An Encounter with a Lobster

June 8th, 2008

Lobster 17

I feel I should warn you, out of respect for my more sensitive or vegetarian readers, that this post is about cooking a live lobster and it is rather frank in places. I won’t be offended if you choose to skip it.

I’m a real seafood lover, I love shellfish in particular and lobster is probably my favourite. I say probably because these days I’m having a wonderful love affair with oysters, of which I can’t get enough. But this post is about lobster, not oysters and so I won’t go down that road this evening.

Loving lobster as I do, and being such a passionate home cook, it’s only natural that I would want to cook it. It’s something I’ve thought about on and off over the years but what’s stopped me from doing so, up until now, is the fact that lobsters have to be cooked live or immediately after killing because, like all crustaceans, they deteriorate rapidly. For the same reason it’s preferable to cook a lobster rather than buy a ready cooked one as the texture of the flesh changes very quickly once cooked. But the idea of cooking a live lobster did make me a little squeamish. I’d heard the horror stories about lobsters screaming as they enter the pot (not true, if there is any noise it’s air pushing through the shells) and I didn’t like the idea of a lobster dying by my own hand in a pot of boiling water. Two things have changed that and have led me to today when I bought and cooked a live lobster. Firstly, I’ve learned that a lobster doesn’t have to be plunged straight into boiling water while conscious (you’ll read more about that later) and secondly, being more concerned these days with how my food is sourced and the cradle to grave line I figure if I’m happy to eat it in a restaurant where I expect the chef to cook it then I should attempt to too.

So decision made it was just a case of when. The last few times Rob and I have taken the trip to Whitstable Fish Market I’ve thought about buying a lobster and when Rob suggested we go today I decided now was the time. We arrived at the market early and spoke to a fish monger who was both very helpful and very funny – which made it a pleasant shopping trip. He took us out the back and let us choose our lobster. There was a large box of them (I was surprised at how many there were) and a box of live crabs also. He took a few lobsters out for us to have a look at, throwing damp seaweed over them, which makes them feel at home. We chose a medium sized specimen and went back out front with him (or was it her?). While holding him the fish monger demonstrated how stroking their tail calms them down if they are moving about quite a bit. I’d heard this before and it was fascinating to see – the lobster’s tail curled under and he stopped moving. The fish monger put him into a box for us, putting some damp paper over him – you shouldn’t keep lobsters in water but loosely cover them damp paper, seaweed or cloth, while allowing them air. It’s a good job I wasn’t feeling any guilt pangs at this stage, as the fish monger joked about tucking him in, reading him a bedside story and telling him to “say goodnight to mummy and daddy…before they KILL YOU!”. Unsurprisingly, this caught the attention of a lady walking past and she looked rather uneasy when she realised what was in the box which only added to the fish monger’s amusement!

All joking was put aside as we talked about the serious business of cooking the lobster. I told the fish monger that I planned to put the lobster in the freezer for two hours before plunging it into boiling water, as putting it in a freezer will render it unconscious so that it when it is put into boiling water it will be dead before it wakes up. This is the recommendation of Rick Stein and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, whose books I turned to for advise on the subject. The RSPCA’s also recommended putting the lobster in the freezer, but rather than then boiling it they advise making a single cut to split it from head to the end of the tail down the mid-line to destroy the nervous system. You need to know what you’re doing if you’re going to do this though. The fish monger’s view, which I suspect is a common view among those handling live lobsters on a daily basis, is that you’re buying it fresh so why would you want to then freeze it (and some say ruin the taste and texture of the meat) and anyway plunging it straight into boiling water is very quick. My conscience wouldn’t allow this though. To be honest I did feel a little bad just putting him in the freezer; I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be able to put him straight into the pot, or feel right about it. So, once home into the freezer he went.

Lobster 18

After 2 hours I gingerly opened the freezer door and saw that the lobster was quite still and most definitely looked unconscious. I left it in the freezer while I heated up a huge pot of water (note the change from ‘he’ to ‘it’: at this point, even more so than before, I did see the lobster as food and had to really – it would have been difficult to put it into the pot otherwise). Throughout the buying and cooking process I referred to two books that I highly recommend: Rick Stein’s Seafoodby Rick Stein and The River Cottage Fish Bookby Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher. Both advise salting the water well (as did the fish monger), so I added 200g of salt to 8 litres of water. It took an age to boil and the lobster ended up in the freezer for much longer. When it eventually was time to cook it I took the lobster out and cut off the rubber bands holding the pincers together, weighed it to find out how long to cook it for (15 minutes for a lobster up to 750g and 20 minutes for one up to 1.25kg) and then plunged it head first into the pot. I had a bit of a panic at this stage as I stupidly hadn’t checked that the lobster completely fitted in before boiling the water and although it was a huge pot it didn’t quite take the length of the lobster with it’s pincers out in front of it, so I had to push it down with a slotted spoon (the first thing that came to hand!) then put a lid on the pot. It took a long time to come back to the boil and it was tricky to keep it on a rapid boil without it boiling over (as the water was very close to the top); each time I turned the heat down a little it went off the boil and took ages to come back up. To account for this I cooked the lobster for five or so minutes longer but I think I did over cook it a little to be honest. However, I’m pleased to report that at no time from start to finish was there any movement or noise from the lobster.

Lobster 15

Lobster 16

When the cooking time was up and the lobster had turned a stunning shade of coral out it came for a little knife work. This is easy (or it is if you have a decent knife): you place the lobster belly down with its head facing you and put the tip of the knife into the middle of the head cut down firmly in a straight line down the centre until you hit the board. Next you turn the lobster around and follow the same line with the knife right down the body and through the tail – you’ll need a bit of force for this. Once you’ve opened the lobster you need to discard the stomach sac, the gills and the black intestinal tract in the tail. The brown gunk is the liver which is perfectly edible and rich tasting.

