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Has Your Lobster Gone Bad? (How to Tell)

Spoiled lobster is anything but safe to eat. When in doubt, watch out for the unmissable signs of spoilage.

Lobster spoils faster than most people can say “crustacean,” which is why this saltwater creature is usually sold live, frozen, or thawed from frozen.

Spoiled lobster is nothing to joke about, even if you pride yourself on having a stomach made of steel. The disease-causing bacteria in spoiled lobster meat can make you sick and even kill you.

In other words, you should play it safe when it comes to eating lobster meat. Fortunately, it isn’t hard to tell if a lobster has spoiled. All you need to do is apply common sense and use your uses; they are there to protect you.

A gray and discolored shell, yellow and slimy flesh, and an off odor of ammonia are all signs that a lobster is spoiled and no longer safe to eat. When in doubt, follow rule number one of food safety and throw it out.

Should Lobster Smell Fishy?

Lobster, raw or cooked, should never smell fishy. If the lobster on your countertop or dining table smells fishy, throw it away. It could be spoiled, and you have no way of knowing if you won’t get food poisoning from eating it.

Raw lobster, whether whole or cut up into pieces, should smell of seawater. If raw lobster smells of ammonia or fish, this should be seen as a warning sign; the only right thing to do with it is to discard it.

Cooked lobster, American author Harold McGee writes in the second edition of his book On Food and Cooking, should smell nutty and almost like popcorn. Here again, off odors and surface stickiness are signs of bacterial deterioration.

Is Lobster Supposed to Smell Like Sewage?

Lobster dilemmas, as it turns out, don’t end with fishy smells.

One Quora user wonders why the lobster they bought at the market smelled like sewage when they steamed it.

Fishmonger Chuck Anderson responds to the question by saying that the lobster has probably come in contact with sewage water at some point in its life, and that it is best not to eat it.

Anderson recommends going back to the market and asking for a refund. The seller, he adds, should contact their supplier and ask them to check how the lobster was contaminated in the first place, so that such a thing doesn’t happen ever again.

How to Buy Fresh Lobster

The best lobsters are sold live, wrapped in fresh seaweed or damp newspaper, at fish markets and specialized retailers. They should be kept alive and stored in the bottom drawer of the fridge—where it’s coldest—and cooked the same day.

Not surprisingly, live lobsters are also the most expensive. So home cooks, especially those on a budget or not close to the sea, opt for the cheaper option, frozen lobster meat. Frozen lobster meat is sold raw or cooked, and should be used up just as quickly.

When buying live lobster, pick out a lively one from a clean tank. Take a good look at it, and ask the fishmonger if you can give it a sniff. Move on if the lobster seems slouchy and tired or if you detect any off odors.

You want to select a lobster that’s heavy for its size and has a crisp and firm shell. A light lobster is one that has recently shed its shell. This is telling you that it lacks brown meat and, in effect, richness of flavor.

When buying frozen lobster tails, look closely at the meat. It should be pearl white and firm—and not yellow and with a consistency resembling cottage cheese.

The tails should have a brown, red, or orange color, depending on the variety, but never appear dull and gray, a sign that the lobster was dead at the time of freezing or mishandled after.

How Long Does Raw Frozen Lobster Last?

Many are surprised to learn that home freezers are not as cold as commercial freezers. And if you open your freezer frequently, it also has a hard time keeping cold, making temperature control even more challenging.

This is the main reason why you can expect the quality of the frozen lobster in your home freezer to degrade much faster than that of lobsters in a commercial freezer. It’s also why you shouldn’t leave the lobster there for too long.

Exactly how long is too long, you may be wondering?

This is a good question, and an important one to ask. Good lobsters, after all, don’t come cheap. So if and when you buy some, you want to make sure you cook them when they’re still in their prime.

Now, it would be so easy to tell you “frozen lobster stays good for this long,” then move on. But, as with many other food storage questions, the exact answer is a little more philosophical: it depends. So let’s talk about the general rule instead.

As a rule of thumb, you should use up frozen lobster within a few weeks of freezing. (The sooner, the better.)

How Long Does Cooked Lobster Last?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cooked meat, including lobster, stays good for 3 to 4 days in the fridge.

Throw cooked lobster away if you stored it for longer than that, even if it smells and tastes fine. The bacteria that cause food poisoning don’t alter the texture, smell, or taste of our food like spoilage bacteria do. So lobster meat can seem harmless and still cause foodborne illness.

Commercially frozen, cooked lobster has an indefinite shelf life. But, as we already established, home freezers don’t hold temperatures as cold as their commercial counterparts do. So frozen cooked lobster should be used up within a few weeks.

In Conclusion

When buying, cooking, serving, and eating lobster, look for the tell-tale signs of spoilage: discoloration of the shell and flesh, ammonia and fishy odors, and a sticky, slimy texture that makes you think, “yuck, I probably shouldn’t eat this!”

Know your author

Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.