Cooking a whole lobster is easier than you would think! This guide will teach you how to humanely kill a lobster, boil or steam them, shell them, and get every piece of meat from claw to tail.
Before the end of the summer -and the end of lobster season- I wanted to make a continuance of my warm butter lobster rolls by making a post breaking down a lobster...literally. We're going to talk about humanely killing the lobster, how to steam or boil it, and then getting all the meat out, including the meat in the little legs. The meat in the legs are just as sweet as the claws, so you don't wanna miss them.
And for as much as you paid for a whole lobster, you better be able to enjoy all the meat in it, am I right?
First things first, buying a healthy lobster.
If you're like me and live near the coast on the East Coast, you should be able to find fresh, live lobsters in the seafood area of your grocery store, or at your local fish monger.
If you live more inland or in a country where lobster isn't available, I know there are shipping websites that will send you lobsters. Here are a few reputable sites I know of:
But, if you have a live lobster tank at the store or fish monger, here's what to look for
- Make sure that lobster is not only alive, but lively and healthy.
- You want to see little legs moving, antennae wiggling, and if they're in a tank, preferably walking around in there.
- Another thing to look for are long antennae. When the lobsters have been stuck in a tank for a long time they not only starve and shrink, which means they have less meat, but they start eating each other. And those antennae are easy to get at.
- Lobsters can be almost any color, they're usually brown, blue-ish brown-green, even very dark-near-black when alive. They only turn red after they've been cooked.
Lobsters are actually available year-round. In the late spring and through the summer, lobsters go through a shedding process and are considered 'soft-shelled'. They're more active during the warmer months and are caught more easily, so this is the time of the year they'll be on sale at more affordable prices.
In the winter, they are considered 'hard-shelled' since they aren't shedding and are harder to catch since they're not as active and therefore, are more expensive. But they do have slightly more meat than the soft-shelled ones.
I personally like smaller lobsters (around 1.5-2 pounds while alive) because the bigger ones are more likely to have tougher meat instead of the sweet, tender flesh that lobsters are known for.
So if you're looking to buy lobster, go for it in the warm weather months, and make sure those bad boys are healthy with long wiggly antennas.
To store the lobster on your way home and into the fridge, keep the lobster in a bag, then in a separate bag keep some ice. Let the lobster chill out on top of the ice, but never let the lobster and the ice be together because fresh water kills lobster and you don't want them to die before you cook them.
You want to cook the lobster the day you got it, at most the next day. Don't risk that little lobster passing away in your fridge and wasting all that money.
How to Cook a Whole Lobster
Cooking a lobster isn't as hard as many people seem to think. There are two classic ways: steaming your lobsters and boiling them. These are the most common ways, but you can grill, poach, or even roast lobsters.
To boil simply have a stock pot of boiling salted water and drop your lobster in. Boiling is easier with less equipment than steaming, but it's also easier to overcook your lobster.
I think using the steaming method is best for a beginner. Using a steaming accessory for your pot helps keep your lobster from staying in the boiling water and possibly becoming water-logged. It's much more difficult to overcook your lobster when you steam them, so you'll end up with perfectly cooked, tender lobster meat.
Before you cook the lobster, you need to make a decision: kill it now or in the pot?
I learned in culinary school that lobsters don't have a central nervous system, so dropping them in the hot pot isn't likely causing them a horrible death.
But if you're like me and have a nagging conscious, there are ways to ensure you aren't sending your lobster into a painful death.
They are also good if you've been traumatized by an escaping shellfish jumping out of the pot, claws ablazing, like Crab Rambo (this happened to my mom when I was a kid and I've been wary ever since...)
- Place the lobsters in the freezer for about ten to fifteen minutes before cooking. You don't want to store the lobster in the freezer, but placing them in the freezer for a little while stuns the lobster, putting them into a sleep-like state and numbing them to stimulus.
- This is controversial with home cooks, because you already feel bad about killing the lobster in the pot...but stab it in the carapace. There is a line in their body is where you want to cut through (you can where I cut into the carapace in the photos above) to give them a quick and painless death. You know, because they're going to end up as food so you gotta choose a route, honey.
