Summer is here and that means one thing to this Baltimore girl—crab season. Like many local families, ours spent countless afternoons elbow to elbow at picnic tables lined with newspaper, hammering shells and digging with knives, picks and fingers for nuggets of sweet, fatty blue crab meat. I always thought my dad’s offer of the easy-picking claws was generous. It wasn’t until I grew old enough to wield my own crab knife that I understood the real prize was in the sweet, pearly white backfin meat that is only accessible through a series of cracking, cleaning and slurping maneuvers that mark a true Chesapeake native.
The technique, once mastered, takes on an easy muscle memory that leaves plenty of mental bandwidth for the conversation of good friends. Add a balmy summer breeze and enough cold beer to relieve the sting of the pungent spices of the crab pot and you have your own summer memory in the making.
The latin name for the blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, means "savory beautiful swimmer." The crab may swim beautifully, but pretty it is not. Like most crustaceans, its hard exoskeleton and many spindly legs make blue crabs look more like bugs than dinner. Yet, despite their appearance, crabs were a valued food source for Native Americans and early colonists. In fact, evidence of crab dinners dates back to Pre-historic times.
Commercial crab fisheries have dotted the Atlantic coast for the past one hundred years, and have been a part of the Gulf’s seafood industry for the past fifty. Up until 1950, the Chesapeake Bay accounted for the lion’s share of available blue crab, about 75 percent, but that figure has since declined to about 50 percent of the domestic blue crab catch.
The blue crabs’ tendency to spoil quickly ensured its status as a local delicacy until the advent of refrigeration and the availability of large quantities of ice allowed for some regional shipping. Even today, the blue crabs’ fragile nature limits the distribution of live blue crabs, ensuring that the traditional steamed crab feast remains a largely local affair.
Factual Nibbles—Dining do’s and don’ts
- Crabs that have recently molted and left their hard shell to grow a new one are called “soft-shelled” crabs. The molting happens most often in the spring making soft-shelled crabs a seasonal menu favorite. That’s the time that eaters can enjoy the cleaned, often pan-fried crustacean, shell and all for a very limited time.
- Male crabs are meatier and are the preferred crab for steaming. You can tell a blue crab by its “apron,” the underbelly shell of the crab, which is narrow compared to the female’s.
- Female crabs are fattier and are preferred for soup. However, in an effort to support population growth, it is often illegal or at least discouraged to take female crabs in many fisheries. You can identify a female crab by its broad apron and “painted nails,” as their red-tipped claws are called.
- There are two ways to crack crabs—with a wooden crab mallet or a knife. Mallets are cute on the table and make a satisfying “whack” when you mash your crab, but using one often crushes the claws and shell leaving the meat full of shrapnel. The seasoned crab eater uses just a crab or butter knife to quickly and cleanly break through claws with a swift wrap of the heal of their hand and then use the blade, Edward Scissor Hands like, to pry open the shell and extract every tasty shred of good meat.
Blue crabs are found in brackish coastal lagoons and estuaries from Nova Scotia, through the Gulf of Mexico, and as far south as Uruguay. However, the cold waters and unique ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay provide the optimal conditions and boast the most abundant populations and biggest crabs. They are scavengers, feeding on almost anything they can get hold of, including mussels, snails, fish, plants, and even carrion and smaller blue crabs.
Unlike the bivalves that often share their waters, crabs are not farmed or seeded to expand their populations. Rather, they are encouraged to proliferate by protecting their environment and setting limits on the size, stage and sex of captured crabs, the season during which they can be fished and the equipment that can be employed to harvest them. Although each state manages its own regulations, it is widely illegal to take crabs in the “berry” or “sponge” stage, when they are laden with eggs or baby crabs. Such crabs must be returned to the water unharmed.
The crab population is affected by a number of different factors including water quality, habitat, harvest pressure and natural predation that can easily be thrown out of balance. Organizations such as The Chesapeake Bay Program carefully monitor crab populations to inform regulations and commercial and recreational crabbing quotas to ensure the sustainability of the fishery.
