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How-To

Cooking and Shelling Succulent Lobster

Fine Cooking Issue 22
Photos: James Peterson
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Cracking open and eating lobsters at a clambake is sloppy good fun, but when you want lobster meat for a salad, soup, or pasta—or if you just want to eat it without needing a bib—you need to take the meat out of the shell before serving it.

Buy small, feisty lobsters

Be sure the lobsters you buy are lively. When you pick them up, they should flap their tails indignantly —a sign that they’re alive and well, if a little annoyed.

I buy the smallest lobsters I can find. Some people say they’re more tender than larger ones, but I buy them because they usually cost less per pound. I also find the smaller ones easier to handle. A 1-1/4- to 1-1/2-lb. lobster should give you about 5 oz. of meat, enough for about one serving.

Male vs. female. I don’t think it makes much difference to the quality of the meat whether your lobster is male or female, though some people vociferously claim that females are tastier. But if you plan to use the lobster’s coral or roe (the unripened eggs found in the tail meat) to give a fish stew, soup, or sauce a deliciously intense lobster flavor, you’ll obviously want a female.

The sex of a lobster isn’t immediately apparent, except perhaps to another lobster. To find out what you’re holding, turn the lobster over so you’re looking at the underside of the tail. At the base of the head section, all lobsters have two small pointed legs. On a male, they’re hard and bony; on a female, they’re soft and flexible. Refrigerate your lobsters until you’re ready to cook them, preferably within a few hours of buying them.

Boil, steam, or grill, but don’t overcook

How you cook a lobster has no bearing on how you remove its meat. But if you overcook it, the meat will be tough and tasteless instead of sweet and tender.

But if you overcook it, the meat will be tough and tasteless instead of sweet and tender.Though you can steam, broil, or grill lobster, boiling is the most popular method. But to avoid overcooking a boiled lobster, don’t actually boil it. The water should be at a rolling boil before you put the lobsters in the pot. Once you add them, the water will stop boiling. Leave the pot on high heat, covered, until the water just returns to a boil. Then reduce the heat so that the liquid simmers and the lobsters actually poach.

Because I like my lobster cooked just until the meat is still slightly translucent, I poach my lobster for about 5 minutes per 1-1/4 lb., and then about 2 minutes more for every additional pound. The more traditional cooking time is 8 minutes for the initial 1-1/4 lb., then 2 minutes for every additional pound.

Keep the tails straight for a pretty presentation. A lobster’s tail will curl when exposed to heat. One way to prevent this is to tie a long, flat, dull knife or a wooden spoon along the lobster’s underside with string before cooking. Or you can tie lobsters together in pairs so that the tails remain straight, but this may be difficult if they’re moving around a lot; it also means that the tails will take longer to cook.

The main tool you need is your hands

Before shelling lobsters, get a few tools ready: an old chef’s knife (it will take a beating), kitchen scissors, and a bowl to collect the shells and juices that flow from the lobster. Use these tasty juices to flavor a broth, bisque, chowder, or sauce, or to make lobster butter. Though you don’t need a bib, you’ll probably want to wear an apron to protect your clothes from any stray juices.

To take the meat out of the shell, follow the photos and directions below.

Be firm but gentle as you extract the meat from the shell so that it stays in one good-looking piece to be served whole or sliced.

You’l find most of the meat in the tail

1. Twist off the tail. Grab the head section (the thorax) with one hand, the tail with the other, and twist. The parts should separate easily.
2. Use the heel of your hand to press down on one side of the lobster tail. Press until you feel a gentle crunch.
3. Pull the sides of the lobster away from each other with both hands. The back of the tail shell should crack, and the tail meat should pop out.
4. Slice the lobster tail or leave it whole. Use a knife to slice the meat into medallions as shown here or cut it in half lengthwise.

You’ll find succulent meat in the claws, too. If you’re lucky, the inedible cartilage-like “butterfly” will pull out of the claw along with the pincer, meaning you won’t have to look for it when you remove the meat from the claw.

On a larger lobster, the eight smaller legs can yield some tasty bits of meat, which you can push out with a skewer. But if the lobster is small, the amount of meat may not be worth the trouble of excavating it. In such cases, I’ll enjoy a couple as a treat for the chef, since sucking the meat out of the legs is usually the easiest way to go.

Crack into the claws to free more meat

1. Snap the claws off where they join the body. You’ll have better leverage if you do this before you twist off the tail.
2. Begin to pull the pincer off each claw by bending the pincer gently from side to side. Then pull the pincer straight out. Most times, the cartilage-like “butterfly” will pull out of the claw along with the pincer.
3. Crack into the underside of the claw with an old chef’s knife. The knife should go in about 1/4 inch. Rotate the knife in both directions to split the claw open so you can pull out the meat.
4. Cut the small claw section with scissors. Use your fingers to coax out the meat from there.

There isn’t much meat in the head, but if you’re thrifty, you might want to harvest the meat that lies within the small cartilage chambers along the inside of each half. You’ll also find the tomalley here (the lobster’s greencolored liver), which I think is the tastiest part of the lobster. I like to force the tomalley through a strainer and then whisk it into a sauce to give the sauce an intense lobster flavor.

The head holds tasty tomalley

Forage for more meat and the tomalley in the head section. Split it open with a knife.
Throw away the head sac, shown here. Spoon out the green tomalley and use a cocktail fork or a toothpick to harvest any meat.

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