High Life Decoded: Everything You Need to Know About Eating Lobsters

From bankers tucking into surf ‘n’ turf to MCs making it the official seafood of rap music, lobster is often associated with luxe living, and it remains an ingredient that’s often deployed to give dishes a “classy” touch (see: the now ubiquitous lobster mac and cheese). But it wasn’t always this way. Not so long ago, lobsters were considered the rats of the sea—bottom-feeding, insect-looking crustaceans sold for cheap to anyone willing to eat them. We won’t get into the entire history of the little critters, but if you’re interested, you should read David Foster Wallace’s wonder essay, “Consider the Lobster.”

Today, the lobster is at a cross-roads in public perception. It’s still a high-end item, but it’s also becoming more democratic, thanks in part to the success of Brooklyn’s Red Hook Lobster Pound and the Manhattan-based Luke’s Lobster, both launched in 2009 by native Mainers. These businesse turned the lobster roll into a widespread street-food phenomenon, bringing the hot, buttery Connecticut roll and the Maine lobster roll, which is served cold with mayo, into the standard lexicon.

With a wider audience comes harsher scrutiny, particularly when it comes to pricing—this year, the New Yorker and Grubstreet both got in on the debate. Why is lobster valued as low as $2.99 a pound when it comes off boats in late summer, while restaurants are charging consumers upwards of $40 for an entrée portion?

For starters, lobster doesn’t usually come directly from the boat to your table. In fact, there are several steps before a lobster reaches your dinner plate that greatly affect not only its cost, but also its quality. For a little insight in this process and many other commonly misunderstand aspects of lobster eating, we tapped an expert to help us set the record straight.

The expert: Susan Povich, cofounder of Red Hook Lobster Pound. Born of an idea she and her Ralph Gorham had six years ago, Red Hook Lobster Pound is one of two major players in the increasingly saturated market for lobster rolls. The craze started in their modest Red Hook storefront and then moved to Brooklyn Flea, where Povich recalls a four-hour wait on their first day. Now, Red Hook Lobster Pound has locations in New York, Washington, D.C., and Montauk that, in May and June, serve thousands of pounds of lobster meat a week.

Lobster prices are driven mostly by processing and transportation costs.

Povich says: Every year in August, articles about lobster prices come out because some journalist sees that in July, at the height of the season, lobster is coming off the boats at a low price locally in Maine and then makes a misguided attempt to raise eyebrows [when prices at restaurants are high]. It’s all a bunch of bunk. It’s not that lobster was ever cheap. The price of lobster, like any other natural resource, fluctuates. The price of lobster has to do with the processing industry—what processors need at an exact time. It is always inexpensive when it’s landed—in summer, during high season, when there is a lot of lobster, price goes down. Some years it happens more than others, due to a number of economical factors, like sales from previous years and the lobster tails market. Most lobster is landed, separated into parts, and then shipped all over world. Places like us buy mostly claw and knuckle meat for sandwiches; the little legs are turned into lobster paste (used to make lobster bisque around the world); and even the shell is ground up into a powder used to make lobster stock. There isn’t much of a lobster that is wasted. And in transit, they can barely make it five hours without dying because of the specific conditions they require to survive—another cost.


Lobster tails are overrated.

Povich says: For some reason, maybe because lobster is so hard to eat and the tails are the easiest part to get at, they have acquired this mythical status as the most luxurious part of lobster. The tails are tough; it’s the lobster's hugest muscle. Think about how tender a filet is versus a flank steak. The tail is the flank steak in that situation. Tails are best used in stew or cooked on the grill. I happen to think the claw and knuckle meat is the best.


Hard-shell and soft-shell lobsters have different qualities, but wild-caught is always better than pounded.

Povich says: I do not like lobster from south of Cape Cod, because I don’t think it tastes as briny and minerally. I happen to prefer any northern, wild-caught lobster. But it’s like farmed tilapia (or any other farmed fish) versus wild-caught; they aren’t as good. The lobster fishery and sustainability regulations in Maine are really good, which is why I'm more supportive of it. In Canada, where the water is equally cold or colder, lobster is highly subsidized by the state. Fishermen bring in millions of hard-shell lobsters and put them on top of each other, shoot cold water over them, and keep them there for however long, as they fight one another and eat their own protein. You might be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a wild-caught lobster from Canada versus Maine, but you can definitely taste the difference between wild and pounded.


Lobsters aren't just for summer.

Povich says: A lot of people think summer is the best time to eat lobsters, but it depends what you’re looking for. If you want a lobster that’s full of meat, then getting a hard-shell lobster is better. But I would eat two soft-shell lobsters over the hard shells any day; the meat is more tender and sweeter. Lobsters must molt, or shed their shells, in order to grow. Adult male lobsters molt usually once a year, most often during the summer while the water is warm. Just before they shed their hard shells, they are bursting at the seams. Once they come into their new, softer shells, it takes awhile for them to fill them out. The soft shell season generally begins in mid-June and can last up to November.


 Myth: You can tell that a lobster is good if it’s fighting the others.

Povich says: You have to touch it. If it’s slimy and if the tines are dull, stay away. The duller they are, the more they’ve been crawling on top of each other. Also, make sure there is no damage to shell; damage to the shell can affect the meat.



Bigger doesn't mean better (a.k.a., don't be a mook).

Povich says: I am constantly trying to spread the good word and convince people not to eat large lobsters. I never buy lobster that is more than 1.5 pounds. The large lobsters are the breeders. They lay the most eggs—about 50,000 at a time on average—and only about 1,000 of those will make it to be a pound. Additionally, large male lobsters will only mate with large female lobsters, so when you take the large ones out of the ocean, you are really depleting the breeding stock. In terms of taste, think about it this way: It takes lobsters seven years to grow to one pound, so a five-pound lobster could be 35 years old. As they age, the meat becomes tougher. So all of these big guys are paying $200 to eat tough old lady meat, when it’s the smaller lobsters that are more tender. In my opinion, the big ones are only good for stew.

The green stuff is delicious (just don't eat too much of it).

 Povich says: The green part innards of the lobster are called the tomalley. This comprises the liver and the pancreas, and it has tons of flavor. Eating it once in awhile is not an issue. However, because it is responsible for filtering out waste, I wouldn’t advise eating it all the time. You have to be careful of the ocean. In the last 40 years, the seas have gotten much more polluted. That being said, there are many other uses for the tomalley if you dilute it. I put it in lobster bisque or make lobster butter with it, and it is commonly used to make pâté.

Lobsters don't really scream when you boil them.

Povich says: They don’t have vocal chords—how could they scream? If there is any sound, it is the steam escaping through cracks in the shells.

Back to blog