Buying live lobster from a fishmonger or off a lobster fishing wharf can be a daunting experience. How do you know if you are choosing a good lobster? Here is my advice on what to look for in terms of size, color, shell and sex as well as some tips on ensuring your lobster is fresh and healthy.
Choosing A Good Lobster
1. Color. The shell of a fresh, live lobster is a blotchy, dark brownish black color. This coloring can be surprising, even alarming, to people who have previously only seen cooked lobster but rest assured this coloring is a sign of a healthy lobster. Lobsters only turn red once cooked, when the heat in the cooking process destroys all the other pigments in the lobster’s shell save the red pigment.
2. Size. While many people think that bigger is better, smaller lobsters are actually sweeter in flavor. The smallest lobster you can buy in Maine will weigh around 1 and 1/4 pound. I recommend purchasing lobsters in the 1 and 1/4 to 2 pound range to get the best tasting meat. By all means, go for a big lobster if you want a good photo opp or want to enjoy more meat with less fuss but keep in mind that a smaller lobster will give you more flavor per square inch.
3. Sex. While many people don’t fuss over the sex of a lobster during the buying / selection process, there are some nuances to consider. Female lobsters have larger tails and, therefor, more meat. At the same time, some people (myself included) think that female lobsters loose some of their flavor when pregnant. While visibly pregnant lobsters (egg-bearing or berried female lobsters) can’t be sold in Maine, a lobster’s pregnancy is invisible for the first few months. For this reason, I’d choose a male lobster at the fishmonger or dock if given a choice.
4. Shell. If you are in the right point of the Maine lobster season, you can’t beat the flavor of a new shell (shedder) lobster. When lobsters molt in the summer, they These reach a peak in sweetness and tenderness. While freshly shed / new shell lobsters have less meat than a hard shell lobster they are easier to crack and the quality of the meat is sublime. Some Maine restaurants and eateries serve new shell lobster exclusively because they believe the flavor of shedders is so superior.
5. Health / Vitality. If you’re buying lobster from a working fishing wharf or straight off a lobster boat, there’s little question the lobster will be fresh and healthy. If you’re buying your lobster from a fish monger or a market or you’ve had lobster delivered via a live lobster shipping service, you will want to ensure the lobster is alive and healthy before you cook it. To check a lobster’s vitality, pick up the lobster by the carapace (the body) and turn it over so the lobster’s legs are facing upwards. If the lobster is alive and healthy, its tail will remain tense and either stay curled up or extend outward (if it is a really lively lobster it might even begin flapping its tail about). If the tail flops down loosely, the lobster is likely dead. Never purchase a lobster you suspect is dead (unless the fishmonger can guarantee exactly when the lobster died). Any dead lobster should be kept chilled and be cooked within 24 hours. Another other sign of the health of a lobster is the integrity of the tail meat once cooked. If the tail meat comes out of the lobster in firm chunks, the lobster is healthy and the meat is good to eat. If the cooked tail meat is crumbly (crumbles to the touch), the lobster has spoiled and is not fit to eat. If you are unsure of the health of your lobster, don’t risk it.