Shell Games: Buy Hard Shell Lobster Versus Soft Shell Lobsters Online

If you are eating lobster at the end of the summer in New England, chances are you can crack it’s claw with your bare hands.

So what gives? It’s simple—you are cracking into a soft shell lobster. You will also notice that these lobsters contain more water than usual. In contrast, hard shell lobsters, less prevalent this time of year, are true to their name. In the end, you’ll want to crack into one of these beauties. Learn the secrets of when and how to buy a hard shell lobster online or at your local lobster pound. 

When do Lobsters Shed?

Soft shell lobsters (called ‘shedders’) shed, or molt several times each year. The only way Maine lobsters can grow is by shedding their shells and growing a new, larger shell. While lobsters don’t shed according to a set schedule, it tends to happen in early July and in September.  The lobster first forms a new shell, complete in every detail, underneath its old one. Just before molting, the lobster drinks in water, which causes the new shell to swell, lifting the top of the midsection of the old shell. They synthesize a harder and larger shell with each molt using calcium carbonate from the ocean seawater they inhabit.

Their new shells are soft and take several months to harden, explaining why so many soft shelled lobsters are available in the summer and fall. As the lobster feeds, it adds meat and its shell hardens. The hard shell acts as the lobster’s natural armor protecting it from prey.

A lobster increases in size by about 20% with each molt. Most lobsters shed every year but less frequently as they grow older and larger. Lobsters take about 5-7 years to mature and will weigh about 1 pound (called chickens) each. A chicken lobster will measure about 3 1/4 inches in carapace length from the eye to the top of the tail. See more how how lobsters are graded and measured.

Soft or Hard Shell Lobsters: Which is Better?

Buy Hard Shell Lobsters
Click to enlarge infographic.

More common in Massachusetts and Maine in the summer months, soft shell lobsters are more difficult to transport alive. While soft shell lobsters have less meat, some feel the meat is sweeter.

Lobsters are at their best when their shells are fully hardened. Old shell lobsters have been living in their shells for a long period and are considered the industry standard for quality and value. Though the soft shell are definitely easier to crack, old shell lobsters usually have more meat and better texture. You will pay more for a soft shell’s water weight. Moreover, this natural water weight is cooked off in steaming or boiling.

FACT: If you squeeze the sides of the lobster’s body, the soft shell will yield to pressure, while the hard shell will be firm, brittle and tightly packed.

When is the Peak Season for Hard Shell Lobsters?

Spring and late fall is the best time to purchase “old shell” lobsters. By the middle of April, as the Maine winter has loosened its grip, lobsters move closer to shore. Boats go out, traps begin to fill and high supply means low prices. Unlike summer and fall lobsters, spring lobsters are still swimming in cold water, their sweet meat firm and bursting with concentrated flavors under a hard winter shell.

Learn more about the lobster seasons.

Which Lobster Travels Best? Go for the Hard Shell!

Lobster dealers sometimes refer to soft shell lobsters as low quality. It’s not that they don’t taste as good, rather in their weakened post-molt condition soft-shell lobsters don’t transport well. So if you plan to take a Maine lobster across state lines, a hard shell lobster travels best.

Hard Shell Lobsters

Meanwhile, though sometimes hard to find through other sellers, hard shell fresh Maine lobster delivery is available year-round from With its thick, solid shell, hard shell fresh Maine lobster is sturdy enough to ship anywhere across the country. You can grill, saute, bake, or even fry the thick, succulent fresh Maine lobster meat that is delivered right to your door.

To learn about how live Maine lobsters are caught, categorized, selected, and shipped, visit our Lobsters 101 tutorial.

Check back for periodic updates on our Lobster Anywhere blog for cool tips on cooking and eating lobster, great lobster recipes, and curious lobster trivia and history. What’s more, we just launched our You Tube Channel. So now you can watch our how to cook lobster videos!


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