Crabbing, whether commercial or recreational, is mostly done using very low impact methods. Seafood Watch rates blue crabs caught with a trotline a “best choice.” Although crab traps catch few fish, they do sometimes trap Diamondback Terrapins. Because of this, blue crabs caught using a crab trap or crab pot receive the lesser but still acceptable designation of a “good alternative” when choosing your next seafood meal.
A portion of the commercial crab supply in the south comes as by-catch from shrimping. However, trawling methods push sand into the crab body leading to an inferior product so are not widely employed.
Many recreational crabbers rely on nothing more than a long piece of string and a bit of bait tied to the end of it to attract and net individual crabs. Manual crab traps that only close when they are lifted out of the water limit by-catch as well. Both of these methods are not only gentle on the environment but make fine use of a rowboat, a dip net and a hot summer day.
Blue crabs are caught year-round from all five Gulf states, with peak harvest times in the warm summer and fall months. Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab season ranges from early spring to late fall.
Blue crabs harvested for the table range in size, measuring from tip to tip of the shell, from 3 1/2” for soft-shell crabs. Meaty steamers usually come in at just over 6” across but can span up to 9.” Blue crabs have bright blue claws and olive green shells that, like shrimp and lobsters, turn bright orange when cooked.
Crabmeat is packed with protein, B vitamins, and minerals and is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.
What to look for
Blue crabs are generally sold by the dozen or the bushel. The number of crabs in a bushel will depend on their size but should be about 6-7 dozen. (Pro-tip: when buying crabs by the bushel, make sure that the bushel has been packed well. The crabs should have their claws folded under them and they should be snuggly layered into the balsa wood bushel crate with the lid tightly latched. A “light” bushel of ill-packed crabs will have fewer crabs in the container and the extra space will allow them room to fight—which they will certainly do. You’ll be paying top dollar for fewer crabs than you would get in a nice heavy bushel and the wrestling will leave you with a lot of detached claws.)
Crabs are sold in the following classifications:
- Number ones —The largest, meatiest males, and the ones you want for steaming.
- Number twos —smaller crabs, maybe a mix of female and male crabs if state regulations allow for the harvest of females. These are a less expensive option if you are looking for more of a bargain, but the picking will be long and tedious.
- Number threes —Very small crabs. Mostly females.
You want to buy at least 4-5 crabs per person. Six is a safer bet (you can always pick the meat, refrigerate it and enjoy it tomorrow).
Not up for picking? You can buy fresh crabmeat in-season and pasteurized canned or frozen crab meat out of season. Crabmeat is a delicacy and you can expect to pay quite dearly for it, particularly the increasingly rare freshly steamed, hand-picked meat. But you don’t need much. You want to factor about 1/3 to 1/4 pound of crabmeat per person. Then enjoy it all kinds of crab recipes such as cakes, dip and soup.
When shopping for crabmeat, beware that imported species are often sold as “Blue Crab” meat but are a different species. Imported crabmeat is not sustainably produced and is labeled by Seafood Watch as a product to avoid.
Always look for domestic crabmeat. It comes in several distinctions:
- Jumbo Lump — the queen of crabmeat. Use this in recipes, such as crab cakes, that are going to show off the big, pearly nuggets of butter meat. Be careful when preparing your recipe to keep the big pieces of meat in tact.
- Back fin — this is great crabmeat harvested from the back part of the shell where it joins the last fin claws. Large hunks of sweet meat are fantastic in all of your recipes.
- Claw meat — this is your finely textured meat that has been gleaned from the claws. Not quite as sweet as the lump and backfin, it’s still very tasty. Use it in soups and dips where big hunks of meat aren’t necessary.
Soft-shelled crabs are sold cleaned and iced. They should be kept very cold (in the refrigerator and on ice) and eaten within 1-2 days. Give your soft-shelled crab a good sniff before buying and cooking. It should smell of the sea—and not a low tide—and nothing else.
Hard-shelled crabs should always be purchased live. If you’re in doubt, give the crab a poke (with a utensil, not your finger—crabs are notoriously snippy and live ones will react to the slightest provocation). If it’s not spry, pass it by. Live crabs can be kept on ice (but never in water) or in a bushel basket covered with damp burlap for a short time but plan to prepare and eat them the same day they are caught.
Freshly picked, cooked crabmeat can be covered and refrigerated for several days or frozen for several months.
