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Jul 23, 2012 09:42 AM

A question about "dispatching" lobsters

Lobsters were on sale this weekend for $5.99/lb and I decided to make lobster fra diavolo. The recipe called for dispatching the lobsters and then separating the claws and tail section from the body. I asked the man working at the fish counter if he could do "the deed" for me. He said he couldn't and told me that when the lobster is killed it secretes a substance that would be toxic if the whole lobster isn't cooked right away. I've never heard or read this before. Is there any truth to his explanation? By the way, he did offer to separate the claws/tail from the body for me, which he said would be safe and which, in hindsight, I should have had him do.

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  1. It's not toxic and it's not "secreted". The process is called "autolysis" (or self-digestion). Plants and animals, from fruits to cows, contain autologous enzymes that, upon death, begin to break down/destroy/digest/disintegrate the plant or animal cells or tissues. This process can be slowed or halted by freezing which is why it's fine to kill then freeze a lobster for shipping. This process is desirable in some plants and animals, such as beef (dry aging is controlled autolysis) destined to be food and not desirable in others, such as lobster (this process happens relatively quickly in lobsters).

    So, after killing a lobster it's best to either cook it immediately or freeze it.

    1 Reply
    1. re: 1POINT21GW

      If the lobster is split and cleaned immediately, it will be good later that day. Not sure if it would be good the next day, but certainly several hours would do no harm. I have (unfortunately) had lobsters that were cooked after being DOA (but still "fresh"), and it is certainly not toxic. However the meat becomes semi liquefied and it is definitely no fun to eat. I just think the fish monger was being lazy.

    2. Lobsters are pretty primitive, but I can't imagine ripping the tail off does it much good. The again, I have had a half of a lobster, split for grilling, engage in a lot of movement for a surprisingly long time. (The other half took to its fate gracefully)

      1. There is an alternative to "dispatching" the lobsters which is less psychologically traumatic to the dispatcher and anyone else around. I have used it the last couple of times I have butter poached lobster. You need two large pots. One that will hold your lobster(s) and has a tight fitting lid and another pot that you boil 4-6 quarts of water and 1/4 cup of white vinegar. Pour the boiling water/vinegar mix over the lobster to cover. Put a lid on and steep for 2-3 minutes. Remove carefully from the hot water and tear off the claws and put back in the pot to steep for another 5 minutes. Tear the tail off and remove from the shell while you are waiting for the claws to steep. The lobster is barely cooked but is just done enough to remove more easily from the shell. You then finish cooking the lobster however you want.

        2 Replies
        1. re: ithimis

          What would be the difference between the method you suggest, and having the fish monger steam the lobster for, say, 5 minutes and pull it out of the steamer. Then I could take the partially cooked lobster home and finish the cooking. Or is there a problem with the temp. of partially cooked lobster that would make it susceptible to something nasty during the 15 minutes or so it would take to get it home and refrigerate it?

          1. re: CindyJ

            The boiling water steeping method doesn't really cook the lobster it just seems to allow the meat to release from the shell easier. If you do partially steam it I would recommend cooking it right away (15minutes would not be a problem) but I would not refrigerate it partially cooked. Same as I would not partially cook chicken and refrigerate. I am sure there are others that will tell you it is fine but I would not.

        2. You can just put them in the freezer for a short while to numb them then cut them in half and discard the head, the stomach, etc, behind the head and the gills. The rest you can cut up as you like. They're $5.99/lb here too this week and I was thinking of making Fra Diavolo myself. This might be the sweetest they will taste all year and the thickest the shells will be as lobsters are getting ready to shed.

          3 Replies
          1. re: mike9

            I did put them in the freezer for about 20 minutes. My husband did the dispatching. I doubt that he'll ever agree to do it again. Even after he cut through the head and down the middle, there was still movement which freaked us BOTH out, even though we knew they were dead.

            We've cooked live lobsters many times before, but this was the first time I followed a recipe that called for segmenting the lobster prior to cooking. Usually we put them into the lobster steamer, cover the pot, set the timer and walk away.

            1. re: mike9

              i don't know where you are, but the lobsters from jersey to maine have long ago shed and pretty much only soft-shells are in the markets right now, due to a glut.

              they were $3.99 pp at my local store yesterday. yes, that was dinner. :)

              1. re: hotoynoodle

                Must have got lucky as we had a lobster party two weeks ago and you could hardly break the claws the shells were very hard and the tails were packed with meat.

            2. We put the lobster to sleep by refrigerating it and then cooking it.