If you enjoy eating boiled lobster in Boston's seafood restaurants, you may want to learn how to boil lobster at home. It's so simple that if you can boil an egg, you can boil a lobster. And once you do, you can enjoy this favorite staple of New England cuisine with drawn butter, or even make lobster rolls.
Most of the lobsters eaten in Boston are actually Maine lobsters.
The cold northern New England coastal water makes the meat especially sweet and succulent, and the rocky ocean bottom just off the Maine coast provides plenty of excellent habitat.
Lobsters must be bought live, and kept alive until you're ready to cook them.
The best place to buy them is straight from the dock, or a lobster pound or fish market that gets them daily from lobstermen and keeps them in salt water tanks.
Put the lobsters into the refrigerator as soon as you get home, and cook them as soon as possible. This is one of the most important things to remember about how to boil lobster successfully - start with one that's fresh!
If you can't buy fresh lobsters locally where you live, you can get live Maine lobsters delivered to your door (if you live in the continental U.S.) by companies that buy lobsters directly from the docks and use overnight delivery services to ship them to you. Because they ship immediately, they're a better bet than supermarket lobsters, which are usually handled by 3 - 4 middlemen and can spend days in transit getting to the store.
Top Photo: A couple of New England lobsters not far from the pot in Boston Discovery Guide's test kitchen
The "Secret Sauce" for How to Boil Lobsters Perfectly
We're going to start with the most important tip for cooking lobsters perfectly.
Although boiling lobster is easy, you want them to be tender, not tough - so you must master one key skill: don't overcook them! That's it - the "secret sauce" to serving up perfectly cooked lobster every time.
If you accidentally under-cook the lobsters, you can always heat them up a little until they're perfect. But if you overcook - well, they're tough and rubbery, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Remember, even after you remove the lobsters from the pot, they'll continue to cook a bit as they cool down. To avoid this result, fill a bowl with water and ice, so that you can plunge the lobsters into it to stop the cooking process if necessary.
However, as long as you keep an eye on the clock while the lobsters cook, you don't need to worry too much . . . even if you cook them a few minutes longer than necessary, you probably won't notice much difference in the delicious results, so don't stress.
What You'll Need for Boiling Lobsters
Please note: This list is for boiling Homarus americanus (American lobster), the large-clawed species found along the New England coast:
1 or more lobsters - preferably 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounders
A pot large enough to hold the lobsters (depending on the size of your pot, you may need to cook them in batches)
Sea water if possible - if not, regular water and salt
Optional: Flavorings for the water, such as a few slices of lemon, a cup of wine or beer, a piece of seaweed, or herbs such as thyme or bay leaves
A pair of long tongs
Colander or paper towels
Butter - about 1/4 cup (or 1/2 stick) per lobster
Small sauce pan for melting butter
What Size Lobster Cooking Pot Do You Need?
Here's the key thing to know when sizing your lobster pot: It needs to be big enough so that water will cover the lobsters by at least an inch or two, and also the lobsters shouldn't be crowded. You want to water to heat evenly, because there's nothing worse that cracking open a lobster that's not 100% cooked.
To cook one 1 1/4 - 1 1/2 pound lobster, you'll need a pot capable of holding at least 8 quarts of water. For two to four lobsters, use a 19-20 quart pot (which doubles as a soup pot).
Here are some lobster pots available on Amazon:
Steps for Boiling Lobsters
1. Fill the pot about one half to two thirds full of water, so that after you put in the lobsters, they'll be completely covered.
If you use sea water, you don't need to add more salt. But if you use regular water, add about 1/4 cup.
Some people like to add a few lemon slices, or a cup or two of wine or beer, or even herbs such as thyme or bay leaves to the cooking water to add flavor to the lobster meat.
You also might add a piece of seaweed (or dried Japanese kombu) because the seaweed enhances the briny flavor really nicely. You should experiment to discover what you like best.
Once you've prepped your water, turn on the heat and bring the water to a vigorous rolling boil.
2. Pick up the lobster by holding the upper side of the lobster's back between your thumb and fingers. With your other hand, use the scissors to clip off the bands around the lobster's claws.
Hold the lobster so that its underside is away from you so that it won't flip its tail and splash you with scalding water.
Drop the lobster head-first into the boiling water. (Lobsters don't go willingly - that's why you need to be holding it correctly!)
If you're boiling additional lobsters, drop them into the pot quickly too. You want them all to go in as close together as possible so that they all cook for roughly the same amount of time.
Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid so that the water will come back to a boil as soon as possible. Be sure to note the time when the water starts to boil again.
3. Once the water returns to a boil, uncover the pot so that you can monitor the color of the lobsters. You may want to turn down the heat slightly, but make sure the water continues to boil.
Use these cooking times, based on the lobster's weight, as a general guideline for how long to keep the lobster in the pot of boiling water:
Whether you're cooking one or more lobsters, use these times. As long as the water's boiling, cooking time is based on lobster size, not the number of lobsters.
While the lobsters cook, melt some butter in a small sauce pan.
4. When the lobsters turn bright red all over, they're done. Making sure that they're completely red can the trickiest part of mastering how to boiled lobsters due to all the steam that the boiling water produces. If in doubt, cook them for one more minute.
Some chefs believe that when you can pull out the antennae easily, the lobsters are ready, but this is not always reliable. It's also not that easy to do.
Use the tongs to remove the lobsters from the water.
If you're worried that they're undercooked, pull off a claw or one of the small legs and check the color of the lobster meat. It should be opaque white, with no translucent areas. If it's not, pop the lobster back into the boiling water for another minute or two.
5. Drain the lobsters in a colander or on paper towels. Serve warm with melted butter.
Not sure how to dismember the creature on your plate? Check out our instructions for how to eat lobster.
Additional Tips for Boiling Lobsters
If you're cooking several batches of lobsters, consider using 2 or more pots. Otherwise, wrap the ones that you've already cooked in a clean dish towel or aluminum foil to keep them warm.
If you're cooking more than one lobster, make sure they're all about the same weight, since this determines how long you'll cook them.
If you hear a high-pitched sound as the lobster is cooking, do not be alarmed or worry that the boiling lobster is somehow expressing outrage at its fate. This sound is actually from gases being released from under the lobster's shell. And conversely, if you don't hear this sound, don't worry that you're cooking bad lobsters - this sound doesn't always occur.
Some people feel that boiling a live lobster is cruel, and killing the lobster immediately before cooking is more humane. The usual way of doing this is to stab the lobster in the head. I do not recommend this because it releases a lot of proteins into the water, which then coagulate due to the heat and ruin any roe.
If boiling live lobsters bothers you but you still enjoy a lobster dinner, you may feel much happier if you make reservations in one of Boston's excellent seafood restaurants or get boiled lobsters shipped to your door.