Tips on ensuring perfectly cooked lobster:
Keep the bands on their claws when cooking them. You don't want to end up getting your fingers cut or even broken by the crusher claw if you have an angry and awake lobster.
I've never had a Lobster Rambo, but I'm sure we don't want him to have his claws available.
To pick up the lobster, pick it up by the carapace, or the big body part, behind the cross lines. This way you don't get pinched if the lobster doesn't have bands on his claws and you don't hold it by the tail, which has shape bits underneath that can cut you.
And if you didn't lull him to sleep in the freezer, he can use his tail and flip it up and down, which could do some damage to your hand if you're holding him by the tail. So just hold him by the body and you'll be fine.
Use a large soup/stock pot. Don't overcrowd your pot, because the lobsters won't cook evenly. A 5-7 qt pot will be perfect if you're only cooking a couple of smaller lobsters, a 12-20 quart could hold 4-6, but a giant stock pot (talking about anywhere from 20-40 quarts!) can cook many of the bigger ones at one time.
If you don't have a giant pot or even that big of a soup pot, you can use multiple big pots or dutch ovens and cook your lobsters in different pots, so long as you can fit them in comfortably and not overcrowd them or squish them into a tiny space. Give those babies room to breathe.
Pull them out using tongs and let them cool a bit before you shell the lobsters.
Let's shell some lobster!
I love this video about shelling lobsters, Gordon really gets into how he removes each piece of meat from every piece of the lobster.
First, we pull off the tail. Hold it from the top, then twist and pull the tail off.
Using kitchen shears to carefully cut open the top of the tail down to the tail to remove the meat.
After you've got the tail removed and shelled, it's time to move on to the claws and knuckles. Luckily, they're pretty easy to remove and shell.
From the very back of the knuckles, where it meets the body, gently twist and pull the claws and knuckles off. Use kitchen shears to cut open the knuckles.
For the claws, you want to remove the 'thumbs' and try to do it as gently as possible so that the stiff material called the 'blade' comes out with it. This blade is inedible, so make sure you pull it out. It should come out easily with the thumb if you cooked your lobster correctly.
Sometimes the thumb's meat will stay with the rest of the shell (as seen with the top claw in the photo above) or come off in the thumb shell, like the bottom claw. Use a thin tool or a lobster picker to pull the meat out from the shell.
Use a sharp chef's knife to carefully crack open the 'body' of the claw. One or two swift, light, whacks should crack open the shell without cutting into the meat. Gently remove the meat without breaking it if you can.
The carapace itself has no meat, so don't worry about it. Twist and pull all of the little legs off the carapace, because they have meat in them. Most people don't bother with the legs, but I prefer to get them.
To remove the meat, use kitchen shears to get into the legs and remove the bits of meat.
And that's it! It really doesn't take long to cook and shell lobsters at all with the right tools. Use that meat up in some creamy lobster mac, decadent lobster newberg, or those classic warm butter lobster rolls. Mmm!
PS: Keep the shells to make lobster stock, which would be amazing in some lobster bisque (coming to the blog soon!). The shells freeze up to three months, so this is great to keep handy when you start all those holiday dinner parties this year!
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- Live whole lobsters
- Sea Salt or Kosher Salt
- Kitchen Shears
- Lobster crackers and picks
- Soup or stock pot
Kill the lobster
- Make sure your lobster is alive. The antennae and legs should move a little, even after keeping it on ice. If you're not sure. let them warm up on the counter for a few minutes.
- Once you know your lobsters are alive, put them in the freezer for 10-15 minutes to numb them up and 'put them to sleep'. They're still alive, but this makes sure they're not active and crawling around (or jumping out the pot like Lobster Rambo). I suggest doing this step whether you kill it by knife or by pot.
- Find the cross line at the top of the lobster's carapace (body). With a sharp chef's knife, quickly stab through the line and push the knife fully through the head to give the lobster a swift and painless death.
