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How to cook lobster at home

Lobster salad with homemade mayonnaise enriched with lobster

Lobster salad with homemade mayonnaise enriched with lobster roe is served on lettuce. Credit: Newsday / Erica Marcus

How do I cook a lobster at home?

Going out for lobster is, for many, the ultimate culinary celebration. But lobster is also extremely easy to cook at home. And with live lobsters usually selling for $10 to $15 a pound (John's Farms in Plainview often has them for as little as $4.99), they are an affordable luxury.

Admittedly, easy doesn't mean pleasant. I'll cook virtually any part of any animal, but I can't say I enjoy having lobsters crawling on my kitchen counter, nor do I relish plunging them, live, into boiling water. But all discomfort is forgotten once dinner begins.

The easiest way to cook lobsters at home is to boil them. You'll need about 3 quarts of water for each 1½ pounds of lobster, so four (1½-pound) lobsters require 12 quarts (3 gallons) of water. The water level is going to rise when you put in the lobsters, so make sure your pot has at least a 5-gallon capacity. Add a good handful of salt to the water and bring it to a boil.

As for timing, virtually every recipe out there agrees with the advice of New England fish-cookery expert Jasper White in his authoritative book "Lobster at Home" (Scribners, 1998):

1¼ pounds: 9 to 10 minutes

1½ pounds: 11 to 12 minutes

1¾ pounds: 12 to 13 minutes

2 pounds: 15 minutes

But James Peterson, another culinary heavy hitter, writes in his latest cookbook, "Done. A Cook's Guide to Knowing When Food Is Perfectly Cooked" (Chronicle Books, $27.50) that "most people overcook lobster" and that "a 1¼-pound will cook in 3 minutes. Add a minute for each additional half pound." He allows that the roe of a female lobster will be nowhere near done at that point, but suggests you remove the roe and cook it separately.

I recently bought four (1½-pound) lobsters, all females, and boiled them to test Peterson's assertion. After each lobster came out of the water, I wrapped it in heavy-duty aluminum foil and let it rest for about 15 minutes, to maximize the carry-over cooking. Here's what I found:

4 minutes: The meat is underdone, still a bit translucent, and the roe is completely liquid.

6 minutes: The meat is very tender but the roe is mostly liquid.

8 minutes: The meat is getting a little tougher; the roe is still black but starting to jell.

10 minutes: The meat is now moderately tough; the roe is almost completely red.

Best advice: If roe is something you can take or leave, simply buy male lobsters. Boil a 1½-pounder for 6 minutes, a 2-pounder for 8 minutes. Wrap the lobsters in foil and let them rest for at least 15 minutes; they will stay hot for much longer.

If you're bullish on females and you want the roe completely cooked, you have two choices:

1. Treat them as if they were males and then, before serving, twist apart the tail from the body and spoon out the roe. Place it in a double boiler over simmering water, add a little water to the roe, and cook, stirring constantly, until all the roe turns red.

2. Overcook the lobsters.

So, there I was in the kitchen with four cooked lobsters (I dipped the tail of the 4-minute one back into the still-hot lobster-cooking water and that did the trick) and a lot of undercooked roe. I spooned out all the roe and tomalley (the delicious greenish stuff) and cooked it in a double boiler until all the roe turned bright red. I removed all the meat from the lobsters, cut it into big chunks, then combined it with mayonnaise, snipped chives, fresh tarragon leaves, lemon juice and a spoonful of the roe-tomalley mixture and had myself a lobster salad that would make any meal a celebration.

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