How To Cook and Break Down a Lobster

Summer may be winding down, but lobster season is just getting started.

Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist
Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist

Eating lobster can be intimidating. Not only is it expensive and difficult to find, but the creatures are still alive when you get them home and you have to break it apart to reveal all of that rich meat inside. But it's not as scary as you think.
I may have inherited lobster-eating skills through my Maine-made DNA, but cooking and breaking down a lobster is still much easier than the hard-shelled, sea spider-looking things would make you think. I spent the summer eating dozens of lobster rolls to find the best ones you can make at home and have broken down many lobsters in my time, but I also chatted with a true expert to give you everything you need to cook and break down lobster at home.

Steve Kingston, who owns The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine, “shucks” 800 pounds of lobster with his team every day. He said, for some people, the intimidation begins even before the breaking down process. When you first get your lobster, it will be a deep, dark greenish color, and look nothing like the bright red-orange creature you’ll eventually eat. Kingston said this can throw people off, but trust the process and you’ll finish with delectable meat.

Once you get over the initial stress of having lobsters crawling across your counter, here’s how you cook them:

Whether you bring your lobster home from the store or get it in a package through the mail, you need to store it properly. A lobster can stay out of water for several days as long as it is refrigerated, Kingston told me, so don’t make the flavor-stripping mistake of putting it in a pot of fresh tap water.

Lobsters are sensitive and anxious just like us. They have thousands of tiny hairs that stick out of their shell to give them a sense of touch and can’t go into shock like most animals when they are in danger. For years, tossing the creatures into a boiling hot pot of water was standard, but cooks employing a more ethical lens have come up with some alternatives that are better for the creature (and even make it taste better). You could give your crustacean a little high before cooking it like one restaurant owner in Maine or create an anesthetic with a recipe from Dave Arnold to knock the lobster out prior to cooking it. But more common methods include freezing the creature or driving a knife through the lobster’s head before boiling (although some have argued that doesn’t quite do the trick because lobsters have decentralized nervous systems).

Choose whatever method you’re comfortable with, grab a big pot, and salt like crazy. Kingston said at his restaurant they cook lobster in salty sea water all day long, so don’t worry about oversalting. It’s pretty much impossible. Once the water is at a raging boil, add the lobster and cook it for about 15-20 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when the lobster’s shell turns a bright red-orange color and it is floating tail side up on the top of the water, but Kingston has another good test to look out for as well. When you think your lobster is cooked, pull it out of the water and pull back the tail. You’ll know the lobster is done if it flips back immediately, but if it slowly returns to its coiled state, it needs more time.

Now you’re ready to eat, so grab some melted butter and get to it:

To prepare for actually eating a lobster, grab a seafood cracker, melted butter for dipping, and plenty of paper towels. Luckily, you won't need one of those embarrassing plastic bibs because Kingston has all of the best tips for breaking into your lobster without making a huge mess.

“When you're ripping through 800 pounds, you're going to get a lot of lobster juice and shell all over you if you don't do it right,” Kingston said.

Step 1: Break your lobster into pieces
This first part is pretty easy. Take each arm section and pull it down to remove it from the body, then twist the section where the tail meets the rest of the body to remove that. This will make it much easier to access all of the meat.

Step 2: Remove the flippers and open up the tail
Let’s start with the tail. You’ll see small flippers at the end of the tail, so pull those off first. Then grab the tail so the shelled side is facing you and place your thumbs on the shell and hold the sides of the shell with your other fingers. To break open the shell, push your thumbs away from you and into the shell while pulling your other fingers toward your to release the meat.

Step 3: Rip open the knuckles
After eating the tail section, it’s time to crack open the knuckles. These small rounds of meat are often overlooked because they’re unrecognizable in a lobster roll or other lobster dish, but this is some of the sweetest and most tender meat in the entire creature. On the claw-bearing legs, you’ll see two shelled sections just below the claws. You should be able to use your fingers to rip those open (especially in the late-summer and fall months when lobsters are in their new shells) or you can use a cracker if the shell is heartier.

Step 4: Crack the claws
Now that the claw is detached from the rest of the leg, it’s ready to eat. Use a cracker to puncture the larger part of each claw and then pull down on the small side of the claw to detach it. From there, you should be able to slide the meat out easily and enjoy.

Step 5: Eat the legs, search for other small pieces of meat, and try the tomalley
At this point, you’re pretty much done. Experts like Kingston only pick the tail, knuckles, and claws for use in their restaurants, but if you’re eating a whole lobster at home you may have time to try some other parts and explore a bit.

Other small pieces of meat are found in the small walking legs on either side of the body. You can detach those and suck on the end to draw out tiny pieces of meat and briney juice.

When you were breaking into the tail meat, you may have noticed a soft green substance in the body. That small mass is known as tomalley and serves as the lobster’s liver. Many people love the creamy texture and extremely concentrated, strong flavor, but others veer away from it. If you’ve never tried it before, give it a taste as you wrap up your lobster dinner.

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Liz Provencher is an editorial assistant at Thrillist and a proud Maine native. You can follow her on Instagram.