How to Buy, Prep, and Cook Lobster

No need to pay top dollar for lobster at a fancy restaurant when it’s so easy to make it at home. Follow these tips to buy, prep, and cook lobster like a pro.

How to Buy, Prep, and Cook Lobster | Lobster Tails Steamed in Beer

Photo by Denise

Recipe shown: Lobster Tails Steamed in Beer

How to Buy Lobster

You can purchase lobster in several forms: live, freshly cooked, or frozen; as well as whole or in pieces. Here’s how to buy what works best for your crustacean creation.

Buying Live Lobster

Lobster quality is at its best if it’s alive at purchase and cooked the same day. Many markets and grocery stores have live lobsters available, or there are mail-order businesses that will ship live lobster to your door. Knock, knock! Who’s there? Orange. Orange who? Orange you glad you’re not a lobster?

  • Live lobster should be active in the tank, and curl its tail when lifted out of the water.
  • Once home, cook as soon as possible, or cover with a damp towel and refrigerate.
Live Lobster with Banded Claws

Live Lobster with Banded Claws | Photo by Meredith

Lobster Sizes
Impress your local fish market with your knowledge of lobster sizing.

  • 1 to 1 1/8-pound lobsters are called “chickens.”
  • Up to 1 ¼ pounds are “quarters.”
  • Up to 1 ¾ pounds are “halves.”
  • To 2 ½ pounds are “selects.”
  • Above 3 ½ pounds are “jumbo.”

Want to really geek out at the fish market? Here’s how to tell if a lobster is male or female.

Buying Cooked Lobster

How to Buy, Prep, and Cook Lobster | Whole Cooked Lobster

Whole Cooked Lobster | Photo by Meredith

Many fishmongers sell freshly cooked whole lobster. This is a good option if you don’t have the time or inclination to buy it live and cook it yourself.

  • Make sure the lobster is freshly cooked. If left in the shell for too long, the quality of the meat can degrade.
  • If you’re not going to eat it right away, keep it wrapped and store it in the fridge for up to a day.

Buying Frozen Lobster Tails

Frozen tails are good choices if you don’t want a whole lobster, or if you’re making a recipe that calls for a little lobster meat. Available in a variety of sizes, these are perfect for thawing and cooking in a variety of ways. Due to the freezing process, these won’t be quite as good as fresh live lobster, but they can certainly be worth the convenience.

How to Buy, Prep, and Cook Lobster | Lobster Roll

Lobster rolls are a great way to use up leftover lobster meat. | Photo by Meredith

Recipe shown: Lobster Rolls

Buying: There are two kinds of frozen lobster tails on the market: warm-water and cold-water. You want to buy only cold-water lobster tails because the meat is more firm and of higher quality.

Thawing: As tempting as it might be, it’s not a good idea to cook lobster while it’s still frozen because the meat will become very tough.

  • The best way to thaw frozen lobster tails is by letting them thaw slowly in the fridge for 24 hours.
  • If you don’t have 24 hours to wait, seal the frozen tails in a plastic bag and run them under cold water for 30 to 60 minutes.
  • Microwave-thawing is tricky because the meat will toughen up if it starts to cook.

Related: Get smart tips for buying the freshest shellfish.

Cooking Lobster

You’ve got a lot of choice when it comes to cooking lobster whole or in pieces. Whole lobsters lend themselves well to boiling and steaming, while lobster tails can be boiled, steamed, grilled, broiled, and baked.

How to Buy, Prep, and Cook Lobster | Lobster Boil

Whole boiled lobster. | Photo by Meredith

Boiled: Whole Lobster

This is the classic presentation seen everywhere from special occasion dinners to casual beach parties.

  • Choose a pot big enough to hold the lobsters without crowding them. A large 5-gallon stock pot can hold about 8 pounds of lobster.
  • Fill the pot with 2 quarts of water for every pound of lobster.
  • Use enough sea salt to approximate seawater: about 1 tablespoon for every quart of water.

Bring the water to a full rolling boil.  Put lobsters in the boiling water one at a time and start the timer. Do not cover the pot.

