Wading in the warm waters of the eel-grass shallows is a great way to spend a summer afternoon and catch a nice, juicy crab for dinner.
But, if you don’t live near the beach, you can still enjoy their delectable taste by picking some up at your local fish market, or even ordering them online.
In North America, the most popular of these decapod crustaceans for eating on the West Coast are the Dungeness, known for its succulent meat and meaty yield, the snow crab with its sweet, briny flavor, and the Alaska King Crab with its silky texture and sweet leg meat.
On the East Coast, the richly flavored blue crab is most often found on menus, and a soft shell version is available in spring and summer.
If you do harvest your own, please remember to identify them first and return females for the sake of conservation. In Canada, it’s illegal to be in possession of female Dungeness or Red Rock crustaceans, and in the US, it’s illegal to keep any type of sponge crabs (i.e. egg-bearing females).
So, let’s have a look at how to select these delicious crustaceans and clean them, and a few ways to cook them up for your gustatory delight.
How to Buy Crabs
If you have the good fortune of living in a coastal community, find out where the local fisherman’s wharf is and head there for the freshest catch. Whenever possible, buy from local waters when in season.
Failing that, look for a fish market or online vendor with a high turnover of their local stock.
Any crustaceans, lobster, or shellfish marketed as live are highly perishable, and once they’ve left their seabed home, they stop eating. And the longer they hang around without eating, the less meat will be found in their shells.
Buy crabs in season, and from local waters if possible. A trans-continental journey means more time from catch to plate, and your selection will likely be a bit less robust and less meaty.
Plus, purchases made at the source will cost less than those coming from thousands of miles away. That being said, we can definitely vouch for the Crab Place (www.crabplace.com) as having very prompt shipping. They offer a great fresh selection, if you should need to purchase from an online source.
Look for active critters that are moving about, and stay away from those that appear to be sluggish. A general guideline is that the meat of a crab is approximately ¼ of its total weight. Held in the hand, it should have a nice heft to indicate that the shell is full of juicy meat, rather than a lightweight one that’s mostly shell.
Also check the hygienic environment of the holding tank – you don’t want anything from a tank with murky water or that has algae on the walls, and look to ensure the tank has an aerator for maintaining adequate oxygen levels as well.
Select a female if possible, as they’re likely to be meatier and may even contain roe, for those who enjoy this delicacy. Not all markets allow the sale of females, so ask your fish monger for the best selection possible.
How to Humanely Euthanize
Crabs should be kept alive until just before cooking, to keep the meat as fresh as possible, and free from any toxins contained within the greenish tomalley that’s located in their digestive organ.
When a crab dies, its stomach quickly begins to release bacteria that was used in the digestive process, and that bacteria helps to begin the decomposition process. As the bacteria enters the meat, it can cause it to become toxic in a short time.
And we don’t want to consume toxic meat of any kind. So, it’s important that live crab stay that way until just before cooking.
Immersing a live crab in boiling water with its stomach intact is okay, as the boiling water will kill the bacteria before it can do any harm. However, if you don’t like the idea of cooking a critter live, you can “do it in” in the following manner.
Before cooking, stun your catch by plunging it into ice water for several minutes. Then flip it on its back before driving the tip of a sharp, narrow knife or ice pick into its “head” – about an inch below the mouth parts and in line with the center of its stomach flap.
This will dispatch it immediately. It can then be cooked as is, or cleaned as outlined in the following section.
Half backing a crab involves cleaving it in half, then removing the guts and gills before cooking. It can then be boiled, grilled or steamed in less time than a whole one, and some claim that the taste is superior, as the meat is cooked without the flavorings of the stomach contents. Here are the steps to half back:
- Flip the crab on its back and quickly kill it (see above for an explanation of how to do this), then cleave it in half, from between its eyes to the middle of its backside.
- Scoop out the guts and gills, then flush well with a hose or kitchen sprayer.
- Cook as per recipe directions, reducing the time by a couple of minutes.
How to Cook Crabs
To boil, you’ll need a large pot, salt or sea salt, a set of sturdy tongs, and any seasonings you’d like to add. They can be boiled whole and live, or half backed.
- Add 1/2 cup salt per gallon of water, using enough water to completely cover all the crustaceans in the pot.
- Add a can of beer or a cup of white wine as well as any seasonings you like to add flavor. Try bay leaves, garlic, parsley, tarragon, pepper and salt – or a commercial product like Old Bay or Mrs. Dash will work well too.
- With tongs, grab the crab at the center back of the carapace.
