Get yourself to a shoreline and melt some butter — this is how to cook a lobster.
It’s a tough time to be talking about lobster. They’re no longer just the reason to amble along Route 1 in Maine, and butter versus mayonnaise — while very important — is no longer the hot button issue.
New studies show that lobsters may, in fact, feel pain — and that maybe we should think twice about cooking them the way our mothers did and their mothers before them. (You got me — I have a Mainer for a mother.) There’s a lobster shell disease plaguing the Northeast. The price per pound has plummeted in recent years, causing hardship in the lobstering industry.
But it’s August — there are lobster boils and clam bakes to be had. Lobster rolls and seersucker napkins and picnic tables await. Pools of butter await, too, and so do ears and ears of corn. And because they do, here is how we cook lobsters.
At the Market
Whatever your cooking method, this is the hard truth about lobster: if you want it to be good, it has to be alive when you bring it home. With lobster, cognitive dissonance is not allowed — like other seafood, it goes bad quickly, but unlike other seafood, lobsters have especially aggressive digestive enzymes. Read: once killed, lobsters will break down at a much faster rate than their underwater brethren. So make friends with a fishmonger, and get them while they’re still energetic, alive, fresh.
In Your Kitchen
This is the part where no one can agree. What’s the most humane way to cook a lobster? PETA would tell you that a humane way doesn’t exist, Jaque Pepin would teach you the knife method, and many more would endorse a quick stint in the freezer to put the lobsters to sleep before cooking.
This is also the part where we know something they don’t know.
Before You Cook, Do Some Yoga
We’re talking about the actual lobsters, but if you get nervous about working with your dinner while it’s alive, you might benefit from a headstand or two yourself. This is a method that my mother taught me, and her grandmother taught her: they call it hypnotizing the lobster, or putting it to sleep. What it is, in reality, is a little head rush, but the effect is a bit magical — stand your lobsters on their heads, supported by their claws, and they’ll calm down almost immediately.
My mother would tell you that stroking the tail is key. My grandmother would too. I’ve done without it, and it still works — just make sure you tuck down their tails, not unlike how you’d pull your knees into child’s pose. Your lobster is now centered.
Ready? Let’s Cook.
We cook them whole because we like to have at them, rustic-style — bibs and bowls of butter and all — once they’re finished. But if you want to push the boundaries of tender lobster meat, you can separate the claws and the tail, as the first will generally cook faster than the second. (Or, if you want to be all Food Lab about it, you can try Kenji’s steam-then-roast method.)
When you cook, forgo boiling — steaming is a gentler method, and it tends to cook more evenly. And, as Kenji over at the Food Lab notes, with all of the water circulating in and out of the lobsters during boiling, you’ll lose a lot of the flavor. Which is the primary reason why we eat them, after all. (Aside from the butter.)
Let’s get to it: while your lobsters are relaxing, bring 2 inches of water to a rolling boil. (Your cooking water should be as salty as the sea, or if you’re lucky enough to be near it, it should actually be the sea.) Now take your subdued lobsters, and place them in the pot — this is where they’ll steam for the next 8-10 minutes, if they’re around a pound and a quarter.
You’ll want to eat it now, we’re assuming. Break it down, and dig in — and don’t forget the bib.
Have a different method? Tell us what you do — and why — in the comments!
Photos by James Ransom