How to select, clean, cook and eat a soft shell crab

I grew up in Maryland and spent my youthful summers at my Grandparents house on Tilghman Island, MD. Much of my day was filled with fishing and crabbing. From a young age I learned early how to properly prepare some of the bays finest of offerings, including the soft shell crabs or as we call them soft crabs.

Hard crabs molt and slough the hard shell off. The process  is called shedding. For a very short period of time the crabs have a soft exoskeleton and for those precious few days we have a soft crab.

Big Soft Crab

This is the biggest soft crab I have ever seen, purchased from Vince's Crab House in Middle River, MD!

Unless you are lucky enough to catch a “doubler” and then wait for the female to shed or wade through the shallow marshes of the bay scooping gingerly for the recently shed softies, you will have to resort to buying from your favorite seafood shop. When selecting your soft crab it’s best if they are still alive. You can get them frozen but to me it is just not the same. The best way to select your crab is to touch it. When you gently press on the shell of the crab it should not buckle or feel like paper. If it does it is going to be tough to eat. The large pincher claws should not be able to move although the smaller legs may be able to move the ends. Late spring is when the fresh soft crabs start to arrive in Maryland and continue until late in the season.

When I heard Vince’s Crab House had a monster like this one I had to have it!! It is true that many feel the smaller ones are more tender but I believe that it is all in how you cook them and how newly shed they are.

Now that I have my soft crabs at home I want to show you how to clean them. Of course, you could just ask the friendly staff  to clean them for you at no additional charge. The process is relatively easy but a little messy, so put some paper under your cutting board to do them over the container they came in.  The first step is to cut back about 1/2” from the face of the crab with kitchen shears. Be sure that you removed the entire mouth. Next turn crab over and cut off the apron. Turn back over with shell facing up and fold back the points. You want to remove the lungs or as Marylander’s call them the “devils” or “devils fingers”. That is it; you are done cleaning your soft crab.

Dredging Mix for a Soft Crab

Time to cook them. I remove excess moisture by patting with a clean paper towel.
Next I dredge in a mix of flour, cornmeal and Maryland’s own Old Bay Seasoning. You don’t need to mix up a lot and only want a light coating. For 3 crabs I would use about 1/3 cup flour, ¼ cup cornmeal and 1 ½ t Old Bay. Using a heavy skillet melt about 2 – 3 T butter. Do not use oil. Do not use margarine. Please for all that my Grandmother taught me, use butter!

 

 

 

 

Dredged Soft CrabYour dredged crabs should have a very light coating of mix.

 

 

 

 

 

Cooking Soft Shell CrabOver a medium low heat cook crabs with shell side down. The butter should be bubbling but not burning.

 

 

 

 

 

Cooking Soft CrabIn about 4 minutes flip crab to bottom side. Add more butter if needed. Cook until 145 ° in the center of crab.

 

 

 

 

 

Soft Crab Pan Sauce

Now, this is where I have taken a turn from tradition. After many many years of eating soft crabs on a sandwich or as is I had an idea. After removing the crab(s) I looked in the pan and just couldn’t waste the little crunchy bits and small amounts of mustard that came out during cooking. So I deglazed the pan with a good bit of white wine added a squeeze of lemon juice and one finely diced garlic clove. I turned up the heat a bit and when sauce was reduced I added a small pat of butter and cooked just until melted. Remove from heat.

I serve the sauce on the side as a dipping sauce for the crab.

 

 

 

 

 

Fried Soft Crab

The best part of all is eating the soft crab. I suppose there are many ways to approach a soft crab. I like to turn mine over and pick the legs off one by one. Then I cut the body in half going from front to back and then in half again in the other direction. Others like to cut in half and eat the body first while holding onto the little legs. Have you gotten the picture this is really not a knife and fork kind of meal? I suppose you could, but where I come from crabs are picked up with your hands and eaten. Soft or hard.

 

 

FOOD SAFETY:

  • If you have soft crabs cleaned at store or clean in advance please store your crabs at 41 degrees or below.
  • Please be sure to properly wash hands after handling the raw soft crab.
  • Clean and sanitize your work surface to prevent transferring bacteria to ready to eat food.
  • Immediately cool any leftovers then refrigerate quickly.  Never leave food at room temperature for more than 2 hours.

I hope you enjoyed learning how to select, clean, cook and eat a soft shell crab. As always if you have any questions please visit us on our facebook page.

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