- Submerge the whole crab, ensuring it’s covered with water. Bring to a boil again and cook 17-20 minutes.
- When done, remove from pot and cool in cold water or an ice bath in the sink, to prevent the meat from sticking to the legs.
- To clean, lift the top shell by pulling up from the back. Under running water, remove the spongy stomach and gills, pulling away the thin, crisp membrane. Rinse well, then crack the body in half. Continue rinsing until clean, then crack the legs away or leave in halves.
Steaming helps to retain the tasty juices and prevents them from becoming overly saturated with water.
As with boiling, they can be steamed whole but should be dispatched first, or half backed before steaming. You’ll need a pot that has a steamer attachment.
- In a large steamer pot, bring 2-3 inches of salted water to a boil.
- If you plan to use the broth, replace one cup of water with a cup of beer or white wine, two cloves of garlic, a couple of sprigs of parsley, a bay leaf, and a couple of sprigs of tarragon, thyme or savory.
- Place your seafood in a steamer basket or insert and cook for 10-20 minutes, depending on their size.
- Remove from the steamer with tongs, and cool in an ice bath before handling.
Crabs should be cleaned before going on the grill.
A quick par-boil or steam to cook them halfway will make the cleaning easier, or you can use the half backing method outlined above.
- Par-boil or steam for 5 minutes, allow them to cool, then clean as outlined in Step 6 of How to Boil a Crab (above).
- Brush both halves with grilling oil, then place them on the grill. A nice grilling oil to use for cooking these crustaceans is olive oil, with some minced garlic and chopped rosemary or thyme added.
- Cook on a medium hot grill (400°F) until cooked through and browned, about 4 minutes per side.
As with grilled crabs, to bake them they should first be par-boiled or steamed, or cleaned by half backing.
- Brush them with some flavored or herb-infused melted butter, such as butter with garlic, minced ginger and shallots.
- Lay the halves or quarters in a large roasting pan in a single layer and cook in a hot oven (450°F or even 500°F) until they’re cooked through, browned and sizzling, approximately 10 minutes.
- Start to remove the meat by breaking them in halves or quarters. Most commercially available species can be broken by hand, but for tougher shells you may need to use a cleaver or heavy kitchen knife.
- Pull the legs away from the body with a twist and pull. For larger species, use a nut cracker to help separate them at the joints.
- Starting with the sweet meat of the claws, separate the legs at the knuckles with a twist and pull, or use kitchen shears, and crack the pincers and harder leg joints legs with a nut or lobster cracker. For the smaller, softer legs, twist the shells apart by hand or use kitchen shears to cut the length of the segment.
- Use a small and narrow seafood fork or a bamboo skewer to remove the meat from the cracked claws. Once the large pincer is cleaned, use it to pick out meat from the rest of the legs and body.
- Crack the shell with a light hand to prevent embedding shell shards in the meat and mangling it. If you’ve split the leg shell cleanly, you’ll be able to pull out a solid piece of tender, sweet meat as a reward.
Certain varieties, such as the blue and stoney types, won’t have much meat in their bodies to bother with, but larger ones can have a fair amount.
In general, the body meat isn’t as tender or sweet as the claw and leg meat, but it’s still worth getting – especially since it’s fairly easy to remove. Use a small seafood fork, pick, or pincer to tease the meat out from the different body sections.
If you’d like to indulge in this tasty treat without having to do any of the leg work yourself, check out some of these popular festivals:
- The Dungeness Crab and Seafood Festival is held in Port Angeles, WA each October.
- The Texas Crab Festival has been ongoing for 30 years now and is held in Crystal Beach, TX each May.
- There’s also a Blue Crab Festival held in Little River, SC every May.
- The Chesapeake Crab and Beer Festival has two dates and two venues – it’s held in June at the inner harbor in Baltimore, MD and in August at the waterfront in National Harbor, MD.
- A bit further north in Nova Scotia, the Louisbourg Crabfest is held at the end of July, while in Newfoundland & Labrador, the Hant’s Harbour Festival is at the end of August.
For some great crab recipe ideas, Foodal recommends Fresh Thompson’s Crazy for Crab: Everything You Need to Know to Enjoy Fabulous Crab at Home
Now that you’ve learned the basics of how to select, clean and cook fresh crab, test out your new skills with a couple of recipes, such as Western Crab Cakes With Lemon Aioli and Crab and Mango Stuffed Avocado Halves.
And if you have your own favorite crab dish, drop us a line and share it with us – we’d love to hear from you.
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.