Ah, soft-shell crab! I vividly remember eating my first one…at a stunning brunch restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans called Stanley. I’ll never forget it…all the complex textures, and the first time I’ve never had to curse while disassembling a crab to get all the lovely bits of meat morsels inside the sharp, tough shell. Ever spent 3 hours at a blue crab feast, burning more calories to get to crab meat than you ingested in the meal itself? Leaving with little abrasions and cuts all over your fingers from fighting jagged shells and prickly claws? Then you need to be introduced to softshell crab…the single best way to eat blue crab meat.
Once a year, in the spring, blue crabs shed their shells by puffing up their bodies until their old shell splits…then the crab crawls out of the old shell, and for a few short hours, is vulnerable as its skin hardens into a new one. During this short window (typically about 4 hours at most), if the crab is caught, it can be eaten whole without the need to peel or crack the shell, because there’s not one! Crabbers today look for the signs of a crab about to shed, and they call these puffed-up crabs “busters.” When they catch a buster, they place it in a separate tank that is closely watched by another crabber. As soon as the crab busts, it is pulled from the tank and immediately frozen or placed into 33F water to slow the hardening of the new shell…otherwise, within 4 hours, the crab becomes a normal hard-shelled crab again! During this spring “busting” season, supply trucks drive past the crabber’s huts every 2 hours to gather the softshells and get them to restaurants as quickly as possible!
The origins of soft-shell crab as a food date back to the European “discovery” of the New World, where the Native Americans along the Gulf of Mexico had been eating softshell crab for centuries, and taught the Europeans how to recognize a blue crab about to burst out of its shell. All documentation of the eating of soft shell crab around the world dates back to this, so you can thank the Native Americans for introducing the world to this amazing food.
Unless you happen to live right on the Gulf coast, you’re probably not going to encounter live soft-shell crab at your market. I live in Dallas and I’ve never seen them here live, though I’ve seen them for sale pre-frozen and thawed at Central Market, one of our most upscale and pricey seafood markets. DO NOT…under ANY circumstances…buy non-frozen soft shells unless they are alive! These crabs degrade very rapidly once they die, so you must either buy them frozen or live. NO EXCEPTIONS! Frozen soft shells can be found year-round in both Asian (averaging $3 each) and pricey gourmet supermarkets ($6-$10 each), and can be cooked with fabulous results, so don’t be afraid of buying them frozen. When you buy them frozen, you know that they were frozen the instant they busted out of their shells! When you get them live, you may end up with a tough one because they’ve already started hardening their new shell.
Your goal will be to thaw them, brine them, and cook them as quickly as possible, so this isn’t an item you put in the fridge to thaw. If they come wrapped in plastic, keep the plastic on while they thaw…otherwise, if you attempt to remove the plastic but some pieces get left behind in frozen crevices, you may end up eating it. Place all the frozen crabs in a big bowl or bucket, and add cold water to cover. Change the water every 10 minutes or so until the crabs are fully thawed. Then unwrap them from their plastic. Now it’s time to make a brine. The ratio of the brine is 1 cup buttermilk to 1 Tablespoon kosher salt. You can adapt this ratio to make as much or as little brine as you need. I typically make 1 quart of brine for about 20 crabs:
1 quart buttermilk
1/4 cup kosher salt
Whisk the brine until the salt is dissolved, then pour the brine over the thawed crabs. They should all be mostly covered by the brine. If not, make more! The crabs will float, but they are delicate so you don’t want to weigh them down with anything.
Place the bowl in the fridge and brine the crabs for 1 hour. Jiggle the bowl every 15 minutes to ensure the brine is in contact with all parts of the crabs.
I prefer to oven-fry my crabs, because they all get done at the same time, and I can serve a crowd this way. You can, of course, just pan fry them a couple at a time until crisp, keeping the fried crabs warm in a 200F oven while you continue frying the rest. But this keeps you right at the pan to watch them, whereas oven frying gives you time to work on other things. So here’s how to oven fry them:
Just before the hour of brining is up, place a large baking sheet on the center rack of the oven and preheat the oven to 475F. If you’re making more than 8-10 crabs, you’ll need 2 sheets, and if they won’t fit side by side in the oven, you’ll need to bake them on separate racks with at least one full rack of space between them. I use 2 commercial-sized 3/4 sheet pans from the restaurant supply store, and they’ll easily hold 12-14 crabs per sheet. Place the sheet pans in the oven to preheat.
When the hour of brining is up, drain the majority of the brine off the crabs. Then, one by one, remove the crabs from the bowl to clean them. Cleaning is easy…you do it with kitchen shears. First, cut off the crab’s face (eyes and the little claws just under the mouth):
If the crab is fresh, you may also need to clean out the little sand bag located just behind the mouth. You’ll find it easily if it’s full. If you don’t find a little pocket of sand behind the mouth, proceed to the next step.
Gently lift up one side of the crab’s top shell and you’ll find the gills, which look like opaque corrugated fingers. Cut them off with the knife, and repeat on the other side of the crab:
Then turn the crab over and lift up the pointed “apron” and snip it off. (Just FYI, the wide aprons are female crabs, and the small, narrow aprons are males.)
Once the crab is cleaned, place it somewhere away from the bowl of yet-uncleaned crabs so you don’t mix them. It takes about 15 seconds to clean a softshell once you get the hang of it. Continue until they are all cleaned, then immediately proceed to the next step. You can bread them however you like…I prefer the simplicity of seasoned cornmeal. This makes enough to bread more than 20 crabs:
2 cups cornmeal
2 Tablespoons Creole seasoning (more or less, depending on taste. I like Tony Cachere’s, or make your own blend, but be sure to include salt)
Taste a pinch of the breading to see if it’s flavored to your liking. Then gently place the crab into the breading, heap breading on top, and gently dredge it to get it fully coated. Place it on a clean, dry surface (preferably a cooling rack so the bottom breading doesn’t get soggy) while you bread the rest of the crabs.
When they are ready to cook, bring them close to the oven. Remove the preheated pan from the oven and add a few Tablespoons of oil. (I use canola.) The pan may warp a bit when you do this…don’t worry, it will straighten itself out momentarily. Tilt the pan back and forth so that the oil covers the entire surface. Gently place the crabs upside down (top shell in contact with the pan, soft tummy facing up) onto the hot pan, then get it back into the oven. Bake the crabs for 8 minutes. If you’re using 2 pans, swap the position of the pans after 4 minutes.
Remove the pan, gently flip the crabs over with a spatula so that their top shell is now facing up. Return them to the oven for another 4 minutes. If you’re using 2 pans, remove the top pan after 4 minutes, then move the bottom pan to the upper rack and bake an additional 2 minutes to crisp it up.
DON’T overbake your crabs in an attempt to make them crispier! The longer you bake (or pan-fry) them, the more ammonia will develop in the shells and leave your crabs tasting like floor cleaner. Overcooked (or decomposing) shellfish produce pungent ammonia that is very off-putting.
Remove the crabs from the oven and immediately transfer them to a cooling rack set over a baking sheet. If you’re serving them immediately, you can transfer them directly to the serving plate. Otherwise, they can be kept warm in a 200F oven for 15 or 20 minutes before serving, or they can be fully cooled (not refrigerated) and then later reheated in a 350F oven for about 10 minutes before serving.