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What's the Deal with...Soft-Shell Lobster

Rachel Tepper

You know that thing? That thing that’s everywhere, and it sounds like something you should already know about, so you don’t really want to ask? Well, we know about it, and we’ll give you the intel. Welcome to What’s the Deal with.

What's the Deal with...Soft-Shell Lobster

Photo credit: ETSA/StockFood

Two or three times a year, lobsters outgrow their shells and slink them off. It’s a vulnerable time for the crustacean—its new shell is more spacious, but hasn’t yet hardened—and excellent news for those who wish nothing more than to douse its sweet meat in butter.

Here’s why you should be among them, plus a little lesson in lobster biology:

Where They Come From: Maine, of course! OK, and all the way down to Virginia.

Defining Characteristic: "They are so sweet, it’s unbelievable," Ralph Gorham, owner of Red Hook Lobster Pound in New York City, told us.

When a lobster first molts, he explained, the new shell is larger, but the lobster hasn’t yet grown enough to fill it completely. That empty space fills with salty ocean water, and the lobsters “basically ferment in their shells,” making the meat sweeter. “It’s like good wine,” Gorham said.

When to Find Them: Rising water temperatures indicate to lobsters that it’s time to molt, so one often finds soft-shell lobsters in mid-June, late August, and late September. Warmer or colder temperatures can alter these timelines, Gorham cautioned, so be sure to coordinate with your lobster vendor and check the weather report.

How to Chow Down: You can’t eat a soft-shell Maine lobster like a soft-shell blue crab in deep-fried entirety, but often you can ditch the lobster crackers. ”When they first molt, they are so soft you can crack them with your fingers,” Gorham said.

Plus, the soft shells reduce the cooking time, from eight to 10 minutes to just five or six. (You can get your claws on them, so to speak, that much faster.) They also release heat faster once they’re out of the boiling water, so overcooking is less of a likelihood.

How to Buy Them: Red Hook Lobster Pound will likely get a shipment in any day now, but call your local lobster vendor to find out when the crustaceans arrive near you.

Why They’re Good for Your Wallet: Often soft-shell lobsters cost about a buck less per pound than hard-shell lobsters, Gorham said. He thinks that it’s because people haven’t really caught wind of them yet. 

So get cracking.