I Tried 7 Ways to Cook Lobster, and the Winner Tastes Better than Anything at a Fancy Restaurant

published Feb 10, 2024
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lobster tails cooked in 7 different ways labeled and shown on a marble surface
Credit: Photo: Ryan Liebe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

I have mixed feelings about lobster. When I worked at Mercer Kitchen in SoHo, we used to cook lobster tails in our brick pizza oven and it was fantastic. But I’ve also had so much bad lobster that it has left me wary. When I say bad, I mean tough, stringy, chewy, and fishy tasting. Lobster can be tricky, and the line between perfectly cooked and overcooked is a thin one. Plus, it’s expensive. 

To ensure that no one wastes money or time only to end up with disappointing results, we decided to find the best way to cook lobster tails. Why lobster tails? There’s no need to handle a live lobster (if that makes you nervous), the prep and cook time is minimal, and you get one big lovely piece of meat to eat. Plus, lobster tails are readily available frozen or fresh. 

We searched the internet for the most popular ways to cook lobster tails and compiled seven methods to try. And yes, the air fryer made the cut, but was it the best way? Grab a lemon wedge and some melted butter, and read on to find out which method was tops. 

Quick Overview

So, What’s the Best Way to Cook Lobster Tails?

The hands-down best way to cook lobster tails is on the grill. Cooked inside the shell, the meat stays tender and sweet (not fishy!) and takes on a slight smokiness.

Credit: Photo: Ryan Liebe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

How I Found the Best Way to Cook Lobster Tails

We already have a tried-and-true guide on four ways to cook lobster tail. But we wanted to take testing to another level for this showdown. To make sure it was a fair test, I set some important parameters.

  • The lobster: To ensure similarities between the lobsters themselves, I purchased fresh (previously frozen) lobster tails of the same size from the seafood counter at the same store. I prepared the tails as described in the methods, butterflying or leaving them whole as needed. I cooked them the same day I purchased them to enjoy them as fresh as possible.
  • The testing: I cooked two tails for each method and tasted both, as there will still be differences in the meat itself from one tail to another or slight differences in how they cook. I omitted any seasonings or spice blends called for in the recipes, opting instead for only a light sprinkle of salt. I also chose one butter sauce and used it for all the methods that called for a butter sauce. This way, there was consistent flavoring that let the focus be on the lobster itself and not the accompaniment. I cooked all the methods over two days, taking plenty of notes and photos to capture all the details of flavor and texture. I tasted the lobster hot and fresh without any additional butter or lemon.
  • Ratings: I judged each method on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing a juicy, tender piece of lobster. I considered the ease of the method in addition to both the flavor and texture of the cooked meat.
Credit: Photo: Ryan Liebe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

Lobster Cooking Method: Boiled

  • Rating: 3/10

About this method: Boiling lobster might be one of the first methods that come to mind when you think of cooking lobster or other seafood in shells. After all, they don’t call it a seafood boil for nothing. The method itself is super simple. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, season it, and then add your food. To prevent the tails from curling up, I pressed a wooden skewer from the top of the tail through the bottom. It cooked, uncovered, in the boiling water until just cooked through, about 4 to 5 minutes for the size of the tails I had.

Results: I have boiled plenty of whole lobsters, but boiling just the tail is a different thing. Because the end of the tail is open, the meat is not fully protected by shell as it cooks. The first thing I noticed was the smell. There was a strong fishy smell as the lobsters came out of the water. Checking the internal temperature, they were in the range called for, so I knew I hadn’t overcooked them. The firm meat was tough and chewy, and the fishy smell was coupled with a fishy taste. While you don’t have to deal with butterflying the shell before cooking, you do still have to loosen and wiggle the meat out when it’s done. Despite the simplicity, the overall flavor and texture gave this method the lowest rating of the group.

Credit: Photo: Ryan Liebe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

Lobster Cooking Method: Baked at 400°F

  • Rating: 4/10

About this method: To prepare the tails for baking, they need to be butterflied. You cut down the top of the shell with kitchen scissors and gently pull the shell apart. Then, you loosen the meat and pull it up before laying it on top of the shell halves. So, the meat is still attached at the very end to keep it from sliding off. This preparation was used in the majority of methods, so while a little awkward at first, it became much easier after doing it a few times. 

