Shell Games: Hard Shell Lobster Versus Soft Shell Lobsters

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’re cracking into a soft shell lobster. Hard shell lobsters are less prevalent this time of year and are— you guessed it— harder. In the end, you’ll want to crack into one of these beauties. Learn the secrets of when and how to order hard shell lobsters online or at your local lobster pound.

When do Lobsters Shed or Molt?

The shell of a lobster, called the “exoskeleton”, provides the lobster’s shape as well as an excellent armor protection from enemies. As the lobster grows, it must periodically shed its old hard shell and grow a new one.

The process in known as molting. It takes about 20 molts over 5-7 years for a lobster to become an adult.

Before shedding its old shell, a new soft shell is formed under the old shell. To get out of its old shell, the body shell splits and the skin between the tail and body shell opens. Next the lobster rolls over on its side and bends itself almost in half to pull itself out of its old shell.

How-Long-Lobster-Molt

The new shell lobster then pumps itself with fluid to enlarge the very soft shell. The new shell is paper thin and the lobster is very vulnerable to predators at this time. There is less meat in a new shell lobster. In time, more muscle (meat) grows until it’s time to molt again. After molting and before the lobster’s shell becomes “hard” again is when the terms “soft shell”, and “new shell” are used to describe the Maine lobster.

Lobster Molting Facts

  • A lobster increases in size by about 20% with each molt.
  • It takes a lobster about 30 minutes to molt.
  • Most lobsters shed every year but less frequently as they grow older and larger.
  • Lobsters take about 5-7 years to mature (called chickens) and will weigh about 1 pound each. A chicken lobster will measure about 3 1/4 inches in length from the eye to the top of the tail.

Find out the best size lobster to eat and how to get the most lobster meat yield for your money. Here’s how lobsters are graded and measured.

What is a soft shell lobster?

The only way Maine lobsters can grow is by shedding their shells and growing a new, larger shell. Lobsters shed (or molt) several times each year. Soft shell lobsters (called shedders) are lobsters which have recently shed their 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.

Soft shell lobster meat has a brighter red color, a softer texture, and more water content than hard shell lobster meat. Although soft shell lobsters are easier to crack, you will pay more for their water weight, which will cook off.

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

So What’s The Difference Between Soft Shell and Hard Shell Lobsters

Which is Better: Hard Shell or Soft Shell Lobster

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

Soft shell lobsters have a shell with room for growth. This extra space is filled with water, which is reflected in a lower price per pound. You will pay more for a soft shell’s water weight, which is cooked off in steaming or boiling.

The hard shell name reapplies six to eight weeks after molting.

Why are Soft Shell Lobsters Cheaper

Soft shell lobster meat has a brighter red color, and is softer texture with more water content than hard shell lobster meat. Although soft shells lobsters are easier to crack, you will pay more for their water weight, which will cook off.

Hard shell lobsters remain the industry-standard due to the quantity and quality of the meat. When cooked, its shell turns bright red to orange color. Its white flesh is firm and dense with a sweet flavor. Hard shell lobsters are the industry standard for quality with a higher ratio of meat to shell which means better value. Typically, the meat only makes up about 20% of the lobster by weight. Sure, soft shell lobsters are easier to crack, but hard shell lobsters have a better texture and are full of meat from claws to tail.

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.

Which Lobster Travels Best? Go for the Hard Shell!

Generally speaking, the firmer the lobster’s shell, the longer the lobster will live out of water. 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. Hard shell lobsters live about 24-36 hours out of water; Soft shell lobsters can live anywhere from 3-15 hours out of water. So if you plan to take a Maine lobster across state lines, go for the hard shell!

When are Hard Shell Lobsters Available

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 lobsters, spring and late fall lobsters are swimming in cold water, their sweet meat firm and bursting with concentrated flavors under a hard winter shell.

Learn more about when are hard shell lobsters available and the soft shell lobster season in Maine.

Online Lobster. Are You Getting Your Clams Worth?

Hard Shell Lobsters

Though sometimes hard to find through other sellers, hard shell fresh Maine lobster delivery is available year-round from LobsterAnywhere.com. With its thick, solid shell, hard shell fresh Maine lobster is sturdy enough to ship anywhere across the country. You can grill, sauté, bake, or even fry the thick, succulent fresh Maine lobster meat after it’s delivered right to your door.

To learn about how lobsters categorized, see our guide on selecting the best lobsters.

Test the waters and give online purveyor LobsterAnywhere.com a try. LobsterAnywhere.com has been online since 1999. They have a great reputation for shipping only the best live lobsters. You’ll find live lobster in all sizes, all the way up to an impressive colossal 6 pound lobster. You can mix and match live lobster sizes.

Soft or Hard Shell Lobsters: Which Should You Order?

When you order lobster online, how will hard-shell lobster vs. soft-shell affect you, the customer?

  1. Hard-shell lobsters have approximately 20% more meat in proportion to total body weight.
  2. Hard-shell lobster meat is firmer, while soft-shell meat is softer and tends to have more water.
  3. Soft-shell lobsters are stronger and can live 30-40 hours out of the water.
  4. Soft shell lobsters are weaker and live less then 24 hours out of the water.
  5. Hard shell Maine lobsters can be shipped overnight and arrive in excellent condition.
  6. Soft shell lobsters suffer a high mortality when shipped even under ideal conditions.
  7. Soft Shell lobsters are too delicate to grill. Learn more about how to grill whole lobsters.

And finally, Maine hard-shell lobsters are considered premium lobsters and are famous worldwide for their outstanding taste and high quality meat. When choosing lobsters online for that special occasion, make sure you are getting what you paid for!

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