Crabs can be prepared in a number of different ways.
Soft-shelled crabs are cleaned to remove their lungs and eyes then are typically battered and fried. For a classic treat, try a fried soft-shelled crab sandwich on white toast with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise or tartar sauce. Sushi restaurants often serve fried soft-shelled crabs in the popular “Dragon Roll.”
Hard-shelled crabs are boiled in the south. But are infinitely better, in my opinion, steamed in the traditional Maryland way. This method seals in their flavor rather than giving it up to the cooking water and coats the crabs with a spicy seasoning blend that adds to the lip-licking enjoyment of a crab feast.
Crab meat is a delicacy and can be prepared in endless ways. Some of my favorites include crab dip, crab soup, crab imperial (a steamed crab, meat removed and blended with spices and bechamel sauce, and then returned to the shell and broiled until brown) and the glorious Maryland crab cake.
Note: The recipe below for steamed crabs involves crab wrangling, stunning/paralyzing and steaming. Not up for this level of production? Get your hands on some tasty crab meat and whip up a batch of cakes.
Old School Maryland Steamed Crabs
Everyone who steams their own crabs has their own recipe. We all vary the spices we use. Some are die hard Old Bay Seasoning users. Others, like my late dad, are purists and forego any commercial seasoning for in favor of custom blends. Some rely strictly on vinegar and water to make the best steam, others have to throw some beer in the pot for good measure.
You’ll come up with your own combination. But the one thing you must have is a crab pot. That’s a nice big pot with a false bottom that will hold the crabs up over the steam. Some turkey fryers make good crab pots. Or you can fashion your own out of any huge pot with a lid and a rack, like a grill rack, that you can use to elevate the crabs from the boiling liquid in the bottom of the pot.
The only difficult thing about steaming crabs is getting the critters in the pot. Live crabs are the only ones you want to cook and live crabs are feisty crabs. You are best to work in teams of at least two and at best three “crab handlers” to get the job done. One to quickly lift and replace the lid of the crab bushel before they all crawl out and run for it—it happens. One person to quickly snatch a crab out and stun it. And maybe one extra helping hand to fold the crab’s legs under its body and pack it into the steamer. You should all wear gloves. Crabs are tasty but they’re mean.
You will need:
One crab pot with a lid
One false bottom
Enough newspaper to cover your table plus an extra 3-4 sheets
Wooden crab mallets or butter knives
At least a dozen crabs
Seasonings of your choice (I use mustard seed, celery seed, Old Bay Seasoning and salt and pepper). You can vary the amounts as you like. I think 1 cup of mustard seed, celery seed and Old Bay and 1⁄4 cup of salt and pepper per bushel is a good start.
White distilled vinegar
Prepare your pot
Fit your pot with its false bottom. Add equal parts of vinegar and water to come half way up to the level of your false bottom. Have your spices ready.
Prepare your crabs
Quickly remove a crab from the bushel or cooler by grabbing the back of its shell between the two swimmer fins. Be ware of the pincers! Replace the lid quickly. Using an ice pick or thin screwdriver, stun the crab by quickly piercing it through the apron (the soft bottom shell of the crab). Fold the legs under the body of the crab and nestle it into the curve of the pot. Continue with additional crabs until you have a solid layer in the pot.
Add the seasoning
Now sprinkle on the seasonings. A good shake of each to coat the layer of crabs will do—you don’t need to be exact. The seasoning will flavor the steaming liquid and you’ll get a little taste of it on your lips as you pick and suck the crabs but the majority will stay on the shell so don’t be afraid to be a little free with it.
Layer your pot
Continue to add layers of crabs and seasonings until all your crabs are in the pot. Place a few sheets of newspaper on the top layer and gently push the edges down around the crabs to seal. Put the lid on the pot.
Steam them up!
Place the pot over a high flame and bring the steaming liquid to a boil. Reduce heat just enough so that there is a strong, steady flow of steam but you aren’t boiling the vinegar and water up through the crabs. Steam for 20-30 minutes until all of the crabs turn red. Remove the lid and newspaper cap. Use the tongs to remove the crabs to your newspaper covered table. Allow to cool long enough to handle. Then dig in (with a pitcher of ice cold beer at the ready.)