  • 1 pound of lobster = 8 minutes
  • 2 pounds of lobsters = 15 minutes
  • 3 pounds of lobsters = 25 minutes

Don’t be distressed if you hear a high-pitched sound as steam escapes from the shell. This is the not-so-grim truth behind the infamous “scream” heard when boiling whole lobster.

Try this recipe: Boiled Lobster

To Kill or Not to Kill?

Wondering whether or not to kill a lobster before cooking it? If you ask us, the answer is always yes, and you want to do it quickly and humanely. Place a cutting board into a rimmed baking pan. Place the lobster belly-up or belly-down on the cutting board. Take a sharp, heavy knife, place it tip-downward in the horizontal groove at the head behind the eyes. With one quick motion, cut down and through the head. This will sever the “spinal” chord, killing the lobster instantly. This video from Saveur shows you how it’s done.

Boiled: Lobster Tails

Make sure the lobster tails are completely thawed before cooking.

  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil.
  • Place tails in the boiling water and simmer, uncovered, until the shells turn red and the meat turns opaque and tender. The rule of thumb is to boil them for about 45 seconds per ounce. Small lobster tails could take as little as 2 to 4 minutes; large tails can take 6 minutes or more.

Just like shrimp, lobster will continue to cook in its shell after you remove it from the water, so be sure to pluck them out of the water before they overcook.

Steamed: Whole Lobster

In this method, lobster is cooked slowly in a steamer basket that sits over a simmering, aromatic liquid. The meat tends to turn out more tender and succulent.

  • Pour water into a large pot until just below the bottom of the steamer basket.
  • Add enough sea salt to approximate seawater: about 1 tablespoon for every quart of water. Dry flavorings, such as chili powder or Old Bay™ seasoning can be added to the lobster as it steams.

Bring water to a rolling boil and place the lobster tails in the steamer basket. Cover the pot and start the timer.

  • 1 pound of lobster = 10 minutes
  • 2 pounds of lobsters = 18 minutes
  • 3 pounds of lobsters = 25-30 minutes

This recipe: Champagne Lobster gives you a good way to steam whole lobster.

Steamed: Lobster Tails

  • Follow the instructions for steamed whole lobster.
  • The rule of thumb is to steam lobster tails for about 1 minute per ounce.

This video for Steamed Lobster Tails shows you how easy it is to steam lobster tails on your stove top.

Grilled: Lobster Tails

Fire up your grill for this cookout favorite. Remember, smaller lobster tails will take less time to cook.

How to Buy, Prep, and Cook Lobster | Grilled Rock Lobster Tails

Grilled Rock Lobster Tails | Photo by Molly

Recipe shown: Grilled Rock Lobster Tails
  • Split the lobster down the middle with a heavy chef’s knife to open it up and expose the flesh.
  • Use basting sauces, herbs, and spices for extra flavor when grilling or broiling.
  • Cook for ten minutes on a hot grill. The shell will turn a charred red as it cooks; if it still seems underdone, tent the lobster with foil to allow it to fully cook off the direct heat.

Broiled: Lobster Tails

For this method, you’ll cut open the shells and season the meat before broiling. Watch to video to see how to do it.

Try this recipe: Broiled Lobster Tails

Baked: Lobster Tails

Baked lobster tails are often cut open and seasoned or filled with a savory stuffing.

How to Buy, Prep, and Cook Lobster | Baked Lobster Tail

Baked lobster tails. | Photo by Meredith

Try this recipe for Crab-Stuffed Lobster Tail.

How to Crack a Whole Lobster

That whole steamed lobster sure looks appetizing, but how are you going to get at all that meat? Well, put on a bib or an apron and let’s get cracking.

How to Buy, Prep, and Cook Lobster | Pulling Lobster Apart

Pulling apart a whole cooked lobster. | Photo by Meredith

1. Twist off the claws.

2. Separate the tail from the body.

How to Buy, Prep, and Cook Lobster | Cracking Lobster

Exposing the meaty tail and cracking the claws. | Photos by Meredith

3. Cut down the underside with sturdy kitchen scissors to expose the meat.

4. Crack open the claws.

5. Extract the claw meat.

Enjoy your very own lobster-fest!


Get top-rated recipes for lobster, including whole lobster, lobster tails, and lobster meat.

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