this off, leaving a thin piece of cartilage attached to the rest of the leg.

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Now on to the lobster tail, where the biggest piece of meat lies. You'll need both hands to get the meat from the tail. Grip the lobster's body with one hand and the tail with the other. Bend the tail back away from the body to separate it from the body.

You will see one, and maybe two, odd things inside. You’ll see the greenish “tomalley,” which is the lobster’s liver. You can choose to eat it or not. Some people spread it on toast or add it to lobster soups or sauces. If the lobster is a female, you may also see the bright red “coral,” which is the roe of the lobster. You may also choose to eat this or not. The coral can be spread on toast as well, or used to add flavor to lobster bisque.

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The tail will now look like a really big shrimp. Grab the flippers at the end of the tail and bend them backwards gently. If you do it right, you’ll get the meat from the inside of one or more flippers. This is uncommonly sweet meat, so don’t forget the morsels in the flippers! You can pry them out by working the little joints back and forth, or use shears to cut their thin shells.

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With the flippers off the tail, you can now just put your finger through the small opening where the flippers were and push the tail meat out in one piece. If you have an exceptionally large lobster, use kitchen shears to cut a line down the underside of the tail to help remove the meat.

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Before you eat the tail, pull the top of it off. This will reveal a digestive vein which you will likely want to remove, much like deveining a shrimp. It won't hurt you if you eat it, but it is the digestive tract of the lobster.

There is meat inside the body of the lobster, mostly right around where you pulled off the tail. For lobsters bigger than 2 pounds it is worth it to fish around for these extra morsels.

There you go! Now just dip in melted butter (or not) and eat. If you have crusty bread, it tastes great dipped in the lobster-infused butter as well.

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Years ago, my first job out of college was in Boston; I lived in the North End, above D'Amore's Italian restaurant on Salem Street, right across from a little fish market. I was amazed that I could buy fresh lobster across the street from where I lived, at the fish market, for $4.99 a pound, still a luxury at that time, but within reach. (This summer, 27 years later, I bought lobster for $5.99 a pound, a bargain for this Californian!)

That summer as often as I could I rounded up friends to enjoy a lobster feast. I still have the big aluminum pot I used.

Do you have a favorite lobster memory? Or special tip for buying, storing, cooking, or eating lobsters? Please let us know about it in the comments.

Links:

The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean by Trevor Corson

Wikipedia on lobster

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My friend Alden with a lobster about to go into the pot.

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Showing 4 of 66 Comments

  • Scott

    I agree with most of what is said but suggest cutting the bands before cooking. I find the delicate taste can be tainted by the boiled rubber.
    Boiling or steaming is to ones own taste, I love that salty water that runs out of the claws when you break them off, mmmmnnnn….
    Oh, one more thing, the shells and waste are excellent for the garden, bury about 18 inches deep to keep cats and skunks from digging them up.
    Gonna get some ‘crawlies’ tonight!!

  • Roger

    I remember as a kid, living in Quebec, whenever my grandparents went to the fish market in Ottawa to buy lobster, they would buy an extra 3 lobsters for my Mom, Dad, and me. Not my brother (he did not want any). When i would see them walking towards our house withe a plastic bag, I knew we were in for a treat.
    One day a delivery guy came to the door as we were sitting down to eat our plated lobsters. He took one look at the table setting and jolted back and said:
    What the heck are those bugs and do you plan to eat them. My dad told him they were a delicacy and asked the guy if he wanted to try some. He said: get those things away from me !!! I’ll come back another day to collect what you owe me.
    By the way my brother started eating lobster when he turned 20, 50 years ago, and has eaten more lobster than the rest of my family put together and still does.

  • tien

    I steam my 7 lbs lobster with sea water/lemond grass (asian grocery market)
    slice the back open and squeeze lemond into it.
    ofcourse dip in melted butter with few drop of tobasco source

  • Jeff

    20 minutes is Way to long to boil a lobster. That’s not an opinion. Otherwise great article. You should update it since its the first thing to come up on google. A 2 1/2 lb lobster is done in 7 1/2 minutes in boiling water. boiling lobster for 20 minutes would be a costly mistake. It may be edible but would definitely be rubbery.

  • Chris

    Hi all!

    Looking at cooking Lobster tonight for my wife and I (our anniversary). I purchased 2 x live lobster from my local fishmonger yesterday am (they were an hour out of the sea and virtually running). 24 hours later they are no longer live. I notice everyone is stating cooking live lobster but can’t find anything on not live. Any suggestions from anyone please. Thanks – Chris.

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