The Lobster Series (Part 1): How to Buy Fresh Lobster

Today kicks off a series I’ve been meaning to share since we started writing: how to buy, cook, eat and make stock (and bisque) from lobster.  Lobster is one of the most sustainable seafood, it’s fantastically flavorful, easy to cook and, when eaten correctly (including using the whole animal), can be rather affordable.  A lobster dinner can cost $10-$25 per person but if you make a stock you’ll cut the cost per meal to $3-$8.

My Mother is from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.  Knowing how to eat a lobster without assistance was a key to survival in our house: if you couldn’t break your own lobster apart you would have to wait until others had eater theirs hot.  I’ve been shelling lobster, without assistance, since I was 5 years old.  When my Mother was growing up, lobster is what the ‘poor people ate’ as many were fishermen living off the land.  The ‘rich’ kids had luxuries like SPAM that was imported from elsewhere.

As an odd bit of trivia: I’ve never eaten a cooked lobster in a restaurant (I did have some raw as ceviche but that’s another story).  Lobster has never been seen as a fancy meal in our house; it’s actually the opposite.  Tables get lined with newspapers, everyone puts on short-sleeved shirts (or rolls up their cuffs) and shells start flying across the kitchen.  It’s a messy meal and one that’s very hands-on.  This isn’t exactly a meal that the shy want to share with strangers.

The Lobster Series (Part 1): How to Buy Fresh Lobster

Buying lobster is an easy task.  There’s only a few ‘rules’:

  • They must be alive.  Don’t buy or cook a dead lobster.
  • The should be lively; you may have to pick them up to see that but a limp lobster is one that you want to avoid.
  • Like all other things, they are best in season.  In Canada this means later spring through summer.
  • They can be stored in your fridge or in a cooler – but be careful with ice.  If ice melts it turns into fresh water – if you’re lobster are submerged in fresh water, they will die.  Blocked ice that is covered in a few layers of newspaper is best.  The traditional way to store them is in the vegetable crisper in your fridge.  They’ll easily last a day in these conditions (we try to use them the same day we buy them).
  • Do not store them in plastic bags.

Now onto the more subjective rules.  These vary from region-to-region and family-to-family but each of us will swear by our own:

  • Size matters; but not in the way most think.  A big lobster is an old lobster and an old lobster is a tough lobster (the largest cow is the toughest meat whereby traditional field-raised veal is far more tender).  1.25-1.5 pounds is the sweet spot my family swears by; 1.75 pounds would be an absolute ceiling that you would not want to cross.  Smaller lobsters are also less expensive by the pound (meaning two 1.5 pound lobsters will be cheaper in most cases than a 3 pounder).
  • If a store won’t let you choose which lobster that you’re taking home with you, walk away.
  • It’s all about gender: know how to identify a female vs. a male.  The females have roe (eggs, similar to what is eaten on the top of sushi although the texture is different as they’re cooked) and some believe they have more tail meat).  There’s two ways to tell a female from a male:
    • Many females have hips.  They get wider at the top of the tail near the body of the shell.  This isn’t foolproof but it generally gives a good indication.
    • The 100% way to tell the gender is to check the underside of the tail (we’ll talk about how to handle them tomorrow; for now it’s good enough to know that if they have elastic bands on their claws, they’re safe to handle).  Gently flip the lobster over and examine the swimmerets (they’re the ‘fuzzy things’) under the tail.  The first pair (nearest the body) will either be soft and almost velvety or they will be hard and almost forged of plastic – there’s NO in between.  The soft ones are female.

Here’s a male (it’s easier to feel than see):

The Lobster Series (Part 1): How to Buy Fresh Lobster

And a female:

Other than the eggs, there’s no significant difference between the two – we try to buy females as they offer another flavor that the males just don’t have.

That’s all there is to buying fresh lobster.  Tomorrow we’ll share how to cook it!



  1. I grew up in Maine, so I smiled reading your post– it reminds me so much of how we grew up thinking about/eating lobster. I was just writing yesterday about having so much lobster to eat that we would beg for chicken, or maybe a hot dog? I have also never eaten one in a restaurant. :) thank you for this!

  2. Being born in New England, I could eat a whole lobster clean – with no help – at the age of 4. Its still one of the rare flesh foods I eat. and I definitely do claw to tail eating. Looking forward to tomorrow’s post! You might want to have a peek at my post ‘shelfsh stock’ too – its a recipe/technique I love.

  3. Greetings from the lobster capital of the world! I love the diagrams! Do you prefer the male or female lobsters?


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