What’s the Difference Between Hard Shell and Soft Shell Lobster?

Cooked Maine Lobster

For some, coming to terms with the differences between hard shell vs. soft shell lobster is one of the first steps in understanding the Maine lobster experience. It may be the difference is a matter of taste, versus a matter of value. One is easier to crack open and the other has a better texture. Either-or, it’s a shell game.

Lobsters are an amazing creature—they taste good and are good for you—rich in Omega 3 and each one provides over 20 grams of protein. Perhaps more amazing is a Maine lobster’s lifespan—up to a hundred years—during which time they continue to grow. In fact, they never stop growing. If they lose an appendage they can regenerate a leg, claw, or antenna anytime. But to allow their bodies to grow, once a year an adult lobster must shed its old shell, its exoskeleton, and molt to form a new exoskeleton.

When Do Lobsters Molt? 

Molting is triggered by hormones and takes place in the safety of a lobster’s burrow. Once it wiggles out of its old exoskeleton, the lobster begins to absorb water and swells to reach its new size. As the new exoskeleton is formed, it needs time to harden. Until that occurs, the lobster is not that mobile and will remain in hiding for a week to ten days. The old shell, high in calcium, is a food source that helps to strengthen the lobster’s new shell.

Shell Season 

The hardness of a lobster’s shell depends on the time of year. Throughout the springtime and into the early part of the summer, lobsters are encased in the shells hardened over the course of the winter. Come July, the soft shell season in Maine commences as adult lobsters begin to molt and wiggle out of their older hard shells and begin to ease into their new shells. The soft shell lobster season runs between midsummer into the late fall and accounts for approximately 80% to 85% of the annual haul, when the demand is greater.

With so much of the annual catch during the soft shell season, the hard shell vs. soft shell lobster debate would seem to be heavily weighted in the latter’s favor. Is it because they really are that much better tasting than hard shell lobsters? And how does it affect you, the difference, in cost and yield, that is, the amount of meat. Let’s take a closer look.

Hard Shell vs Soft Shell Lobster: Is There Really a Difference? 

After molting, a lobster’s newly formed shell is much larger than its body to allow room for growth in the coming year. Its bodyweight has also decreased in order to shed its exoskeleton. With all that room to grow, don’t be surprised by the small amount of meat inside when cracking open a soft shell lobster. In comparison, a hard shell lobster of the same size will be firmly packed with meat.

To add to the confusion, though more meat is packed in hard shell lobsters, they are not necessarily heavier than similar sized newly shelled lobsters. Even though it would seem that a 2-pound hard shell would be smaller in size than a 2-pound soft shell that is not the case. Because lobsters are generally weighed and priced when they are pulled from the tank, the water retained within the soft shell can compensate for the added weight at the time of sale. That water weight drains when cooked and shucked.

To be sure, hard shell lobsters and soft shell lobsters are eaten the same way and both are delicious. To get the same amount of meat from a soft shell as you would from a hard shell order a half-pound bigger. Taste differences are subtle. Hard shells are more firm with a dense texture. Because of the extra water content, the extra water marinates the meat of the soft shells when cooking, making it more tender.   

Which Travels Best? 

If you are considering shipping, hard shell lobsters are the way to go. Once removed from their environment soft shell lobsters don’t survive that long and therefore, don’t ship as well as the hard shell lobsters. This is due to their newly formed exoskeleton. Soft shell lobsters are not as physically strong as hard shell lobsters and their thin shells make them more vulnerable to injury and death. Learn more about shipping methods and best practices, or feel free to contact us— we would be happy to answer any of your questions.