The meat was seasoned, topped with butter sauce, and then baked. This recipe had the same cooking time suggested as the recipe with the tails baked at 450°F, which didn’t seem quite right. I figured at least one of those recipes would not be accurate, so I kept a close eye on them while baking to avoid overcooking, but they did require the full range listed in the recipe.

Results: This was the longest cooking method of the bunch. We tested two different oven methods, and I wasn’t sure how drastic the difference would be between them, but it turned out to be significant. 

The flavor of the lobster was sweet, not fishy, but the meat was tough. It didn’t cook evenly, perhaps due to natural hot spots that any oven will have. While baking, I could see areas of the lobster that were fully cooked, while other sections were still raw. So, the lobster had to stay in the oven for a few more minutes, making some of it overcooked. 

The heat wasn’t so gentle that it was forgiving for the extended cooking time, but it wasn’t hot enough to quickly cook it through. While not a total fail, overall, there were better, more even ways to cook lobster.

Credit: Photo: Ryan Liebe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

Lobster Cooking Method: Steamed

  • Rating: 6/10

About this method: To steam the tails, you bring a small amount of water to a boil and then add butterflied tails (prepared the same as the baking method above), in a steamer insert, to the pot so the lobster is above the water line. You want the steam and heat in the pot to cook the meat, but not the water directly. The lobster is seasoned, but no butter sauce is used before cooking. Then, you cover the pot and let it go until the lobster is cooked through. 

Unlike some other methods, you can’t easily check on the lobster while it’s steaming because if you open the lid, you lose the moisture you have been creating inside the pot. The recipe recommends checking a few minutes before the suggested time to avoid overcooking, but even so, it’s not foolproof. When I checked on my tails after the recommended five minutes, they were already done, but luckily they were just done and not overcooked. 

Cooking this way also limits how many tails you can cook at once, as it depends on the size of your pot and steamer basket.

Results: The lobster is quite plain and just purely lobster, without any other flavors in the mix. This might be preferable for some people, depending on how you plan to eat the lobster. Although I got a bit of a fishy smell when I uncovered the pot, the meat itself didn’t taste fishy. It wasn’t as sweet as the lobster tails cooked with butter, but still had a pleasant, clean taste. The meat was not super tender, but it wasn’t stringy either. It was all just fine, which is why it ended up with a neutral rating.

Credit: Photo: Ryan Liebe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

Lobster Cooking Method: Baked at 450°F

  • Rating: 7/10

About this method: The preparation of the lobster in this method was identical to the ones baked at 400°F. The tails were butterflied, seasoned, and buttered before going into the oven. This method is easy and makes sense whether you cook 2 or 12 tails, which is a nice bonus. The lobster cooks quickly at this high temperature, so it’s important to keep an eye on the doneness while it bakes.

Results: The lobster was fully cooked a few minutes before the cooking range listed in the recipe and had a lovely, fresh aroma while cooking. I was pleasantly surprised that the meat was mostly tender, except for some toughness at the thin end of the tail. 

The meat was sweet but also carried some of the savory flavors from the butter sauce baking into the meat, making it really tasty. All in all, it’s a solid method and an excellent choice if cooking for a crowd.

Credit: Photo: Ryan Liebe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

Lobster Cooking Method: Butter-Poached

  • Rating: 8/10

About this method: Although still not difficult, this is the fussiest method of them all, with a few aspects needing extra care. Before poaching, you remove the lobster from the shell in one piece, which takes some cutting and careful wiggling so it doesn’t tear into pieces. (This is the only method where the shell is discarded before cooking.)

Then you make the poaching liquid, which is an emulsified butter sauce, made by slowly whisking butter, one tablespoon at a time, into a skillet with warmed water to create a liquid that is thick and smooth before adding flavor with aromatics (we skipped the truffle salt). You have to keep an eye on the temperature of the butter sauce, ideally keeping it around 180°F, so it took some adjusting the heat under the skillet and an instant-read thermometer to ensure it was at the correct temperature before adding the lobster. 

Once you add the lobster to the butter, it poaches gently, turning frequently, until cooked through. Even though it was cooking gently, the tails still cooked quickly, about 6 minutes total.

Results: If you have ever poached an egg or chicken breast, you know poaching is all about gently cooking food mostly or fully covered with liquid. This recipe was a shallow poach, as the lobster was only about halfway covered with liquid. A shallow poach is a great option for something quick-cooking, like lobster. 

