How To Buy And Cook A Live Lobster: Steaming, Boiling And Roastin

How to master cooking lobster at home

It's been a long, lobster-less winter, and now you're ready to snap up a few friends for an all-out shellfish feast to make up for lost time.

It all boils down to this: You want the most possible flavor from your lobster. After going to the trouble of selecting the live crustacean from your local fishmonger, dropping not-insignificant cash and dispatching it at home, it would be a shame to let anything go to waste.

And yet, that's what so many home cooks do, by choosing techniques and accompaniments that mask the essence of the meat or turn it into tasteless rubber. Fortunately, our food editor, Andy Baraghani, has a few tips for people trapped in bad lobster habits.

Buy Little, Buy Live
It might be tempting to snap up a two-pounder to show off to your guests, but the bigger the lobster, the harder it is to cook evenly. Baraghani suggests sticking to the one- to one-and-a-half-pound range and bringing it home live to ensure fresh taste. (A lobster starts to decompose as soon as it dies, and the effects on the flavor aren't great.) As for squeamishness about doing the deed, Baraghani says, "Get over it!"

For the most humane dispatch method, he suggests putting a sharp knife tip against the indentation in the back of the lobster's head, then cutting it in half with one quick blow. "It's scary," he says, "but essential." And make sure to get it cooking lickety-split.

Roasting Rules
Boiling may be the easiest cooking method, but Baraghani says to approach it with caution. "All that white cloudy stuff, those pot smells? That's the fishy goodness leaching out into the water. You want that in the lobster."

And though it's tempting to amp things up with aromatics and spices in the cooking liquid, he asserts that a "true lobster lover" needs nothing but ocean water (or solidly salted tap water) to highlight its sweet, delicate flavor. A pound-and-a-half lobster will take about nine to 10 minutes to boil (residual heat from the shell will cook it through) or 11 to 12 to steam.

For Baraghani's money, though, it's all about roasting. "It does double duty," he says, "because first you're steaming it with the water left on the shell after washing it, and then you're letting that flavor concentrate." He suggests steaming the shells for a minute or two before roasting them in a 350-degree oven (six to seven minutes for claws and eight to 12 minutes for tails), placing the shells on a wire rack, so the heat can circulate evenly.

One last thing: Resist the urge to shock the meat in cold water to cool it down. "That's how it ends up tasting like rubber," Baraghani cautions.

Keep It Simple
No matter how you cook it, the meat needs to reach 135 degrees at the center, and this is much easier to measure (and goes more quickly) if the lobster is not cooked whole. While the presentation takes a hit on visual oomph, Baraghani believes it's easier (and cleaner) on diners to cook and serve just the tails and claws, and save the rest to make stock.

When it comes to accompaniments, keep it simple. Though he believes clarified butter infused with garlic can be "beautiful," Baraghani cautions lobster lovers not to drench or soak the meat. "Fat takes away from the beautiful ocean qualities. Acid is the way to go."

For one of his favorite presentations, Baraghani separates the cooked meat from the tails and claws, then presents it on the cleaned half shell (using his fingers or pliers to snap off any jagged edges), served with nothing more than a few lemon wedges, a little butter and plenty of napkins.

The other: Lobster rolls, as far as the eye can see and the stomach can fit. As luck would have it, that's exactly what Tasting Table readers will find at our Lobster Rumble on June 4 at New York's Metropolitan Pavilion. The annual event features an open bar and 25 of the country's best lobster rolls clawing for top honors. Tickets go on sale April 7, so make sure you mark your calendar to grab a few.