This is the time of year when a hard-shelled blue crab becomes a soft-shelled one. Found especially off the gulf coast of Mexico, from Louisiana, and from the colder waters of Chesapeake Bay, these crabs are harvested and kept in tanks, monitored for the moment when they molt their hard winter shells. As the hard shell breaks off -- the term often used is that the crabs have "busted" from their shells -- the crab is left with a paper thin, vulnerable exterior, more like a skin than a shell. This is when the crabs are removed from their tanks and air lifted to fish markets where they're sold (usually) live. The season usually lasts from May to July.
Soft-shelled crabs have a rich flavor and thus one per person can make a perfect first course served on a handful of mesclun or a small stack of wilted spinach, or as the centerpiece of a luxurious sandwich (use a tender brioche roll or thick slices of lightly toasted country bread). If the main course, serve two or three crabs per person, depending on the size of the crabs, along with a side that has some texture and bright flavor, such as cole slaw or vinegary French potato salad.
From Elizabeth Bjornskov's The Complete Book of American Fish and Shellfish Cookery (1984, Alfred A. Knopf):
"To clean soft-shell crabs: You may place crabs in the freezer for a few minutes to numb them, then stick a sharp blade into the body behind the eyes. Remove the apron from the lower underside. Life and fold back the tapering points on either side of the back and remove the gray gills. Cut off the head, in back of the eyes, with scissors, then squeeze the body, in back of the head, to pop out the sand sac. Everything else about a soft-shell crab is good to eat, including the small legs and fins. Rinse them well under cold water and pat them dry."
Or do as I do and have your fish monger clean them.
If you buy from a better fish monger, like Dorian's Seafood on Manhattan's Upper East Side, you can be sure the crabs are fresh and they will clean and prep the crabs so that they're ready to cook.
The simplest, and I think the best way to cook a soft-shelled crab is to dust each in seasoned flour (seasoned with salt, pepper and perhaps some Old Bay Seasoning or a pinch of cayenne), shake off the excess flour, and sauté the crabs, top side down first, in about 3 tablespoons olive oil and melted butter over a medium-high heat for about 3 to 4 minutes per side until the crabs turn a deep orange color. Serve immediately.
An alternative to this method is to dip them in a simple egg batter and deep fry in hot (375º F) oil for three to four minutes until golden brown.
Adapted from a recipe by Elizabeth Bjornskov's The Complete Book of American Fish and Shellfish Cookery.
8 medium soft-shelled crabs that have been fully cleaned and prepped for cooking
3 large eggs, beaten
1/4 cup whole milk
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup flour
1 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs) or a store-bought seafood breadcrumb mixture
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
Canola or peanut oil for deep frying
- In a shallow dish, combine the flour with 1 teaspoon salt, freshly ground black pepper and Old Bay seasoning.
- In a second shallow dish combine the beaten eggs, milk and 1 teaspoon salt.
- In a third dish put the panko or breadcrumb mixture.
- Set up a production line that lets you first dip each crab in the seasoned flour, then the egg mixture and finally the panko.
- Place each crab on a sheet pan or platter and refrigerate for 30 minutes for the coating to set.
- Heat the oil in a deep sauté pan or pot to 375º F.
- Deep fry the crabs for 3 to 4 minutes, or until golden brown. Be careful to not overcrowd the pan of hot oil as it will cause the oil's temperature to drop and thus interfere with the cooking. If you need to, cook the crabs in batches, bringing the oil's temperature back to 375º F before adding new crabs to fry.
- Transfer the cooked crabs to a paper towel-lined platter and hold in a warm (200º F) oven until all the crabs are cooked and you're ready to serve.
- Serve immediately.
Deep fried or sautéed soft-shelled crabs don't need lots of added flavor but their rich taste is nicely complimented by tartar sauce (make your own or buy a good one, please) and slices of fresh lemon. Or make your own remoulade sauce or a lemon mayonnaise, adding a few capers for accent.
If you wanted a more traditional New Orleans approach to soft-shelled crabs, we've added a link to a recipe for Fried Soft Shell Crabs With Creole Choron Sauce that uses a buttermilk and corn meal batter.