Cooking Lobster

by Elizabeth Skipper | September 18th, 2012 | Ask the Chef

I’ve been thinking about cooking lobster, but I always have chickened out and had the seafood counter steam it for me. Is there any benefit to bringing the lobster home and cooking it? If so, can you tell me how to cook a lobster?

If you’re not far distance- or time-wise from where and when you’ll be eating the lobster and you plan to serve it warm, having the store do the cooking isn’t a bad idea. It sure beats steaming up the kitchen, particularly in the summer, and wrestling with a large pot of boiling water. It’s also fine if you’re planning to serve the lobster cold. Knowing the store and how they cook the lobster is important, though. Some (usually grocery stores – fish markets know better) cook the lobsters too long, which will make the meat tough. Ask how long they set the timer for, and request shorter cooking if you think they’re going to overdo it.

But let’s say you want something other than plain boiled/steamed lobster. You may want to flavor the liquid it cooks in. Some dishes call for the lobster to be parboiled (partially cooked) for a dish that requires further cooking. Some call for the disjointing or cutting up the lobster prior to cooking. You may want to stuff and bake, broil, or grill it. So, how to proceed?

Back in cooking school, I didn’t have a problem with plunging a live lobster into a pot of boiling water or cutting it up. These days I’m not so keen. Now I make sure the lobster is dead immediately prior to being cooked.  You may have read that lobster should be alive when cooked, but that really means alive just until cooking begins. The reason is that once the lobster is dead, the meat will begin to decompose, but a few seconds aren’t sufficient for that to happen.

There are lots of suggestions for how to humanely kill a lobster. The one I prefer requires the lobster to be placed in the freezer for about 20 minutes first. This makes the lobster sluggish, a bit like being sedated. It will be easier for you to handle, and thus you can quickly dispatch the animal.

This you will do by placing the lobster on a cutting board. Holding it still, place the point of a large chef’s knife at the center of the cross-shaped mark behind the head. Make a cut straight down through the head. This severs the spinal cord and instantly kills the lobster. It will likely continue to move, but don’t let that alarm you. The deed is done.

As for how to cook a lobster, I’ll simply cover boiling or steaming. Get out your largest pot and add at least two quarts of water per 1-1 ¼ lb. lobster, use a bit more for larger lobsters. A 4 or 5 gallon pot is large enough to cook four lobsters. Bring the water to a rolling boil and salt generously; try to approximate the salinity of sea water, which you could also use if you’re near the ocean.

Add the lobsters and begin timing immediately. Cook 5-7 minutes, uncovered, for the first pound and about 3 minutes more for each additional pound. This timing refers to the size of the individual lobsters, not the total weight! When the time is up, remove the lobsters from the pot with tongs and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes before cracking.

To steam, use the same pot, but only add about 2″ of water to the bottom. Place a steaming rack in the pot, bring the water to a rolling boil, and salt it. Add the lobsters, cover the pot for this method, and start the timer. Steaming takes a little longer than boiling, so add a couple of minutes to the cooking time. Move the lobsters around halfway through for even cooking. As with boiling, when time is up remove the lobsters from the pot and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes.

Pay attention to timing; lobsters turn red when cooked but may do so before the meat is cooked all the way through. When it’s done, one of the antennae can easily be removed with a twisting motion.

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