How to Kill a Lobster Without Feeling Bad About It

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. 

Killing Lobster

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.

Basics of Lobster Anatomy

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.

At LobsterAnywhere we aim to keep our Maine lobsters extra cool in transit so they reach their journey in great shape. See how we pack live lobsters so they arrive super fresh.

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

How to Kill Lobster

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 is not people. The Maine state health department did not think it was a good idea to sell lobsters tainted 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.

Comments

  1. Crayfish, which are closely related to lobsters, are very temperature sensitive. This has been shown in a thermal gradient, where they will compete for their preferred temperature.

  2. This is a little confusing. The lesson about how to dispatch the lobster with a knife then has you taking the entire lobster apart right away, while it’s still raw. But if you’re getting ready to cook it, why not just plunge the knife through the head to kill, then put the whole thing in the boiling pot to cook? That’s what I did — no food poisoning. I followed the rest of the steps to take it apart *after* I cooked it.

    1. That’s a good question about dispatching lobsters before cooking. The steps can sure be changed,but boiling and steaming are not the only methods of cooking lobster. Poaching or grilling or even baked stuffed lobster will call for different steps. It’s also important to note that the claw and tails can cook at different times due to the thickness of the shell.

    2. A knife exclusively in the head will do nothing but inflict more pain. Remember lobsters do not have a brain in the head and so this method would not dispatch the animal quickly.

      1. This is up to some debate. Lobsters do have a decentralized nervous system, but the largest “main” ganglion is in the head behind the eyes. The thrust of the knife will will immobile the largest ganglia in the lobster and make it easier to handle. Do lobsters feel pain is a “hot” topic. Lobster do respond to stimulus and its environment, but it doubtful they experience human feeling or thought. Whether lobsters’ nervous systems are complex enough that they can feel pain is inconclusive. Lobster’s nervous system is closely related to insects, not mammals. We think boiling and steaming are the quickest way to shut down the ganglia all at once in less than a minute or two. In the final analysis we are killing the crustacean to eat it; and in doing so we always want to do it as humanely as possible.

  3. I remember back in 1977, my husband and I purchased a live lobster. We chose the boiling water method to dispatch the lobster. We put it into the boiling water, immediately attempting to put the lid on. The lobster was upside down, and with a flip of it’s tail, knocked the lid off. My husband screamed like a woman. We were so traumatized, we couldn’t eat the lobster. I’ve never eaten lobster since then.

    1. Yes, thanks for the Wikipedia article link of whether lobster’s experience pain. There are plenty of articles and points on both sides. At the onset of the article it states it is a matter of scientific debate. What’s important is how you can minimize any potential for pain. We are biased as we are a lobster company, and shellfish is food and a livelihood of many New England families.

      1. I rub the head shell for about 1 minute and the lobster gets hypnotized and spreads wide the claws. Then I plunge into boiling water. It seems to be the humane way as I was told by a French chef. At least I feel better about it.

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