Why Does Some Lobster Turn Mushy When Cooked?

Mushy flesh is most common in frozen tails from warm waters.
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Adding a cooked lobster to your meal, or a handful of cooked lobster tails, is a quick and straightforward way to make any meal seem more festive. Fresh lobsters from Maine and Canada are available at a price, while frozen lobster tails are even more widely distributed and relatively budget-friendly. Unfortunately, the lobster's sweet flesh sometimes comes out of the shell with a soft, almost mushy texture. It's a natural and not uncommon phenomenon, though still disappointing at the table.

Breaking Down

Every living thing breaks down once it's dead, from the smallest of insects to the mightiest of trees. That process returns nutrients to the soil or the sea, either directly through decomposition or indirectly through scavengers. In the case of fish and animals, that process is hastened by natural enzymes that begin to digest and soften the flesh soon after death. This is an advantage with meats, and it's why beef is aged before it's butchered and sold. Those enzymes help make the meat more tender and flavorful, and more pleasurable to eat. The effect is more problematic with seafood.

The Express Lane

Some varieties of fish and shellfish, including lobsters, contain higher-than-normal levels of those protein-digesting enzymes. While they're alive, this enzyme helps convert muscle into energy. For the cook, it's purely an inconvenience. Several types of fish are prone to developing this soft texture as they cook, including tilapia, herring and tuna. However, it's more obvious with shrimp and lobster tail meat because the tails' ordinary texture is so distinctively firm. Death triggers the enzyme, and freezing slows but doesn't inactivate it, so you're most likely to experience mushy lobster with frozen tails.

Turning Tail

Whole lobsters are most often sold fresh or cooked, rather than frozen raw, so you'll seldom see this effect. It's most common with frozen tails from warm waters, especially the Caribbean. Those are usually less costly than cold-water tails from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and -- less commonly -- Canada or Maine. They can often be distinguished visually, with most warm-water tails having some yellow in their coloration. Cold-water tails tend to have dark shells of brown or olive-green when they're raw.

What To Do

If you have the misfortune to cook a mushy lobster or lobster tail, there's little you can do to improve its texture. However, its flavor should still be good. Set it aside for another meal, stirring the cooked meat into a risotto or pasta dish at the last minute or using the whole tail -- shell and all -- to make a flavorful broth. Slow cooking increases the likelihood of a mushy lobster, so don't use an elegant technique such as butter-poaching unless you're sure of the lobster's quality. Instead, confine yourself to conventional steaming, boiling or even grilling.