As the meat cooked, it curled, so even as you turned it in the butter sauce, you had to make sure it was cooking evenly, giving the tails some time on their sides as well as the top and bottom. 

As I said, it was a little fussy. BUT! It was also super delicious and tender. Butter and lobster already go hand in hand, so layering the flavor of butter into the meat as it cooked was fantastic. The meat was soft, not snappy, bouncy, or firm, yet fully cooked. It was decadent and felt very worthy of the splurge of both lobster and butter.

Credit: Photo: Ryan Liebe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

Lobster Cooking Method: Air-Fried

  • Rating: 8/10

About this method: Just as when the lobster tails were baked in the oven, to prepare them to air fry, you butterfly them and then season and butter the meat perched on top of the shell. Then, you air fry them at 380°F until cooked through. 

The recipe didn’t specify a size on the lobster tail to correlate to the 5- to 7-minute cooking time, but my small (4- to 6-ounce) tails were done in that range. It’s easy to check on the tails as they cook in an air fryer, which was helpful as one of my tails was slightly smaller, and I removed it about one minute before the larger one, so they were both cooked perfectly. 

The recipe noted the lobster would be lightly browned, which was not the case for me, but I don’t think it matters either way as long as the meat is cooked well. 

Results: This method is super easy, and the lobster cooks quickly. And luckily, it did not make my air fryer smell like lobster after the fact. 

The meat was evenly cooked, sweet, and tender, although the very end of the tail was a little tougher, as also happened when baked in the oven. But it was only a bite or two of the entire tail, and understandable as the end is very thin. 

The butter sauce sizzled and splattered inside the air fryer, so I would not plan to cook something else after the lobster without cleaning the machine, but a quick wipe-down was well worth the excellently cooked lobster. 

The air circulation in the air fryer was really key to getting the meat cooked so quickly, allowing it to remain juicy. The only downside is that you can only cook as many tails at a time as fit into your air fryer.

Credit: Photo: Ryan Liebe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

Lobster Cooking Method: Grilled

  • Rating: 9/10

About this method: The first thing to do before grilling lobster is to prepare a grill. I have a charcoal kettle grill, so I lit my coals and prepared my grill to cook over direct medium-high heat. I let the grates heat and then cleaned them. 

For the lobsters, the preparation was unique among the methods tested. You cut down the top of the shells as if about to butterfly, but rather than loosening and pulling the meat out, it stays in the shell halves. You cut part way through the meat in order to spread the shells open and insert a skewer through each half to keep the lobster from curling during cooking. 

After seasoning and lightly oiling the meat, it cooks, meat side down, for 4 to 5 minutes. Then, it’s flipped, based with butter sauce, and cooked, covered for a few more minutes. One final flip, and it’s done. All in less than 10 minutes.

Results: This lobster was absolutely delicious, juicy, and tender. The slight char flavor that seeps into the meat transported me to a sunny, warm day and gave the meat such a depth of flavor that I made audible yummy sounds while tasting. 

I found myself searching the shell for any overlooked nuggets after getting the tail out, but came up empty. The meat cooked evenly but gently. Even though it was over a hot fire, the shell helped protect the meat from the direct flame and insulate it. 

There were two minor reasons this didn’t get a perfect rating. The first is that the meat is not loosened before cooking, so it takes some effort and messy fingers to free it from the shell. The second is that the grill adds a distinct smoky flavor to the meat (which would be more subtle on a gas grill). While I find the combination of sweet lobster and gentle smoke a perfect pairing, it does take away from the pure lobster flavor and might not be for everyone. But seriously — give it a try because the texture of the meat was superior to any other method.

Overall Key Takeaways

There are many ways to cook lobster tails, but they are not all created equal. While some methods were pretty unsuccessful, yielding tough, fishy-tasting meat, there were a few methods that resulted in evenly cooked lobster with a tender, sweet, and savory flavor. While a little more work, butter-poaching lobster is decadent and results in very soft, gently cooked meat. The air fryer is much faster, and also yields excellent lobster.

The absolute best way to cook lobster tails is on the grill. The meat was juicy and incredibly tender, and the kiss of char from the grill was the perfect complement to the buttery, sweet, rich meat.