The timeless topic of how best to dispatch a lobster is revived again this weekend in a New York Times review of two new books that flesh out the lobster literature alongside my book, The Secret Life of Lobsters.
The review ponders the best way to kill a lobster for cooking, and cites “an illustrated blog post” I wrote detailing a quick and humane way to end a lobster’s life before cooking it. I’m republished that post here, below.
The Times review also mentions the "Crustastun" lobster-killing machine, which I’ve written about and posted pictures of as well (it’s two stories tall and weighs 80,000 pounds; you’ll also see a photo of the slightly horrifying “crustacean without the crust”), and you are welcome further to peruse my essay in Boston magazine on the Whole Foods lobster-killing controversy, as well as my criticism of the late David Foster Wallace in a Salon interview concerning his famous “Consider the Lobster” article.
Interestingly, debate has been raging over in Europe (and in the page of New Scientist magazine) about whether crustaceans should have legal rights, like cows and pigs; imagine a near future in which the police arrest you for boiling a lobster alive. There’s at least one town in the world where that could actually happen, as I’ve written in The Atlantic.
Personally, I think it seems a safe assumption that being boiled alive probably sucks, which is why I use the humane-approved technique that follows for killing lobsters before putting them in the pot:
Step 1: Cool the lobster in the freezer for fifteen minutes or so. Lobsters are cold-blooded and their body temperature adapts to match the ambient temperature around them, with a corresponding slowing of their heart rate, metabolism, and neural functioning. Cooling the lobster prevents it from moving around while you’re working, which is a lot safer, and results in some deadening of the animal’s nervous system.
Step 2: Hold the lobster upside down and place the point of the knife between its hindmost legs.
Step 3: Thrust the knife straight down into the body, and proceed immediately through Step 4.
Step 4: Slice down through the head, to split the front of the animal in half.
A few additional pointers:
• You don’t have to slice all the way through the last bit of shell to the cutting board; leave the top of the lobster’s shell intact for a more attractive presentation on the plate.
• If you execute the knife maneuver correctly, the claws and front legs should go instantly limp. But be aware that because lobsters have a decentralized nervous system, even though you have severed most of the nerve ganglia in the front of the lobster, the tail and hind legs may continue to twitch. (If that bothers you, remember that this is an animal that, based on its neural structure, appears to be roughly equivalent in its level of sentience to a mosquito. If it still bothers you, you should probably consider eating mock lobster.)
• Immediately after you kill the lobster, put it in the pot to boil, as you would have with the live animal.
WARNING: By reading this page you hereby agree to use the methods described here at your own risk. I make no claims to be a qualified instructor of culinary butchery, and I will not be responsible if you hurt yourself using a knife in your kitchen.
On the other hand, for those of you who crave additional drama and heroism in your kitchen, there are, of course, even more exciting ways to kill a lobster:
Maxfield Parish, untitled; cover linings for Poems of Childhood by Eugene Field, 1904.
P.S. Don’t take my word for all this. What follows is a statement prepared by Dr. Neville Gregory, who received an award from England’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
(At the time Dr. Gregory prepared the following statement on lobsters, he worked in the Animal Welfare and Stress department of the New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. New Zealand has a significant fishery for spiny lobsters.)
The Humane Way to Kill a Lobster
by Dr. Neville Gregory
The appropriate way to humanely kill a lobster is to chill it, then kill it by either splitting or spiking it.
Chefs using this method can be sure that they are killing the lobsters humanely, while preparing good quality lobster meat.
Any animal killed for meat consumption must be killed humanely. This means the animal must not be stressed when being handled, should be held at the place of slaughter for only a short time under appropriate conditions, and the killing method must not cause pain or distress prior to death.
Many seafood shops and restaurants and also private citizen chefs kill lobsters inhumanely.
Eight common procedures are used to kill lobsters, usually with two or more methods combined. These were chilling, drowning, spiking, chest spike, splitting, and tailing, freezing, and boiling (definitions listed below).
Freezing or boiling methods affect the quality of the meat. Boiling lobsters alive tends to make the meat chewy while freezing makes the meat lose its fresh appearance. Both are inhumane.
Lobsters need to be chilled before being killed.
Being cold blooded, chilling the lobster helps reduce nerve function and metabolic activity. When it is fully chilled, the lobster will stop moving and no longer responds to being handled.
After chilling a lobster, split it along its length where it has two chains of nerve ganglia, with interconnecting nerves along its body under the shell. Chilling beforehand prevents the lobster from moving which avoids mistakes during splitting—otherwise it is hard to achieve a humane kill in an unchilled animal.
Original text and photos are © copyright Trevor Corson. Please only use this material with attribution, thanks!