It’s hard to believe that lobster—now a staple among monocle-wearing dressage enthusiasts—was once considered “food for the poor.” Even before it entered the diet of slaves, prisoners, and indentured servants in the early 19th century, lobster meat was used as little more than fertilizer and fish bait. And it’s not difficult to imagine why: Lobsters are essentially giant red bugs with claws. I mean, gross, right?
Eventually, people of all classes began to realize how delicious lobster meat really is, and even the most la-di-da patrician overlords took kindly to the little critters, thereby driving up the cost.
With the final months of lobster season in full swing now's the perfect time to munch on New England's favorite shellfish. With this in mind we decided to answer some of your most pressing, sleep-depriving questions about lobster.
But first, a caveat: We realize that everyone has an opinion about the best way to cook lobster, so if you’re looking for a “how-to” guide, go watch Gordon Ramsay. We’re not chefs, we’re appliance experts. This is a practical guide for prepping, cooking, and storing lobster with an average set of home appliances.
Q: Should I refrigerate live lobsters? If so, how?
A: It depends on the amount of time between purchase and cooking. If this window is less than an hour or so, it’s fine to just leave them in the bag. Otherwise throw them in your refrigerator. But even then, you don’t want to wait much more than a day to cook them (two days max), as lobsters rarely survive more than 48 hours outside of water, depending on how damp their environs (shellfish decompose quickly once dead).
And hark: Never submerge your lobsters in fresh water if you want to keep them alive! This will kill them. Seeing as most people do not have a temperature-controlled salt water tank in their kitchen, it’s best to throw a few damp paper towels in the bag with the lobsters (for moisture), and then place the bags securely in the fridge. Your refrigerator’s humidity setting is also important; the greater the dial, the fresher the lobster.
Q: What’s the best way to kill a lobster? Is there any mercy?
A: No mercy for the weak! Just kidding. Some experts claim lobsters die within seconds of being submerged in boiling water (but oh how terrible those few seconds), and others claim their nervous system is too primitive to allow for very much pain.
The debate is ongoing and best summed up by David Foster Wallace in this essay, but if you’re still squeamish about the horrid reality of boiling a living thing alive, you can slice a butcher’s knife cleanly and quickly into its head, cutting vertically along the length of the lobster right through to the cutting board (right behind its eyes).
Other folks talk about temporarily freezing the lobster prior to boil (thus freezing its nervous system), or lulling it to sleep through desensitization in a pot of gradually heating cold water. Really, it’s up to you and your own sense of karma and the balance of life or whatever.
Q: Is boiling on a range the best way to cook lobster? What about grilling and steaming?
A: Most people prefer to boil lobsters alive because they’re sadistic freaks who enjoy watching small things suffer in the service of their appetites. Just kidding. Lobsters don’t have feelings. Or do they?
Not everyone agrees that boiling is the best way to cook lobster, although it is probably the easiest, provided you’re able to quell that nagging sense of empathy. Some lobster aficionados, for example, swear by steaming. This would require boiling only a couple inches of water, adding salt, throwing the bugs in, covering the pot, and letting it sit for 15-20 minutes. Advocates of this method argue that it retains the flavor, though we can’t speak for the level of mercy provided to the lobster.
And then there’s grilling. Once again, though, this involves first killing the lobsters in boiling water, because you don’t want the little buggers crawling around in your grill. Any grill type should do (though we hope you’re smart enough to realize a George Foreman is out of the question), but some folks prefer the smoky flavor of charcoal. It’s up to you.
Q: How should I prepare leftover lobster meat?
A: If you have whole uneaten bugs leftover after you eat, shuck them and store the meat in an airtight container in your fridge. Meat goes bad quicker when it's left in the shell. But there’s still plenty you can do with the extras: salads, bisques, and risottos are all game, as is simply grilling or pan-frying the meat. Please, though, for the sake of the lobster and the agony it experienced to satiate your palate, don’t cook it in a microwave.
As for duration, we don't recommend waiting more than three days to eat it. You should be able to smell rotten meat, but don’t rely on smell alone. Keeping it on ice may also help prolong its shelf life.
Q: Lobsters are a mess. Can the shells be composted?
A: Yes! As mentioned above, Native Americans used lobsters as a fertilizer for crops. The shells are rich in calcium and chitin—a fiber found in exoskeletons and fungal cell walls. These minerals are great for young gardens and composting material, and for taking comfort in the circle of life after viciously boiling an innocent creature alive.
Q: Will I meet all the lobsters I kill in the afterlife?
A: Yes! And they will be 58 times larger than they were in this life, so bring your super-sized crackers—lobsters are notoriously unforgiving. Shamans hold that if you sensuously pet the little critter while playing Chopin’s Nocturne in F Minor it will be more merciful come judgment day.
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