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Dispatching live lobsters?

No denying it: many lobster dishes are best made with the raw meat from a freshly killed lobster.

Problem is, killing them is always something of a traumatic experience. Yes, they're just big bugs. Yes, their nervous systems are primitive and decentralized compared with ours. Yes, from the lobster's viewpoint there's not much difference between being chopped up live and being dropped into a pot of boiling water. Still, whenever I've done it, I've felt (to paraphrase Alice B. Toklas) like I need to sit down and have a smoke while waiting for the police to arrive and haul me off to the slammer.

And even when I've set my squeamishness aside and done the dastardly deed, it doesn't always work as advertised. Insert the knife behind the head to quickly deliver the coup de grâce? Last time I tried, far from dropping dead the beast did an "et tu, Brute" number, rearing up in outrage and writhing in pain. A second stab didn't help. I covered her with a wok lid, set a pot of water to boil and, plams sweating, retired to the office, a retreat punctuated by the sound of claws banging against metal. Other times, the stab behind the head seemed to work... until I started splitting the corpses, that is. Is there anything more Twilight Zone than a deceased half lobster wildly waving its flippers for five minutes after you've split it? (See "decentralized nervous system" above.)

Delicious, sweet, fresh, local Gaspé lobsters are in season. A serious foodie friend has invited me over for a lobster feast on Saturday. Most of the dishes we're considering -- stuffed with tarragon butter and roasted, stir-fried with ginger and garlic, roasted and served with a vin jaune and walnut oil sauce -- call for raw meat from freshly killed lobsters.

What to do? Could we stick them in the freezer for 30 minutes or so to numb them? Should we wimp out and try one of Keller's tricks and parboil them (place in a pot, pour boiling water over, let sit for two minutes)? Or if we screw up our courage and butcher them live, is there any surefire way of sparing them and us the agony?

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  1. Now I know exactly why I have never attempted this myself. You have summarized my exact feelings and thoughts in a way I never could have. Thank you carswell. Sorry I can't help you but I really enjoyed the read. Good luck with your project. Me? I'll continue to satisfy my cravings at a restaurant.

    4 Replies
    1. re: millygirl

      I haven't had problems with a stab and pull method. The knife (10" chef) is pulled back after the stabbing, and the beast is halved, all the way to the tail end. There may be a few palpitations but it is clearly dead. Possibly stabbing and pulling the knife through the thorax will also work, but I have always split the lobster down the centre.

      Can you refresh me on how to choose a female lobster?

      1. re: jayt90

        Look at the first set of swimmerettes (little flippers) at the top of the tail. If larger, hard and bony, it's a male. If smaller and soft, it's a female. See www.bayleys.com/bayleys-news-blog.php for a pic.

        That said, I knew my lobster that would not die was a female because she was full of roe.

        1. re: jayt90

          I do something similar, but stab with a cleaver about an inch behind the eyes and cut the head in half before splitting the rest of it. It wiggles around for a bit, but not for very long. It really kinda freaked me out the first five or six times I did it, but it hardly phases me any longer. I just keep thinking how good it will taste and . . . whack! whack!

      2. The freezer trick works pretty well, but I'm not sure it'll work for you if you're trying to harvest raw meat. I've only done it once, but the bugs go into the freezer for about 30 minutes, then directly into a steamer. Supposedly, they're dead pretty quickly - quickly enough that there was NO thrashing. OTOH, they're also cooking, which may not fit with your needs.

        1. Sounds like two blindfolds are needed. However, there's not really any alternative to cold-blooded murder if what you're after is the raw, sweet, delectable flesh.

          1. I have had the shop where I buy lobsters steam them for me for 3 minutes. They are dead but not cooked and it also makes getting the meat out of the shell easier

            1. Twenty minutes in the freezer--puts em to sleep and won't ruin the fresh meat.