Crabs are second only to shrimp in shellfish popularity.
Crabs are of the order Decapods and cover a large variety of different crustaceans. The crab is one of the oldest species on earth. The horseshoe crab dates back over 200 million years, and is literally a living fossil. Most people are aware of the zodiac sign of Cancer, named for the constellation that resembles the shape of a crab. Out of the 4,400 varieties of crab, most are found in North America in both salt and fresh water.
The majority of edible crabs have five pairs of legs, with the front legs being larger pinchers. Some crabs are swimmers, and have paddles on the last pair of legs. Many crabs run sideways on the sand or rocks of the seashore. Crabs eat other small crustaceans and organic matter.
He-crab, she-crab, it…does it matter?
Many recipes specify she-crabs, so you’ll need to be able to tell females from males. Luckily this is easy to do, and you won’t need a magnifying glass. Simply look at the underside of the crab. The female has a broad, triangular-shaped area in the center of the shell, whereas the male has a distinctive, elongated spire in the center.
Crab and other shellfish are good sources of chromium, which works with insulin in the metabolism of sugar helping the body to maintain normal blood glucose levels. Studies indicate chromium helps to raise the levels of HDL (or “good” cholesterol), which can reduce the risk of coronary artery disease and strokes. It is especially beneficial for diabetics.
Crab and shellfish also contain goodly amounts of selenium, a trace element of critical importance that works as an antioxidant, detoxifying potentially carcinogenic substances such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic that could lead to tumors. Studies have shown that test patients with the highest blood selenium levels have the lowest cancer rates. It also helps protect against heart and circulatory diseases. Lysate, an extract of the horseshoe crab’s blue blood is used in the fight against cancer and to detect spinal meningitis.
Your best bet is to purchase live crabs whenever possible. Crabs should be alert and brandish their pinchers when poked. Soft-shell crabs should be translucent and completely soft. Crabs should have a fresh, salt-water aroma; avoid those that smell sour or extremely fishy. Let your nose be your guide. Deal with a reputable seafood provider. Thawed, cooked crab should also be odor-free, and thawed only on the day of sale. Do not purchase or consume whole, uncooked, dead crabs. It takes 10 to 15 hard-shelled crabs to yield one and a half pounds of meat. Count on six steamed crabs per person and two soft-shell crabs per person.
Crab or crabmeat is available year-round in some form, including live, raw, frozen, cooked, and canned. Live crabs should be refrigerated and used on the day of purchase. Raw crabmeat should also be kept refrigerated and used within 24 hours. Thawed, cooked crab should be used within the same day of purchase. Vacuum-packed crab can be stored in the refrigerator up to a month and used within four days of opening. Canned crab is good for six months. To freeze crabmeat, cook the drabs and remove the meat. Pack into airtight containers and cover with a light brine (4 tablespoons of salt to 1 quart of water), leaving ½-inch headspace in the container. Frozen crab can be stored up to four months at 0 degrees Farenheit.
The Beautiful Swimmer
For many, the standard of American crab is the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus, which means “delicious beautiful swimmer”), found in coastal waters and estuaries from New England to the Gulf of Mexico. This little crab (there are three of four to the pound) is especially associated with the Chesapeake Bay, which provides more than half of the approximately 100 million pounds of blue crabs landed in the United States annually, making this by far the most valuable seafood species in Maryland and number two in Virginia.
A small but valuable percentage of the Chesapeake blue crab catch is soft shell crabs. A fair amount of the rest is shipped live to casual restaurants where diners roll up their sleeves and attack heaping platters of spicy crabs (steamed with Old Bay seasoning in the East, boiled with Zatarains in Louisiana), tossing the empty shells on paper-covered tables. Live blue crabs are also common sight in Chinatowns across the country.
