A Guide to Crabs, Crabmeat, and Crab Legs
Succulent and Versatile
Crabmeat is one of the most succulent and delicious of all types of flesh. In fact, it’s near the very top of my list, and I’ve spent years catching and cooking the shelled critters! I've come up with some great crab recipes, too. Many of us in the South, who live near the coast, make the cooking and eating of crabs sort of a ritual in some of our Southern food feasts. We get together often for crab boils and crab roasts whenever someone returns from the beach with a cooler full of jimmies and sooks—“crab speak” for male and female blue crabs. An immature female is called a “sally.”
Crabs are much more versatile than most people realize. They can be steamed or boiled of course, or made into crab cakes. However, they’re also great in soups, chowders, stews, casseroles, and other wonderful dishes. Soft-shell crabs can be battered and fried whole, and crabs and crab legs are amazing on the grill, too.
Crabs are high in protein and are also a good source of niacin, vitamin B12, chromium, selenium, iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium. Crabmeat is very low in saturated fat, but it’s high in cholesterol.
With all the crab varieties on the market, sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what to buy. Which variety is best? Should you buy live crabs, crab legs, crab claws, or crabmeat? Below is some information that might help!
Blue crabs are in the Atlantic Ocean, from Maine to Florida, and in the Gulf of Mexico. They’re caught with dredges, traps, and bottom trawls, and also as a by-catch on shrimp boats. These crabs are incredibly sweet—and many aficionados prefer them to any other type of crab. They’re sold live, cooked whole, frozen, and as picked meat. Blue crab claws are also available.
Soft-shell crabs are blue crabs that have molted. In order to grow larger, crabs have to shed their old shell and form a new one. During this process, the crabs are without their hard covering for only a few days, and they’re only truly soft-shells for a few hours. Soft-shell crabs are a delicacy and are eaten whole after minimal cleaning.
These delicious crabs are found in the Pacific, from Alaska to central California. They’re caught in nets, traps, pots, and on hook and line. Only adult males are kept. Dungeness crabs are very meaty. They’re sold live, as whole cooked crabs, and as picked meat.
The Jonah crab is the Atlantic’s answer to the Dungeness. They’re found off the coast of North Carolina, up to Maine, and are caught with traps, pots, hook and line, and bottom trawls. The meat is sweet and flaky, and the claws are very meaty. They’re sold in clusters, as legs only, and as claws.
King crabs are caught in Alaskan waters with trawls, traps, and nets. The average crab harvested weighs about six pounds, but they can grow much larger. King crab is sold in legs and claws. The flesh is delicate and deteriorates quickly. If you purchase it frozen, keep it frozen until ready to cook.
Snow crabs are found in the coastal waters of Alaska and Maine, and are harvested with the use of traps and pots. They have a sweet and delicate flavor. Snow crab is typically sold in leg and claw clusters, with some meat from their body attached to it.
Southern Tanner Crabs
This crab is found starting in Alaska and all the way down to Oregon. They’re caught in pots and traps, and have a sweet and very flaky meat. Tanner crabs are usually sold in leg clusters and as lump crabmeat.
Stone crabs are found in the Atlantic—from North Carolina to Florida, and in the Gulf of Mexico. Generally, only the claws are eaten. Crabbers remove one claw and return the crabs to the water, where they’ll regenerate a new claw. Stone crabs are caught in traps, and their meat is sweet and succulent.
Tips for How to Choose Crabs and Crabmeat
When buying crab legs and claws, inspect them and consider these qualities:
- Individual pieces: It's better to choose your own individual pieces instead of buying pre-packaged frozen ones. Not only will you get to inspect the crab for freshness—you can also pick the best parts.
- Size: Choose the largest legs and claws possible from the display.
- Smell: If they have an ammonia odor, don’t buy them.
- Weight: Pick up the pieces. Meaty crab legs will feel heavy for their size.
- Color: They should be a bright red color.
- Joints: The joints should be fully intact.
Refrigerated crabmeat is also available and is a great choice if you don’t want to go to the trouble of picking your meat from the shells. It’s available in lump (backfin) and claw meat, with the lump crabmeat being more expensive.
If you’re buying live crabs, make sure they’re alive and active. The shells should be brightly colored and intact, as should all the legs. The crabs should be heavy for their size.
Soft-shell crabs are available as live, fresh, and frozen. These crabs are very delicate and often die during shipment, yet are still sold as “fresh” soft-shells. They’re still good to eat as long as they don’t have an ammonia smell. If the fresh crabs come wrapped in plastic, then they were previously frozen. If you have the opportunity to buy live soft-shells, all their legs and claws should be intact, and the crabs should be very soft. “Papershells” are crabs that have already begun to re-grow their shells, and they won’t be nearly as good as true soft-shells. Soft-shell crabs are available live and fresh from May through September.
How to Store Crabs and Crabmeat
Stores purchase most crab legs in frozen form. Once they’ve thawed, they need to be eaten within two days. If you buy unfrozen crab legs, ask the clerk when they were thawed. If the legs you buy are still frozen and you plan on keeping them in your freezer, get them there as soon as possible. By wrapping the package in foil or paper, you’ll reduce the chance for freezer burn. Crab legs will keep in the freezer for up to six months. Once crab legs have thawed, don’t refreeze them.
Most refrigerated picked crabmeat is ultra-pasteurized and will keep unopened in the coldest part of the refrigerator for months. You’ll find an expiration date on the can or package. Once it’s been opened, use it within five days.
Live crabs need to be kept alive until you’re ready to cook them. It’s best to cook them immediately after purchase, but if this isn’t possible, place them in a pan of water and cover them with a wet cloth. Then place them in the coldest section of your refrigerator, where they’ll keep for up to two days. To freeze whole crabs, cook them first. When done, plunge them into ice water, dry quickly, place in freezer bags, and remove the air. They'll keep for up to six months.
Soft-shell crabs will keep up to five days after they die, but they must be kept in moist paper towels or newspapers and stored in the coldest part of your refrigerator. Keep in mind that the five-day rule includes shipping time. To freeze soft-shells, clean them first, then place them in air-tight freezer bags. They’ll keep for three months in the freezer. For cleaning instructions, watch the video below.
If you have leftover crabmeat, remove it from the shell and store it in the fridge for up to two days. The meat can also be stored in the freezer in plastic bags from which the air has been removed. The crabmeat will keep in the freezer for up to four months.
Catch Your Own Crabs!
If you live near the East Coast or the Gulf Coast, or if you’re planning to visit these areas, you can easily catch your own crabs! This is a great activity for the entire family, and you’ll love the flavor of just-from-the-water crabmeat. You’ll find articles with videos below that will teach you how to catch, kill, clean, cook, and eat the crabs.
For more information about crabs and crabbing, take a look at the following videos.
How to Clean Soft-Shell Crabs
How to Cook Whole Crabs
Learn to Catch Your Own Blue Crabs
- How to Catch Blue Crabs, with Videos
The meat of the blue crab is considered by many to be the sweetest and best tasting of all crabs. You won't get the large sections of meat that you get from the king crab or the snow crab, but the flesh...