Have you ever been intimidated shopping for crab at the grocery store, or cooking it at home? It happens to me all the time. Which is why I decided enough is enough, and gave myself a tutorial on the types of crab I’m likely to find (turns out there’s a wide variety), and how to cook them. Why? Because crab is delicious.
I can trace my love of crab to three specific incidents. First, I remember as a young boy sitting at a restaurant, Don’s Fishmarket & Tavern (which is long gone) with my parents, sister, and grandmother. At the time, I wasn’t that into seafood, so I wasn’t thrilled to be there. The good news is that they actually had a pretty nice burger, and great tempura-battered shrimp. Anyway, I don’t much remember what I ordered, but I do remember what my grandmother ordered: soft-shell crabs. I’d never heard of ‘em, never seen ‘em, and never tasted ‘em.
I came to find out that soft-shell crabs were kind of rare—at least in Illinois—and typically had to be in season for them to appear on a restaurant’s menu. My grandma seemed to be pretty happy that soft shells were in season on this particular occasion. As the meal progressed, it became evident that while my grandmother loved her meal, she was not going to finish. Because I was a growing boy who ate a lot, and she came from a family that may have founded the clean plate club, she asked me if I wanted to finish off the last of her meal. I looked around, shrugged, and said, “Okay. So, I eat everything? Legs, claws, and all?” My mom replied, “Yeah, it’s all soft, and you can eat everything.” I took a piece, popped it in my mouth, and thought, “Now this is seafood I can get behind!”
Crushing on Crustaceans
Second, on my first trip to Washington, D.C., my parents, sister, and I went out to dinner. Since we were in the Mid-Atlantic region of the country, I decided that I should try something somewhat local. Of course, being out of my comfort zone, we settled on crab cakes. Hey, don’t give me too much –they were recommended as a house specialty. I wasn’t too excited. After all, I was used to the seasoned bread pucks with seafood essence served at your run-of-the-mill chain joints in the midwest. When the cakes came to the table, my folks dug in and raved, “You gotta try these.” Reluctantly, I speared a section with my fork and took a bite. It was like nothing I had ever had before. I could actually taste, see, and feel the whole lump crab. I’ve since found cakes in Chicago that can actually compete, but this was when I first discovered how great lump crab could be.
Finally, I was in Baltimore with my folks and sister, and, one night, we went to The Oceanaire Seafood Room, a higher-end seafood chain that we didn’t have in Chicago. Our server, while going over the specials, concluded by saying that the Alaskan king crab in house on that particular evening was fresh, never frozen. He also made sure we knew this was the same crab featured on the show, “Deadliest Catch.” Intrigued, my dad decided to order some for us to try. When it came, we were presented with several gloriously large legs, some tiny forks, and some tools to help with the cracking. We were given a tutorial on how to extract the most meat, and left with some drawn butter. When placing the drawn butter on the table, the server said, “Here’s some drawn butter. Though, because these legs have never been frozen, you might find the meat, itself, to be so buttery that you won’t need it.” He was right, and it was the best seafood I had ever had. It’s why when given the choice between king crab legs or lobster, I go king crab all the way.
By and large, I’ve learned I’m not going to encounter fresh (read: live) crab in my grocery store. If you do, or have a “seafood guy,” more power to you! What this means is that I’m looking at picked, pre-cooked, and preserved options for all crab varieties. That’s okay! After all, I don’t want to mess around with bad, raw seafood. As a matter of fact, if the crab you encounter at the grocery store is not either alive (moves when you touch it, alive), or picked, pre-cooked, and preserved, don’t mess with it. Raw and lethargic? Leave it alone. Raw and dead? Don’t do it! Also, if it looks or smells funky, pass on that piece and go for another one. Now that we have that out of the way, onto the crab!
Scientific name: Callinectes sapidus
Also known as: Chesapeake blue crab
Harvest season: April to December
Blue crab is native to the mid-Atlantic, and Gulf regions of the United States. It’s a significant source of food and/or commerce for the eastern shore of Maryland, as well as in Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, and New Jersey. When you are eating out and you hear the term “jumbo lump crab meat” you’re likely getting full pieces of blue crab. You can cook these by themselves, or, they’re great in crab cakes, soups (a traditional use for the small female specimens), or even a crab Oscar preparation. For an old-style dish, try this Crab Imperial recipe.
Scientific name: Callinectes sapidus
Also known as: Softies
Harvest season: May to September
Notice anything peculiar here? Check out the scientific name. It’s the same as the blue crab, above. That’s because soft-shell crabs are just blue crabs in their molted state. That means their old shells have shed, and their new shells haven’t formed and hardened yet! What sets these babies apart in the kitchen is you prepare the whole thing for consumption. They’re great battered and fried. Try this Fried Soft Shell Crab recipe.
Scientific name: Menippe mercenaria
Also known as: Florida stone crab
Harvest season: Mid-October to mid-May
The stone crab is native to a part of the Atlantic Ocean spreading from the northeast region of the United States, all the way down to Central America. It can also be found in parts of the Gulf of Mexico, and salt water marsh areas of the southeastern United States (most notably South Carolina and Georgia). Much of the stone crab that’s consumed in the United States comes from the Gulf. Interestingly, stone crabs are consumed for their claws because there’s not much to the rest of them. The claws, though, can be quite large and meaty. Moreover, because of this, fisheries look to declaw the crabs (either singular or dual removal) and return them to the ocean. Some crabs even grow their claws back. The best way to enjoy some cooked claws is with a mustard sauce made famous by Joe’s Stone Crab.
Scientific name: Metacarcinus magister
Also known as: Cancer magister
Harvest season: December to July (predominantly late fall through winter)
The Dungeness crab makes its home off the west coast of North America, primarily from Alaska to California (and sometimes Mexico). If you’re not on the east coast, and you’re looking for a tender, sweet option, steamed Dungeness crabs are a great bet. It also works well for bisques. Try this Dungeness Crab Bisque recipe.
Scientific name: Chionoecetes opilio
Harvest season: April to November
Snow crabs are harvested from (duh) cold waters in the northern Pacific and Atlantic. So, a lot of the snow crab we enjoy today comes from Canada. A lot of folks like to eat the legs steamed, boiled, or baked, with a little drawn butter. Other folks like to fry snow crab legs. But if you’re up for something a little bit more adventurous, check out this Crab Fries with Garlic Aioli recipe.
Scientific name: Paralithodes camtschaticus
Also known as: Red king crab
Harvest season: October to January
The granddaddy of them all! When you want decadent, rich, buttery, tender, sweet seafood for a special occasion, you can’t go wrong with king crab. They come from Alaska and Russia, and fishing for them is known to be particularly dangerous work. They’re also one of the largest species of edible crab, with shells sometimes spanning 11 inches (and a leg span of 6 feet)! For my money, pound for pound (and king crabs can weigh up to 10 pounds each), I’d go with Alaskan red king crab legs over lobster tail any day. For simply steamed legs, try this King Crab Leg recipe.
After this exploration, I feel a lot more comfortable navigating the seafood counter at my local grocery store, and think I could actually give crab a shot. Hopefully, if you like crab, you feel the same.
Related Video: How to Make the Best-Ever Crab Cakes
Header image courtesy by Chowhound.