For lots of us, by the time food reaches us, it is dead, processed and packaged. We know that our chicken breasts came from a chicken or that a piece of cod was once swimming around somewhere. You see live lobsters are a unique food in that they must be cooked or processed quickly soon after they are out of their cold seawater medium.
But the tradition of cooking lobsters alive is one that disturbs people. The idea of plunging the creature into a boiling pot of water to meet a painful death can be a bit off-putting – but it might not be the whole story. Here’s how to kill a lobster without feeling bad about it.
To better understand the anatomy of lobsters, it is worth knowing that they are in the same group of species as things like insects, crabs, barnacles and shrimp. Lobsters have a hard outer shell called an exoskeleton but don’t have an inner skeleton or bones like a mammal. They also have blue blood due to the presence of copper in it.
Another interesting fact is that their nervous system is simpler than that of an insect. Neither insects nor lobsters have a brain. And they have around 100,000 neurons – compare this to 100 billion in a human being. Neurons are the basics of the brain and nervous system and are used to do everything from responding to our environment to telling our muscles to work. The fewer the neurons,the less aware and intelligent a species is.
Do Lobsters Really Feel Pain?
The big question then is this – do lobsters really feel pain? One of the reasons that people are so concerned with the common ways to kill lobsters for cooking is the idea that you are causing pain to the creature. But can it actually feel pain?
Boston biologist Joseph Ayers, who studies lobster neurobiology at Northeastern University, says crustaceans lack the neural anatomy to feel pain. We know their nervous system is like an insect’s, we know they are very much less likely to feel pain than a mammal. The Lobster Institute of Maine, for example, says that while a lobster might twitch its tail when placed in boiling water, it is a reaction to sudden stimulus (movement) rather than suddenly feeling pain from the hot water. As far as humanely killing a lobster, Ayers believes plunging a lobster headfirst into boiling water is the best method.
And the main case for them not feeling pain is simple – they don’t have a brain! A study from Norway in 2005 found that they couldn’t feel pain because they didn’t have anything to feel it with. Think about it – when you stub your toe, it is your brain that tells you that it hurt. If you didn’t have a brain, you couldn’t process that signal.
Another thing lobsters don’t have are vocal chords – so the story about lobsters screaming when being cooked is an urban myth! In fact, the noise is more likely caused by air escaping from their bodies than anything.
That hasn’t stopped Switzerland, however, who have brought in a complete ban on cooking lobsters alive. To comply with the new laws, lobster sellers and chefs need to either put the lobster to death or knock it out before cooking. Parts of Italy have a similar rule, backed by a fine of around 500 euros for anyone caught breaking it.
How to Kill a Lobster Humanely
Whether you think that a lack of brain means no pain or are a little more concerned that this might not be the whole story, there are ways to kill a lobster quickly and efficiently. In fact, there are several answers to the question of how to humanely kill a lobster.
Keep them Cold, Very Cold
Lobsters live and thrive in cold water. These sea creatures are poikilotherms, meaning they cannot regulate their body temperatures. So in the winter months, they migrate to warmer, deeper offshore waters. In the summer months, when lobsters are most active, they migrate inshore and get stuck in traps searching for food. This why summertime is often considered peak lobster season.
To quiet the cantankerous crustaceans, keep them very cold, either on ice or in the fridge. A lobster held at 48° F, for example, is fairly active. Yet at 40° F its metabolism slows down and becomes considerably less active. Sluggish,inactive lobsters are easier and safer to handle.
Death may ensue when a lobster is exposed to a rapid rise in temperature, while stress is reduced to decreases in temperature. Therefore before cooking, keep lobsters in the coldest part of your refrigerator. And to sedate or even dispatch a lobster, chill it in the freezer for 10-15 minutes.
Head First into Boiling Water
This is one of the most commonly used solutions on how to dispatch a live lobster. The key to this process is to have the water to boiling point before you begin. Hold the lobster around the middle to avoid those claws and put it head first into the water. It will die quickly. Boiling water is also the best way to cook the lobster so you can leave it in there and carry on the cooking process. If your a newbie, it’s a good idea to keep the elastic bands on the claws to protect yourself.
See our guide for more tips on how to handle and store live lobsters.
Blade Right Between the Eyes
The other common way to kill a live lobster is with a very sharp knife. This method instantly kills the creature with one swift cut before cooking. As mentioned above, a stay in the freezer will put the lobster in a dormant state, making it easier and safer to handle.
- Place lobster on a flat surface or cutting board. Use a ribbed sheet pan to catch any liquid that spills out. Quickly plunge the tip of a sharp chef’s knife right below it’s eyes. You will see a cross or X.
- Cut through the head and continue cutting through the tail to split the entire lobster. Alternatively, you can simply remove the tail. Don’t worry if the legs keep moving for a little while afterwards, this is involuntary reflexes.
- Remove the small sac at the base of the head and the digestive tract running along the center of the tail. Clean out the dark coral or roe, present only in female lobsters.
- Clean out the tomalley (liver and pancreas), the light green, runny material present in the lobster head and, in some cases, on the exposed flesh of the tail.
Stun the Lobster
One of the newer ways to kill a lobster humanely is with a specially designed device called a CrustaStun. The idea is simple – it uses a strong electrical charge which electrocutes the lobster and kills it in seconds. British lawyer, Simon Buckhaven, invented the crustacean zapper in 2006. With a price tag of about $3000, it’s unlikely to make it on the shelves of Bed, Bad, and Beyond. A jolt of electricity is favored by some ethical treatment of animal groups who see it as a better option than boiling or the knife.
How to Put a Lobster To Sleep and Other Unusual Approaches
As with every dilemma, there are people who find somewhat novel approaches to the topic. One example is the idea of hypnotizing the lobster. That’s right – you stand the live lobster on its head and rub between the eyes up and down constantly. This puts it in a ‘hypnotic state’ that will leave it standing on its head without you holding it. You can then take a knife and split it down the middle without it ever waking up. Or so we have been told.
Get Lobster High on Marijuana Before Killing it
The latest approach to the question of killing a lobster humanely is a theory that marijuana somehow lessons the lobster’s pain. A Maine restaurateur thinks so. She used pot smoke in an attempt to ‘medicate’ the lobster before it hits the hot water bath and floats to death in a gentle, drug-induced haze! Can lobsters get high? For people cannabis has shown to relieve pain, but lobster are not people. The Maine state health department did not think it was a good idea to sell lobsters tainted with with marijuana and put the kibosh on the ‘lobster pot dispensary’.
The Best Way to Kill a Lobster
There is no shortage of ideas about whether lobsters feel pain or not. Lobstermen refer to them as ‘bugs’ because they are much the same as insects and we don’t worry about squashing them. The truth is it may be a long time before we really understand the nervous system of the lobster so in the meantime, if you still want to cook lobster, then use a humane and proven approach to quickly dispatch the lobster and enjoy your lobster dinner.
Nassim, Charlotte. Lessons from the Lobster: Eve Marders Work in Neuroscience. The MIT Press, 2018.
Zaveri, Mihir. “Restaurant Wants to Use Marijuana to Ease Lobsters’ Pain. Slow Your Roll, Maine Says.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Sept. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/09/21/dining/lobsters-marijuana-cooking-restaurant.html.
“Switzerland Bans Boiling Lobsters Alive.” CNN, Cable News Network, 12 Jan. 2018, edition.cnn.com/travel/article/switzerland-lobster-boiling-banned/index.html.
“Anatomy & Biology.” Lobster Institute, umaine.edu/lobsterinstitute/education/life-of-the-american-lobster/anatomy-biology/.