Crabs are one of those foods that hold a special place in my life. They remind me of family and my childhood. Tonight I will share some tips for preparing and cooking whole crabs with you.
I grew up on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Not long after I could walk my parents placed a crab net in my hands. That’s a photo of me and Brenda, my sister, after my successful day of crabbing. As soon as Brenda was old enough, she also became a skilled crabber.
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To catch the crabs, we would wade out into the water and walk alongside the numerous jetties near our home. The jetties are comprised of large boulders that formed a line about 6-feet wide that began at the beach and extended into the water about 50 ft. I would try and was often successful at chasing the crabs away from the rocks and catching them in my net. These were blue crabs, and they are fast and difficult to catch. After I would chase them out from the rocks with the back end of my crab net pole, most would attempt to escape to deeper water. Others would attack me and try to bite my toes through my flip-flops. Fifty years ago, I could catch enough for my immediate family to eat and would sell the leftovers for $1 per dozen.
There are many refined recipes for crab meat, including crab cakes. For me, crabs are a food that reminds me of family gatherings that included multiple generations. Simple steamed crabs, often purchased by the bushel basket (I didn’t catch that many on my best day!), were eaten on a large table with newspapers serving as tablecloths. The fun for me is picking the crabs and spending two hours or more to eat them while talking with family or friends.
If you want to prepare crabs the way my family does, what should you do? The first step is to buy the crabs. We would never buy a crab that wasn’t alive at the time of purchase ( I make an exception for Alaskan King Crab legs that are frozen). I currently live in Minneapolis, and I can buy live blue crabs and Dungeness crabs from Asian grocery stores. The Dungeness crabs are kept in live tanks and the blue crabs are in baskets in the open air; they don’t live but a few hours out of water so you need to buy them on the day they arrive if you want live ones.
After the crabs are brought home, they should be washed and scrubbed with a toothbrush dedicated to that chore. I run them under cold tap water and brush the shell to remove anything that is loose. I use tongs to pick up the crabs, and I recommend you grab it by its body. If a crab escapes in your house and you have it partially trapped under your shoe and you don't have tongs handy, you can pick it up with your hand by grasping the rear most tail fin where it meets the body on either side (but not the middle of the back of the body). The crab’s claws can’t reach back there, at least for blue crabs or Dungeness crabs. (see the pick below)
They do escape. Sometimes the blue crabs, which are feisty, will grab each other’s legs with their claws and form a long string, like that plastic monkeys in that kid’s game “barrel of monkeys”, when you try to transfer one crab to the sink or a pot. The problem arises when a few let go suddenly and they get loose on the kitchen floor. Inevitably, one will try to crawl under the refrigerator or the stove. I haven’t had any problems with Dungeness crabs because they are bigger and slower, and I am usually only cooking one or two at a time.
Recipe for Steamed Blue Crabs
Find a pot with a lid that is large enough to hold all of the crabs you intend to cook.
You should have rack that fits into the bottom of the pot to keep the crabs' bodies out of the liquid you'll place in bottom. The crabs are not boiled but steamed. If they sit in the liquid, the crabs fill up with it and the meat becomes soggy.
The liquid, for each dozen crabs, should be one 8 once beer (I drink a few sips before pouring it into the pot) and an equal amount of white vinegar. I use a Miller beer in a bottle and let it go a bit flat before applying the heat.
Old Bay Seasoning is the essential seasoning for authentic, Maryland steamed blue crabs. Place the crabs in the pot and sprinkle a generous amount on the shells of each crab.
The crabs should cook for about 20 minutes, or until the shells of the crabs become a bright red color.
After the crabs are steamed, they need to be “picked.” A family dinner of crabs could fill an entire evening. We would eat as we picked, and would also collect a pile of crabmeat for crab cakes for preparation on another evening. If really young children are picking crabs, they need to be supervised by an adult to make sure they are not throwing away any meat with the shells.
Removing Crab Meat from the Shell
Below are the basic steps for "picking" a crab. My photos show a Dungeness crab, but the same method works for a blue crab.
1. Place the crab on a table on top of newspaper.
2. Turn the crab upside down. You will see the apron, a triangle shaped structure on the bottom of the body (males and females have different shapes). Place the blade of a butter knife under its edge to separate it from the body. Once you have a piece big enough to grab with your finger, remove it.
