Lobsterdeath and Broken Bernaise (Foodie Rites of Passage)

Killing a lobster, as a concept, never much bothered me. Lisa, who you know and love, became a vegetarian at 13 because her parents took her to a Red Lobster and had her choose out a lobster from the tank and moments later it was steaming before her on a plate. She hasn’t eaten meat since.

Me, I watch lobsters die on TV–on cooking shows, usually, or “Lobster Six Feet Under”–and I have the same emotional response as I do when someone swats a fly or steps on a spider. It’s unfortunate, but it’s life. And as a concept, cooking a lobster appealed to me the same way that making my own bread appealed to me: it’s a foodie rite of passage. And on Saturday night I invited my carnivorous friend Diana over to join me as I became a man. “Umm,” she said nervously. “What do you mean by that?” “We’re making lobster,” I replied. “Oooh,” she said, “I’m in!”

What you see above is the bag the fishmonger gave me at Whole Foods when I asked for two 1.25 lb lobsters. He used a rake like instrument to get them out of the tank (it took him a while) and placed them in that special lobster bag. When I got to the checkout, the woman behind the counter saw the bag and went: “Oooh, Lordy, this is my third lobster today.” She shook her head sadly. “Poor little guys,” she said, “There’s two in there?” She leaned forward. “It could be a mother and a daughter.”

I found this funny as did the other counter people. She lifted the pair of tongs I bought to lift the lobsters. “We know what this is for!” she said holding the tongs up in the air. “Poor guys.”

Thoroughly depressed (but not really), I carried my lobsters home and put the bag on the counter. I ran to my computer so I could research: “storing live lobsters.” Diana was coming over at 5 and it was 3. My research revealed that lobsters are best kept in open containers in the refrigerator. (Some sites advised putting a wet rag on them but I didn’t do this.)

So step one was getting the lobsters into an open container. Now this was the first moment where the concept of killing a lobster and the reality of killing a lobster butted heads. You know that famous scene in “Annie Hall” where lobsters are crawling around and Woody and Diane Keaton are having a riotous time? Well I simply had to get the lobster out of the bag and into a bowl. But opening that bag and looking down and seeing these spindly, hard-shelled antennaed creatures the last thing you want to do is reach in there and lift one. So I used tongs (rather clumsily) and got the first one into a bowl.


Ok, fair enough. The lobster wiggled a bit but didn’t fight too much. Could I put both in the same bowl? Interesting question. I lifted the other out of the bag using the same method and as I lowered it over the bowl it began snapping violently. I let go and its tail wrapped around the edge of the bowl as it thrusted its body up and down. I quickly grabbed another bowl and used the tongs to transfer it. And here are the two lobsters in the two bowls:


On the way to the fridge, Lolita came to investigate these strange new creatures in our home.


Clearly, she was not impressed. Into the fridge they went:


And there they waited until Diana’s arrival.

Once Diana arrived, we chose the two contraptions we’d need to execute our lobsters. Because neither my Le Creuset nor my regular old pot were big enough to hold two lobsters, we’d each be responsible for one pot and one lobster. I got the sucky pot and Diana got the Le Creuset. As you’ll see later, this proved to be quite significant.


Now the recipe I found was in the Gourmet cookbook. I chose this because on Julia Child’s lobster episode (on the 2nd disc of her DVD set) she says the simplest and best way to enjoy lobster is to boil it and serve it with butter. Of course, then, I turned to her “Mastering the Art” of French Cooking and was surprised to see that both those lobster recipes were elaborate and anything but simple. (For a hilarious account of cooking one of these recipes, check out Julie Powell’s write-up from her Julie/Julia days). Thus, I opened my Gourmet book and found a simple recipe for boiling lobster (you salt the water and cook a 1.25 lb lobster for exactly 6 minutes) along with a recipe for a tarragon vermouth sauce. (Here it is on Epicurious with only a 64% approval rating. I hadn’t seen this before we made it. Interesting that one of the comments says the cook time is way off! I wonder if we ate raw lobster?)

Now the sauce is called “Tarragon Vermouth Sauce” but it’s really a bernaise style sauce. Over a double boiler, you whisk vermouth, tarragon vinegar, and 3 egg yolks as you slowly stream in melted butter. Here I am whisking in attempt number one:


All was going well as the sauce heated up. Everything was emulsified and we took its temperature because the goal was 160. And then–boom! crash!–the sauce broke. This is what broken bernaise looks like:


It’s not a pretty picture. Basically, I think, the eggs get cooked because they overheat. So we failed in our first attempt.

