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Cooking Whole Live Lobster: A Photo Tutorial

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Live lobsters with Meyer lemons, butter and sourdough loaf. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Live lobsters with Meyer lemons, butter and sourdough loaf. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

All Photos: Wendy Goodfriend

No, they aren't local. But whole live lobsters from Maine or Canada are a delectable treat, and if you're already in the groove of cooking your own live crab, pretty easy to cook at home. They're rarely seen on Bay Area menus, so if you're a homesick New Englander who fled ice scrapers and snow shovels but still craves a good lobster roll or a whole boiled lobster now and again, doing it yourself is the best option.

Lobsters are typically sold live, out of salt water tanks in fish markets, higher-end supermarkets, and Asian markets. Their claws are almost always closed with a rubber band so they can't grab you, the fishmonger, or their fellow tank-mates. For food safety's sake, you have to keep them alive until you cook them, so look for lively, healthy lobsters that are active in the tank, holding their claws up and their tails straight. Limp lobsters with droopy, dangling claws or curled-under tails should be avoided. Get your lobsters home and chilled as soon as possible. Plan to cook them the same day you purchase them, if possible, but definitely within 24 hours.

Line a large brown paper grocery bag, a wide pot or a large bowl with some damp, crumpled newspaper or fresh seaweed, should you have some handy. Untie the plastic bags you carried your lobsters home in, transfer them into your prepared bag, pot, or bowl (remember, their claws are trapped, so they can't pinch you), and refrigerate immediately. Like Dungeness crabs, they're salt water creatures, so don't submerge them in fresh water, and no matter how squeamish you are, don't smother them by shoving them straight into the fridge still knotted in layers of plastic bags.

Bring about 2 inches of well-salted water to a boil in a large, deep stockpot. Once the water is boiling, take the lobsters out the fridge, and holding them firmly by the body where it meets the tail, snip off the rubber bands on their claws. Drop them head first into the pot and cover. Like crabs, you time by the average weight of one lobster, not the total weight. Depending on the size of your pot and how many lobsters you're cooking, you may have to do them in batches--they shouldn't be too crowded. Start with a base of 10 minutes for a 1-lb lobster, then add roughly 2 minutes per quarter-pound of weight.

  • 1 lb lobster: 10 min
  • 1 1/4 lb lobster: 12 min
  • 1 1/2 lb lobster: 14 min
  • 1 3/4 lb lobster: 16 min
  • 2 lb lobster: 18 min

The shell should be red and the meat under the shell where the tail meets the body should be white and opaque, not translucent. Overcooked lobster can get rubbery, so keep an eye on your kitchen timer.


Using tongs, remove lobster from the pot and cool down briefly under cold running water. Let lobsters rest until cool enough to handle. They will release water from their joints and cavities as you clean them, so work in the sink or on a work surface that's easily moppable.

You can serve the lobsters hot from the pot with bibs, claw crackers and plenty of melted butter, and let your guests attack their own. Or you can let them cool, then clean and deshell them into a pile of succulent meat perfect for serving in a luxurious salad, as pictured here, or in a lobster sandwich (recipe below) dressed with homemade tarragon mayonnaise between lightly toasted slices of buttery brioche.

Freshly cooked and cleaned lobster. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Freshly cooked and cleaned lobster. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

To take apart your cooked lobster, twist off the tail where it meets the body. Using kitchen shears, snip through the center of the tail shell and remove the meat inside, preferably in one piece. Set shells aside for stock, if desired. Twist off claws. Using claw cracker, crack claws along the joints and remove meat inside. There's not much meat inside the slender legs on either side of the body; you can crack the legs and try wiggling out what's in there with a pointed shellfish fork or pick, or just add them to your pot or shellfish stock. Chop the tail and claw meat into bite-sized pieces and refrigerate until needed.

Recipe: Luxurious Lobster Sandwiches

This is a glamorous, mess-free (for your guest, at least) way to serve lobster, a perfect surprise for a late, post-show supper or indulgent brunch for two. If you're going so far as to boil your own lobster, you might as well make your own mayonnaise, too, to get that beautifully supple texture that can't be found in a jar. These are inspired, in equal parts, by the lobster rolls of my New England-spent summers, and the fancy lobster club sandwiches served under the stained-glass dome of the Rotunda restaurant at Neiman Marcus in Union Square.

La Farine Boulangerie in the East Bay is a good source for brioche rolls; if you can't find brioche, try challah bread. Or, you can go all the way and make Thomas Keller's version, the recipe for which can be found in Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, and Ad Hoc at Home.

  • Two live lobsters, each about 1 1/4 lbs
  • 1 teaspoon fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
  • 1 small head butter (Boston) lettuce, rinsed and dried
  • 1 ripe avocado
  • 4 slices brioche or 2 brioche buns
    Tarragon Lemon Mayonnaise:
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup grapeseed oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice, from a Meyer lemon if possible
  • 1/4 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, finely chopped
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste

1. Cook the lobster: In a large stockpot, bring 2 inches of well-salted water to a boil. When water is boiling, add lobsters, head down. Cover and simmer for approximately 12 minutes, until shells are bright red and meat is white and opaque. Remove lobsters from pot. Cool briefly under cold running water. Let lobsters rest until cool enough to handle.

2. Shell the lobster: Twist off tail and snip through shell with kitchen shears. Remove tail meat in one piece. Twist off claws and crack with claw cracker along joints. Remove claw meat. Chop tail and claw meat into bite-sized pieces and refrigerate until needed.

3. Make mayonnaise: Pour oils together into a small pitcher. In a medium bowl, whisk egg yolk, lemon juice, and 1/4 tsp salt together. Pouring very slowly, begin to drizzle in oil while whisking vigorously. Continue to whisk and drizzle until mixture expands and thickens. Increase your oil pour to a small but steady stream and continue whisking until all the oil is added. Whisk in tarragon leaves and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more lemon juice or salt as needed. Refrigerate until needed.

4. Make the lobster salad: Fold half the mayonnaise into the lobster pieces. Add enough remaining mayonnaise so that lobster chunks are lightly coated. Sprinkle with an additional teaspoon or so of minced fresh tarragon. Taste for seasoning.


5. Make the sandwich: Toast brioche slices or buns lightly until just barely golden. Line bottom slice with lettuce leaves. Spoon lobster salad over lettuce leaves to fill bun generously. Top with thinly sliced avocado. Spread a thin layer of tarragon mayonnaise on the remaining slice of bread or bun and close up the sandwich. Serve immediately. Champagne or Riesling makes a good accompaniment.

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