3. Once the apron is removed, you should remove each of the legs and the claws. Save them; the claw meat is delicious, and on a large crab like a Dungeness, the legs contain a significant quantity of crab meat.
Next, you will see a small opening between the bottom of the body and the top of the shell. Slip your finger into that hole and use it as a wedge to separate the top of the shell from the bottom part of its body. That is, the entire top of the shell will come off in one piece. The top of the shell will often contain "mustard" or "butter". Some people discard it. Others find it tasty and use a spoon to scoop it out of the shell. It is also a nice ingredient for crab cakes if you intend to pick the crabmeat and save it for another recipe.
Next, remove the "dead mens." On the internet they are called dead men's fingers, and that's grosser than what my mother told us, which was simply dead mens. They are called other names, but they are the lungs, and they are inedible. They are on both sides of the body, and in the photo below, you can see all 5 of them on one side. You can simply remove them with your fingers or scrape them off with a knife. You should also remove the loose shell material on the right side of the photo (the front of the crab).
You now have a crab body ready to pick. Pick it up and place the part of your palm near your thumbs on the place where the dead men's and break the body in half with your hand. That will reveal the back fin crab meat. There are lots of small cavities for you to find this prized treasure. A small sharp tool is useful for getting into some of the small places, and you will likely have to break the body in half again to find all of the meat.
The claws and legs are also full of meat. Before cracking the shells for these appendages, separate all of the pieces at each joint. This will remove a fin from the middle of each segment, and sometimes the meat will stick to that fin making it easier to complete your work.
The Dungeness crab in the photo yielded about 9 ounces of crab meat (without the mustard and weighed using the kitchen scale my daughter gave me for father's day this year). I paid $16 for the live crab. I checked my local grocery store, and a half pound of crab meat was $12.50. I don't know what kind of crabs were used in the grocery store crab meat, or where it came from, but the price is comparable.
After everyone is done, you want to roll up the newspaper and remove it and any shells from the house. You only make a mistake once of leaving day-old crab shells in your garbage can in the kitchen. It's not a pleasant smell.
Stir-Fried Dungeness Crab Recipe
I went to college in Seattle, and tried my luck at catching crabs there. I also had great success, and I want to share another recipe with you, one for “Stir fried Dungeness crab with black beans.”
Steps for making great stir-fried Dungeness Crab with black beans
Gather the ingredients:
5 stalks of green onions
4 slices of ginger
2 big cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/3 can of Temple fermented black beans
(I normally prefer “fresh” to canned products, but for black beans I find the canned product to be much better. Local Asian stores have fermented black beans in bags, but I haven’t had success in making tasty food with them. The ones I have found smell skanky and even after soaking them, they don’t impart the same flavor as the canned ones by Temple. I buy mine in the Philippines, but they are sold on the internet by stores in the US.)
1. wash the crab
2. cut it into four pieces:
Use the Chinese cleaver to achieve this goal. Make the first cut into two pieces, as shown in the photo below. The second step is to cut each half in half again. These next cuts are made perpendicular to the first one. Leave the legs attached. This is a humane method for preparing the crab for cooking, if that is a concern.
3. use a hammer to make a small crack in the claws. These crack allow seasoning
to enter the meat, and also make it easier for a person to eat it at the table.
4. heat a wok on medium high with some peanut oil in it
5. add the garlic and shortly afterward the ginger
6. next throw in the black beans followed by the onions
7. pour the soy sauce into the wok
8. it’s now time to place the crab in the wok
9. turn the heat to medium, cover, and cook for 3 minutes
10. use a spoon to baste the crab with the soy, black bean, onion, mixture
11. cook for another minute or two more and its ready to eat (remember to remove
Some readers may not feel comfortable "picking crabs." I'm afraid there might be a critical period for learning and enjoying the kind of preparation ive described here. I once invited 4 female classmates to my apartment while in college in Seattle to show them how to cook and pick a crab. Two of them, from the Midwest, looked at me while I was demonstrating this as if I was from another planet. Neither one sampled the crab after it was prepared. If that’s the case and you still want to eat crab, you can always buy some Alaskan King Crab legs from the grocery store and warm them up for a crab feast. That’s what my wife and I did last New Years. That approach is a little classier for toasting champagne.