Finally it was time to eat and, sure enough, it tasted fantastic. It was such a messy indulgence: pulling the flesh out of the claws with fingers and a lobster picker and sucking at the legs. All it needed was a dollop of mayonnaise to dip the delicious meat into. It’s only right to tell you that I did attempt to make the mayonnaise but in my haste I split it, rectified it with another egg yolk only to split it again. At which point all patience was lost and I threw it to one side cursing and grabbed the jar of Hellman’s. I wasn’t going to wait any longer for this lobster feast!

Lobster 2

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    17 Responses to “An Encounter with a Lobster”

    1. whatmattatetoday Says:

      Thanks Julia, sounds like something I really ought to try. Unfortunately there isn’t any fishmongers nearby, so it’ll have to wait.

      I’d never encountered the freezer technique, we always used to put the crabs we cooked straight into boiling water.

      You’re certainly braver than me, cutting the bands before weighing it.

      I saw an Andrew Zimmern show recently where he mixed all the guts and roe sack of a crab and ate it, I wonder if you could do that with Lobster?

    2. MissBliss Says:

      A very interesting read. I agree that if you’re expecting to eat meat/fish then really you shouldn’t be too squeamish if your method of cooking it happens to also involve its dispatch…

      I had a similar experience killing giant coconut crabs (much larger than a lobster so you had to kill it first then rip it to bits to boil!) and can see how putting it in the freezer would be a nicer way for you to kill it (unfortunately not an option for the crabs). I poured a pan of boiling water over them before cooking them and actually watching them seize up and die was pretty unpleasant, but they were gone within a minute. Plus, they were nasty little creatures so I felt like I was dping a good deed. Maybe if I’d been killing one of the Little Mermaid’s friends it’d be a bit different. Which does make me wonder why he was bright red and still alive.

    3. Wendy Says:

      Great post. I cooked a live crab last year but didn’t freeze them. Had heard they died instantly in the boiling water. Now know that’s not true and feel awful. Especially since when I dropped it in the pan, its claws fell off. God, I hope it was dead. :(

    4. Eat Like A Girl Says:

      Great post!

      I share your qualms, but I agree, if you’re happy for someone else to
      do it for you, you should be able to do it yourself.

      It’s on my list of things to do: an early morning trip to Billingsgate
      in London followed by lobster.

      I’d love to know how to disable the nervous system as you describe for
      lobster and crab, but, as you say, if you don’t know how it could be
      worse for the custacean. I think I’d have to freeze it too.

      Niamh

    5. Alexx Says:

      I do love lobster, but have never been brave enough to cook it; I’m more worried about getting it out the shell than putting it in the pot though – perhaps I am just heartless!
      I did laugh out loud at the fishmonger’s “mummy and daddy” comment though!

    6. Carine Says:

      Wow

      Great post. Well done for going for it – like Wendy I had a dubious experience once with a crab which put me off the whole crustacea thing for a bit. But your post has inspired me to have another go – thanks!

      x

    7. Antonia Says:

      What an interesting post to read! I’m sadly allergic to shellfish but the lobster looks great – I just wish I could eat it!
      Well done for taking the bull by the horns (or should that be the lobster by the claws)!

    8. Margaret Says:

      A great post. I wish we could buy ‘fresh lobster’.
      I think I might be ‘girly’ when it comes to dealing with it though!

    9. Nilmandra Says:

      My parents used to cook crab at home (huge Sri Lankan crabs! God, I miss them.) They did it by driving a chopstick through the centre of its belly with the crab lying on its back (well, essentially a stake though the heart, so to speak). They didn’t like the boiling water method. But they don’t like the thought of killing livings things at home now and would just go out for crabs at restaurants. I can see the humane rationale for freezing lobsters or crabs before boiling them, although I can understand how it might seem daft to those in the seafood business, to buy the freshest produce and then freeze it! Well done on the lobster though.

    10. Rebecca Says:

      Wow, that’s so brave of you, cooking shellfish is something I’m yet to try although I did have a battle with a small lobster in a restaurant last week. Watching the slide show for how to cut the lobster was really useful, hopefully my next experience with the tasty thing will be less messy!

    11. MrOrph Says:

      Great post Julia! Very informative. I have done lobster with the “insert knife in head” method as well as the straight plunge method. I have to admit, I don’t get any guilt feelings but my wife does. I see lobster, alive or cooked, as good eats! Or maybe GREAT eats!

      Your methodology and description are priceless.

    12. Chris Says:

      Wow – great post. I am very impressed. No way I could do that. My dad cooked lobster all the time when I was growing up…but not me! :)

    13. Laura @ Hungry and Frozen Says:

      Wow what an informative post :) You are certainly braver than I at this stage! Amazing how orange-red it turns!

    14. Lizzie Says:

      Brave lady. I’ve been thinking about this for a while myself.

      I went to Rick Stein’s seafood restaurant last Thursday – post imminent!

    15. Grobelaar Says:

      Congrats on your first lobster. I love it and living in Portsmouth it’s pretty easy to get hold of. Have to agree, don’t have any qualms with the plunge method, but if it must be dead the knife in the head is second best – not a fan of the sticking it in the freezer.

    16. My Cooking Hut Says:

      I love lobsters but have never prepared them before. I think you have done a good job.

      As much as I love lobsters, crabs are another of my favourite. My mom uses exactly the same method as what Nilmandra mentioned!!

    17. gUlati Says:

      Although , I’ve never cooked a lobster , ur blog made me feel I should rather cook one [;)]
      Well , I’m not a blogging freak or anyone smart enough to comment on ur blog , please accept my small gesture .
      Check out my space sometime http://forcedinto.blogspot.com/

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