White tablecloth uses for blue crab are pretty well limited to the meat and range from old classics like crab imperial and stuffing for various fish fillets to the all-time favorite, crab cakes. Each cook has a favorite form of crabmeat for each of these uses, so blue crabmeat is traditionally graded by size, shape, and color, which reflect the location in the crab’s body. Labels vary by brand, but the basic division is between the darker, stronger flavored leg and claw meat and the milder tasting white back fin meat inside the carapace. The latter is further divided into lump meat – the large muscles that power the swimming fins – and smaller pieces, called regular, special, or flake. Some brands also grade the lump meat, packing the largest pieces as jumbo, colossal, imperial, or some other designation.
Although the domestic blue crab catch remains strong, it’s not enough to keep up with today’s demand for crabmeat and crabmeat products. Fortunately for the Chesapeake processors, a cousin and near look-alike of C.sapidus is abundant across a wide swath of Southeast Asia. In 2003, the United States imported close to 30 million pounds of meat of the blue swimming crab (Portunus pelagicus) from Indonesia, Thailand, China, and the Philippines, much of it marketed in “Maryland style” crab cakes or in pasteurized cans with the labels of traditional Chesapeake producers. Label terms and grades are the same as for blue crab.
Pride of the West, and two East Coast cousins
What blue crab is to Baltimore, Dungeness crab (Cancer magister) is to San Francisco, not to mention Portland, Seattle, and much of the rest of the West Coast. Our favorite local crustacean (I confess my regional bias) and the icon of San Francisco’s Fishermen’s Wharf, Dungeness crab is found at moderate depths in cold ocean waters from central California to the Aleutians. Although it’s traditionally a winter item in much of its range, steady demand from the Asian restaurant trade has made live Dungeness crab nearly a year-round commodity in many cities. Fishing seasons vary by location, progressing gradually northward, with California and Oregon showing peak landings from December to February and southeastern Alaska the prime source in summer.
Exemplary management of the fishing industry has kept Dungeness catches strong for decades, although they still reflect natural fluctuations in the population. Only male crabs may be kept, and the minimum carapace size of six and a quarter inches ensures that those males have already been through one or two mating cycles.
A good-size creature, at one and a third to three pounds, the Dungeness crab yields about a quarter of its live weight in meat, with the large sections of brown-tinged leg and claw meat out weighing the flakier white body meat.
Like all crustaceans, a blue crab must shed its shell periodically in order to grow. As often as 20 times in the year or so it depends as an adult, a crab breaks and crawls out of its old shell, then immediately starts absorbing minerals from the seawater to harden its skin into a new, larger shell. In sprint and summer, Chesapeake Bay (and other East Coast) watermen set aside blue claw “busters”, or crabs about to molt, in special pounds and, when they molt, transfer them to fresh water, where they can survive just find but cannot get the calcium they need in order to harden. Shipped live to market in this “soft shell” stage, they require only minimal processing basically, the eyes and mouth parts cut off, the stomach and the gills pulled out to yield a while, fully edible crab suitable for sautéing or frying. Only about 5 % of the Chesapeake’s crabs are processed as soft shells, but they generate 20 % of the commercial value.
Although they also go through periodic molts, Dungeness, rock, and other walking crabs never come to market in soft shell form. Presumably, they do not feed while in the vulnerable soft stage and thus do not enter traps.
By happy accident, Florida’s main crab season coincides with the seasonal influx of tourists and winter residents. Mild-October to mid-May is the season for the states’ famous stone crab (Menippe mercenaria), the species that single-handedly (single-clawedly?) built a local crab industry and at least one famous restaurant. This crab, actually representing two closely related species that hybridize where their ranges overlap, has especially large claws and, like other crustaceans, can re-grow one that is lost to a predator (such as a crab fishermen). In the past, whole crabs were cooked, but toady the fishery is concerned only with trapping the crabs, removing a single claw from each if it meets the two-and –three-quarters-inch minimum in length, and returning the crabs alive to the water, where they will grow another claw to full size within two years. Egg bearing females must be released intact.
Cooked stone crab claws, those that make it out of the local market, are sold fresh in season and frozen the rest of the year. They are graded by size, with “mediums” running 6 – 8 months per pound and “jumbo” and “colossal” a half pound or more apiece.
