Real Food Encyclopedia | Blue Crab

Summer is crab season in the Chesapeake Bay area! The claws make for easy-picking meat — but the real prize is 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.

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Fun Facts about Blue Crab:

  • 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 male 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, 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 with 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 to pry open the shell and extract every tasty shred of good meat.

What to Look for When Buying Blue Crab

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 six to seven 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 to steam.
  • 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 four to five 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 buttery meat. Be careful when preparing your recipe to keep the big pieces of meat intact.
  • 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 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.

Sustainability of Blue Crabs

The crab population is affected by several different factors including water quality, habitat, harvest pressure and natural predation. 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 methods are not only gentle on the environment but make fine use of a rowboat, a dip net and a hot summer day.

Blue Crab Seasonality

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 and Geography

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. Crabs 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.

Like most crustaceans, the blue crab’s hard exoskeleton and many spindly legs make the creature 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 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.

Eating Blue Crab

Storing Fresh Blue Crab

Soft-shelled crabs are sold cleaned and iced. They should be kept very cold (in the refrigerator and on ice) and eaten within one to two days. Give your soft-shelled crab a good sniff before buying and cooking. It should smell of the sea 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.

Cooking with Blue Crab

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 we think that they are infinitely better 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 favorites include crab dip, crab soup, crab imperial (a steamed crab, meat removed and blended with spices and béchamel sauce, and then returned to the shell and broiled until brown) and the glorious Maryland crab cake.

Blue Crab Nutrition

Crabmeat is packed with protein, B complex vitamins and minerals and is rich in omega-3 fatty acids.