Luckily, there was something else to occupy us: lobster.

At this point the water was boiling. Diana, always the intrepid one, decided to go first. Since she had the Le Creuset, lowering the lobster into it would be easy. You simply lift the lid and place the lobster in head first. (This is more humane because the lobster dies more quickly.)


In the lobster went without much fuss. Here’s Diana closing the lid:


All is well in lobsterland. Now, Mr. Gourmet, step up to the plate.


There I am standing bravely with my lobster. This would be easy, no problem. Just like Diana. I’d lift the lid of the pot and drop that lobster in.

And so I lifted the lid and began to lower the lobster in head first and SNAP…the tail starting snapping back and forth and the lobster fought for its life! In fact, as you can see here the lobster wrapped its tail around the side of the pot as he tried to claw his way out!


(My reaction, you might say from that picture, may be a tad bit wimpy.)

“What do I do what do I do!” I shrieked.

“Get him in!” Diana yelled back.

You have to remember that pot was hot and I had to somehow disengage the lobster from it, submerge it in the water and get the lid on all rather quickly. And I’m not sure how it happened but thankfully, it did.


Let my experience provide for you the following lesson: when making lobster, make sure you have a big pot. Or at least a wide one like Diana had. Those lobsters don’t like boiling water any more than you do.

Because the pot had a glass lid, I took this picture once the lobster was inside:


As you can see, as the lobster cooks the shell turns a bright red. Or maybe my lobster’s still enraged at the size of his pot?

Here’s Diana’s lobster after six minutes:


We took the lobsters out with tongs and drained them in the sink. Meanwhile, we attempted another bernaise. “This time we’ll get it right,” said Diana.

Well. It seemed like we were getting it right. We got much further the second time around. My strategy was to whisk the bowl over the boiler and then lift it off and put it back on, regulating the heat. After a few minutes of this I let Diana take over, and that’s when it broke. Do I blame Diana? Of course not. I upped the heat at the moment and I probably shouldn’t have. The reason I did was because the thermometer needed to read 160 and it was still down at like 140. Here’s Diana with broken bernaise #2:


Gross, yet again:


Somehow, though, breaking our sauce worked in our favor. Recalling Julia Child’s statement, boiled lobster is a simple pleasure and it’s best served with something simple: melted butter. So in preparation for our simple presentation, we sliced the lobster in half.


This was actually pretty easy. Knife cuts right through the shell. And here’s our finished presentation, complete with The Barefoot Contessa’s roasted potatoes (which are so easy to make and they had Diana raving):


Melted butter was definitely the way to go. The lobster meat was so sweet and succulent, you wouldn’t want to mask that with a heavy buttery yolky sauce. At least that’s what we told ourselves.

One of the lobsters, we think, was a female because the insides looked like this:


Is that roe? Or is that sewage? We worried for a moment but it tasted fine. We had a very democratic way of sharing these lobsters: we each had half of the other’s. It seemed only fair.

As for cracking the claws, I used a hammer. It caused quite a mess but the juicy lobstery meat was worth it:


In conclusion, I think that cooking a lobster is something you must do if (a) you care about food and (b) you’re a meat-eater. The reason for this is best articulated by Thomas Keller who tells the story, in the French Laundry Cookbook (and also Michael Ruhlman’s “The Soul of a Chef”) of killing rabbits at a Catskill restaurant in 1983.

“One day, I asked my rabbit purveyor to show me how to kill, skin, and eviscerate a rabbit. I had never done this, and I figured if I was going to cook rabbit, I should know it from its live state through the slaughtering, skinning, and butchering, and then the cooking. The guy showed up with twelve live rabbits. He hit one over the head with a club, knocked it out, slit its throat, pinned it to a board, skinned it–the whole bit. Then he left.

I don’t know what else I expected, but there I was out in the grass behind the restaurant, just me and eleven cute bunnies, all of which were on the menu that week and had to find their way into a braising pan. I clutched at the first rabbit. I had a hard time killing it. It screamed. Rabbits scream and this one screamed loudly. Then it broke its leg trying to get away. It was terrible.

The next ten rabbits didn’t scream and I was quick with the kill, but that first screaming rabbit not only gave me a lesson in butchering, it also taught me about waste. Because killing those rabbits had been such an awful experience, I would not squander them. I would use all my powers as a chef to ensure that thsoe rabbits were beautiful. It’s very easy to go to a grocery store and buy meat, then accidentally overcook it and throw it away. A cook sauteing a rabbit loin, working the line on a Saturday night, a million pans going, plates going out the door, who took that loin a little too far, doesn’t hestiate, just dumps it in the garbage and fires another. Would that cook, I wonder, have let his attention stray from that loin had he killed the rabbit himself? No. Should a cook squander anything, ever? It was a simple lesson.”

