Confidence-not finesse-makes for a fine lobster dinner.

By Marge Perry
June 05, 2008
Tim Peters

My love affair with lobsters began in my childhood, when days of flying kites and jumping waves on the Cape Cod shore ended with simple dinners of the bright red crustacean. Somehow, lobster perfectly suited our ravenous appetites and sense of adventure and freedom. We were allowed to eat with our hands, and it was expected that we'd be messy.

In the years that followed, my love for lobster never waned. As I grew older, my experience expanded beyond boiled lobster and lobster rolls. But the basics I learned in those earlier days―how to choose a lobster from the tank, how to store it at home, and how to eat a whole lobster without looking and smelling like a sea creature (there are more elegant solutions than the plastic bib)―have stood me in good stead.

Buying and Storing
The most important thing to look for when purchasing a live lobster is friskiness. Choose one that's moving around in the tank. When you (or the fishmonger) hold the lobster up by the midsection, be sure the claws are raised in the air, not dangling, and that the tail curls under. Don't worry about marks or pocks on the exterior. Shell flaws don't affect quality.

So now that you've got a bag of these wriggling creatures, what do you do? First, do not place them in a tub of tap water or atop ice in a closed container. They need to be kept in an open container in the refrigerator, where they can stay cold and moist. If you'll be cooking the live lobsters within an hour or two, simply leave them in the insulated paper bag in which you brought them home. If you want to keep them for up to 48 hours, line a box generously with seaweed or dampened newspaper to keep the lobsters' gills moist.

Preparing and Cooking
OK, now you have to bring them to an edible state―or, to put it more simply, kill them. A recent Norwegian study indicates that lobsters don't feel pain, but for a number of reasons (including resulting texture) it's best to dispatch them swiftly. When cooking a lobster in boiling water, leave the rubber bands on its claws and immerse it quickly, using tongs. (You can boil lobster for recipes that call for cooked meat.)

When you want to grill or pan-sear lobster, the best method is as follows: Place the lobster shell-side down (belly up) on a cutting board. (Note: You can try this shell-side up, if you prefer, but it may be more difficult to cut.) Place the tip of a large knife in the center of the lobster. Cut lobster in half from the center to the head, and then cut in half from the center to the tip of the tail. At this point, the lobster is ready to cook. Don't be alarmed by movement; it is only involuntary muscle contraction.

Disassembling and Dining
So it's finally time to eat that delectable lobster, but you don't want to end up smelling like it. No problem―use this method to extract the meat from the shell with a minimum of spray and mess.

First, if you haven't already, remove the rubber bands from the claws. Twist the arms from the body, and twist the claw from the arm. Crack the claws about one-fourth of the way from each end, and pull the shell away from the meat. (This tactic works better than trying to pull the meat out of a partially cracked shell.) Next, crack the legs, and again pull the shell away from the meat. To remove the meat from the tail, first twist the tail from the body. Use the tip of a sharp knife to cut down the length of the tail's pale underside. Fold the shell back away from the meat, and the tail will come out easily in one piece.

To keep cooked lobster on hand, store it in a tightly covered container, and use the meat within two days.