Option 1: Steam the lobsters
- Use a stock pot large enough to comfortably hold the lobsters without crowding, and fill it with water so it comes up sides about two inches. Add in about 2 tbsp sea salt or kosher salt per quart of water. Use a steaming rack to place the lobsters on to steam evenly.
- Bring water back to a rolling boil over high heat. Place lobsters in the pot head first, cover the pot tightly with the lid, and return to a boil as quickly as possible before you start counting the time.
- Steam a lobster for 7 minutes for the first pound. Add 3 minutes per pound for each additional pound.
- Carefully remove lobsters from the pot with tongs. Be careful, they are very hot. Set in a large bowl for five minutes to cool before cracking.
Option 2: Boil the lobsters
- Fill a pot (large enough to hold the lobsters) anywhere from one-half to two-thirds full with water. Use about 1 gallon of water per lobster so it is deep enough to submerge the lobster by at least 3 inches.
- Add 2 tbsp of sea salt or kosher salt for each quart of water. Bring the water to a rolling boil over high heat.
- Place the lobsters in one at a time, headfirst, making sure they are completely submerged. Cover the pot tightly with a lid and return to a boil. After the water comes back to a boil, start timing, and keep the water boiling throughout the cooking time. If it boils over, turn down the heat as much as you can without losing the boil.
- Carefully remove lobsters from the pot with tongs. Be careful, they are very hot. Set in a large bowl for five minutes to cool before shelling.
Shelling the lobster
- First, remove the tails. Gently twist and pull, keeping your fingers on top of the tail, since the bottom has sharp bits. Use those kitchen shears to cut open the top of the shell and gently pull out the meat. Set aside in a medium sized bowl.
- Next is the knuckles and claws. Twist and pull them out from as close to the body as possible. Pop the knuckles from the claws and use those kitchen shears to open the knuckles and remove the meat into the bowl with the tail.
- Remove the thumbs from the claws by gently bending them back and slowly removing them. The blade should pull out with them and hopefully the thumb's meat will stay with the claw. If not, and the meat is in the thumb shell, pick it out with the lobster pickers.
- For the claws, you'll need a sharp chef's knife to gently, swiftly whack the claws (carefully! Don't hurt yourself and don't break through the meat!) We just want a crack in the shell that will allow us to break open the claw and remove all the meat. Carefully remove the meat and set it aside in the bowl.
- Next is the legs. Just like with the knuckles, twist and pull them from the carapace as close as possible. Using the kitchen shears, clip off the little pinchy feet and break the segments apart. Squeeze the meat out of the open ends and place them in the bowl.
- Repeat shelling lobster steps for all lobsters.
- Store the lobster meat in an air tight container for 3-4 days in the fridge, 3-4 months in the freezer.
Steaming Times (for all lobsters in the pot, not per lobster)
1 lb.-1-¼ lbs. = 7-9 minutes
1-½ lb. = 9-11 minutes
2 lbs. = 11-12 minutes
3 lbs. = 12-14 minutes
5 lb. = 22-24 minutes
Boiling Lobsters (this is for all the lobsters in the pot, too. Not per lobster)
1 lb. Lobster = 5-6 minutes
1 ¼ pound = 7-8 minutes
1-½ lb. = 8-9 minutes
2 lb. lobster = 10-12 minutes
3 lb. lobster = 12-14 minutes
5-6 lb. lobster = 18-20 minutes
If you have roe in your lobster (lucky!) that's black, your lobster is under-cooked! Place the lobster back in the pot and cook until the roe red. If you don't want the roe, you can also simply remove the roe by rinsing it out.
Keep the lobster shells for lobster stock. The shells keep in the freezer for 3-4 months.
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Eden Westbrook is the recipe developer, writer, and photographer behind Sweet Tea and Thyme. A classically trained chef, Eden has inspired home cooks into the kitchen with cultural comfort foods, easy family-friendly eats and sweets, and glorious spreads for date night and entertaining since 2015.