20 thoughts on “Lobsterdeath and Broken Bernaise (Foodie Rites of Passage)”

  1. The greenish stuff is roe and/or tomalley, considered a delicacy by some die-hards. Most restaurants remove it but you do have customers request it from time to time.

  2. Bravo on “becoming a man”! Truly, I’d say the loss of the sauce was a happy accident – especially on your first home boiled lobster, simple is the way to go.

  3. re the sauce – if you see that it is breaking, you can dump one or two ice cubes in and stir really fast. This will salvage it (only if you realize early enough, that is…)

  4. The green stuff is tomalley, aka the lobster’s liver. Some people like it and some people don’t; also, supposedly it’s not all that good for you because it’s the liver, where the toxins go. Make of that what you will.

    The roe, if there was any, would have been bright red and sort of sticky-ish. It’s supposedly a delicacy although i’m not such a fan.

    I’m from Boston, thus biased, but I have always felt that lobster always tastes best at a lobster pound, preferably on the coast of Maine. Yum.

  5. I don’t think I could ever even eat a lobster, say nothing about cook one. Something about shellfish. I know, I know, I’m probably missing out on quite a bit.

  6. Another way to save a broken sauce is to add some lemon juice. This has worked for me countless times. Something about the acid I think. But make sure you don’t add too much! I had eggs benedict at The Village yesterday and they definitely over lemon-ed the sauce.

  7. Did you drop live lobsters into boiling water? Ouch, for the lobster’s sake!

    The knife through the lobster’s head is considered the most “humane” way to kill a lobster and honestly should be done before boiling it. Though it seems gruesome it is the quickest way to kill a lobster and numerous professional chefs recommend this method. Interesting read: http://www.drellenrudolph.com/tncc/readings/lobster.html

    Now that you have boiled a lobster, you should definitely explore other ways of cooking those suckers! I love grilled lobster (grilling them imparts a nice smoky flavor) but may be hard to do in NYC. Also, Jasper White (a New England cooking icon) has a ridiculously good pan-roasted lobster dish (he made it on a Julia Child show many years ago).

  8. Regarding the broken sauce…is that one of those whisks with a thermometer built into it? Cook’s Illustrated reviewed one recently and said it was really inaccurate–BUT, it was CONSISTENTLY inaccurate. They tested it in boiling water, checked how far off it was from 212 degrees, and made a note to make a mental temperature adjustment when using it. Maybe yours is off by 20 degrees ;)

  9. Next time (if there is one), put the lobsters in the freezer for a minute or two before cooking. They won’t have time to freeze but they will be knocked out and not feel the boiling water. That or the knife through the head thing. They may only have a very primitive nervous system, but if fish can feel pain, I bet lobsters can as well.

  10. oh man. that was horrifying! i almost feel like being vegetarian myself now. i think i’d never have the guts to cook live lobster like that. sniff. the poor things!!

    bunnies!! double sniff.

  11. I have always wanted to try boiling lobsters, but always afraid of what might happen. Thanks for showing us that there really isn’t much to it. You were very brave!

  12. There was a study done within the last year that concluded that lobsters, invertebrates with primitive nervous systems, are unlikely to feel pain upon immersion with boiling water.

    See: http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2005/02/13/study_lobsters_unlikely_to_feel_pain_in_boiling_water/

    That said, I’m a voracious meat eater, but I just don’t think I’d have it in me to kill dinner myself. I’ll let somebody else do the dirty work, thanks.

  13. I developed a shellfish allergy a few years back so I’ll never boil a lobster. =(

    Which is okay since I had a traumatizing experience as a young girl when my grandmother put the live lobsters on the floor and I thought they were going to attack me. I tore up the stairs and hid in the attic for hours. ha.

  14. Thanks for the lobster cooking info. I’m going out to trap some tomorrow and I can’t wait for dinner!

  15. Thanks so much for this post!

    I love cooking gourmet but have very little experience with seafood. I’ve always wanted to cook a lobster but the idea always terrified me for the very reasons you mention in your post (getting the live lobster in the bowl, getting it into the pot, etc.) This post is so informative that perhaps one day I will now be able to give it a try!



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