Deeper, colder, and more polar waters are home to various large crabs, mostly with long, straight legs. The biggest of these, the king crabs (Paralithodes and Lithodes spp.), have traditionally supported the most valuable shellfish fishery in Alaska. But even with a males-only fishery and very restrictive seasons, the past few decades have seen several crash-and-recovery cycles in king crab populations, and in some years there has been no fishery at all in many significant areas. Alaska regulators brought back fishing licenses to reduce the overall effort in the king crab fishery, in hopes of making the industry economically viable for those who remain. In the meantime, most king crab in the North American market comes form Russian waters, where many environmentalists worry that lax regulation will bring about population problems in the future.
Alaska and Canadian crabbers also catch a couple of smaller relatives of king crab, known to biologists as tanner crabs but in the market as snow crab (Chionoecetes bairdi and C. opilio). Frozen cooked clusters (half of the body with the legs attached) of the smaller, opilio snow crab are best known as a staple of inexpensive seafood chains, but the Cracked Crab’s Lee likes to feature the larger bairdi variety during its brief fresh season in February.
A few importers are offering a range of exotic Australian crabs, including the pure white snow crab, caught at depths greater then 2,600 feet, a Tasmanian giant crab whose claws alone can run to three pounds, and the spanner crab, with its odd flattened claws.
With the larger crabs – some would say with all crabs – the simpler the presentation, the better. King crab legs are often steamed or otherwise reheated, but Doug Hatchings, executive chef of Crab & Fin (Sarasota, FL), prefers them a little cooler than room temperature, with drawn butter. The classic Florida presentation of stone crab claws is cold with a mustard sauce, though some favor simple warm melted butter. Outside Florida, they are just as likely to be served hot or their meat extracted and used in other dishes.
“As little as possible” is also the favorite refrain of chefs when it comes to crab cakes, especially when it comes to the binding agent used to hold the meat together. Hatchings gets the most mileage out of a small amount of bread crumbs by mixing them with the meat a good 15 minutes before adding anything else; this lets the crams “bloom” with liquid absorbed from the crab rather than from the other ingredients.
The discrete chunks of meat from Dungeness, peek toe, and other midsize crabs lend themselves nicely to salads and garnishes. Crab salad with avocado and citrus dressing or a crab garnish on hot or cold soup might be dismissed as a cliché if it weren’t such a good combination.
With any crab, know your supplier. If buying meat, ask whether the crabs were cooked whole and then picked or whether they were cooked in “clusters” (cleaned body halves with legs attached). Cooking in clusters is standard procedure for king and some other large crabs, but with Dungeness in particular, cluster-cooked meat can come out noticeably saltier than the meat of crabs cooked whole. Whether the meat is packed in cans or in plastic tubs is more a matter of local practice than an indicator of quality.
The crabs in our Perla Pacifica Crabmeat are hand caught in the pristine waters of the gulf of Siam and surrounding waters. These swimming crabs are brought live to the factory where they are processed to ensure the best quality and flavor.
With a little effort, your seafood suppliers can keep you in fresh crabmeat throughout the year. Still, you may watch for and feature some seasonal highlights, especially if you can offer crab in the shell.
Winter: West Coast Dungeness and Florida stone crabs in high season. Alaska bairdi snow crab briefly available mid-February.
Spring: Blue crabs emerging from their winter burrows; hard blues in season until fall. Jonah and rock crab resume as lobster fishery gears up in Maine and Canada. Golden king crab from southeastern Alaska in March-April. First soft shell blue crabs in April.
Summer: Blue crabs, hard and soft. Dungeness action (and prices) heads north; Jonah and rock crabs at peak availability. Red king crab from northwestern Alaska in early summer; Aleutian golden king in July – August.
Fall: Jonah and rock stay strong until ice slows down the lobster fishery. Stone crab opens mid-October, Bristol Bay red king crab mid-November. Central California Dungeness opens in early November, the rest of the West Coast December 1.