how to choose a live lobster

When it comes to shellfish, lobster is synonymous with luxury and usually priced to match, but cooking it at home takes a lot of the sting out of the price tag. That said, it can be challenging to prepare, even before you get the bugs into your kitchen. To start, how do you pick a good lobster from the tank? And is there a difference between male and female lobsters? How about hard shells versus soft? Is Maine lobster really better? Herein, we consult the wisdom of the crowd to help answer your questions and ensure you choose the best live lobster.

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Why not coordinate your lobster cooking pot with their bright, steamed shells?
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Look for Lively Lobsters

You should absolutely never, ever buy a dead lobster (well, unless it’s frozen…), and when choosing a fresh lobster from the tank, one thing most sources agree on is that you should go with a fairly feisty one. You can’t necessarily judge its verve by observing it in the water, but when it’s lifted out, it should move its claws and legs and even curl its tail; if it hangs limply in the air, reject it.

Beware of Short Antennae

This one comes with a caveat: short (or missing) antennae can mean that the lobsters have been hanging out too long in the tank—long enough, in fact, to start nibbling on each other. But it’s also possible for lobsters to lose antenna at any point along the way, so if it’s just a matter of one or two missing feelers, it might not be an issue.

Does Size Matter?

Most lobsters you see for sale will be anywhere between one and a half to three pounds, but you can find bigger specimens—over three pounds and they’re considered jumbo, but technically, there’s no natural limit to how large a lobster could get. The question is, is it worth shelling out for larger lobsters? While there’s an enduring belief that impressive, Pinchy-size lobsters are better, actual consensus/personal anecdata varies and often points to that not being true. The meat from any lobster should be tender and delicious as long as you cook it properly—and that can be harder to do with larger lobsters, so erring on the modest end may be wiser.

Basic Steamed Lobster recipe

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Soft vs Hard Shells

Unless you’re in Maine (or close by) during the months of mid-May through November, this is probably a moot point, as you won’t actually be able to find fresh soft-shell lobsters (also known as shedders). Many people proclaim that these are sweeter and more tender—not to mention easier to crack into—than hard-shell lobsters. They will certainly cost more per pound of actual meat, as much of their weight is due to excess water in their roomy shells; J. Kenji López-Alt broke it all down back in 2013. As with so much in life, it’s largely a matter of personal taste (and bankroll).

Male vs Female

Taste-wise, there’s no difference between guys and gals—except when you consider the female lobster’s roe, if indeed it’s present. Unsurprisingly, it tastes salty and…lobstery…and is a delicacy to some and an automatic discard to others. It’s greenish-black when raw (so don’t be alarmed if you find some in your uncooked lobster), and turns red when cooked (hence its nickname, “coral”). The lobster meat itself tastes the same whether from a male or female, though.

Sniff Test

Lobsters shouldn’t really smell like anything before they’re cooked. If you catch any whiff of ammonia around the tank, better pass on by. (Good advice for all seafood, honestly. A little salinity is fine, but any sharp or chemical odors are a bad sign.)

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Maine Lobster (What’s In a Name?)

Maine lobsters are generally regarded as the best, but did you know that Canadian lobsters are the exact same thing? GetMaineLobsterNow.com will even tell you so, but we like the way Chowhound user MGZ put it: “the term ‘Maine Lobsters’ refers to the species Homarus americanus that lives, and is caught, in the waters between Canada and North Carolina. There are no passports on the bottom of the Atlantic and bugs don’t have pockets. If you want good, go local.” Great advice—the best option for almost any food is to get what was made or harvested closest to home, whenever possible. Obviously, if you’re landlocked, your lobster has traveled some distance to meet its date with destiny (i.e. your stock pot), but looking for a lively specimen from a reputable source is the best common sense advice to keep in mind. If you don’t trust any of your local stores and you have the budget for it, you can order live lobsters online.

Frozen Lobster Tails

If you don’t want to go to the trouble of killing and cooking a live lobster, there’s always the option of frozen tails. These are usually more expensive per pound, and many people consider the tail meat inferior to claw and leg meat, even before you factor in the potential for freezer burn. Some people claim frozen lobster meat can be bland, stringy, and tough, but others find it fine; even Marcella Hazen calls for frozen lobster in three recipes in her “Marcella Says…” cookbook. If you’re after Maine lobster, be aware that frozen lobster tails are often from spiny lobsters harvested in warmer waters; you can tell by the white spots on their shells if they’re not otherwise obviously labeled.

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Substitute for Lobster

If you’re still unsure about cooking live lobster, perhaps some Argentinian pink shrimp could be a good compromise? They’re often marketed as being similar to lobster (firm and sweet)—and are available frozen at Trader Joe’s. You don’t have the pleasure of digging into a meaty tail or cracking a claw, but maybe that’s a plus for you! If all this has put you off the mere idea of eating an actual lobster, word from FoodRepublic is, you can make a legit vegan lobster roll with hearts of palm.

How to Cook Lobster

If you do decide to take on a lobster in your own kitchen, check out our lobster recipes, from basic steamed lobster to a luxurious lobster risotto perfect for Valentine’s Day (or any other special occasion).

Related Video: How to Open a Bottle of Champagne to Go with Your Lobster

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Jen is an associate content producer at Chowhound. Raised on scrapple and blue crabs, she hails from Baltimore, Maryland, but has lived in Portland (Oregon) for so long it feels like home. She enjoys the rain, reads, writes, eats, and cooks voraciously, and stops to pet every stray cat she sees. Continually working on building her Gourmet magazine collection, she will never get over its cancellation. Read more of her work.
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