How to Kill, Clean, and Cook Blue Crabs (With Videos)
Blue crabs are abundant in my region, and it's a real delicacy and an important ingredient in Southern food, especially in Lowcountry recipes. My family and I love crabbing, and even the grandkids learned how to catch them at an early age. Blue crabs can be easily caught with just a little patience and a little know-how. Next time you're on the coast, maybe you'll even try catching your own! Once you catch your crabs, you'll definitely want to cook them and eat them—eating this crustacean is some of the finest dining you’ll ever do. Before cooking, however, there are some steps you need to take to make sure your crabs are safe to eat. When they are, you might enjoy reading a couple of the recipes I've included.
Many chefs around the world consider blue crabs to be the most flavorful of all crab species. I agree with this assertion. I’ve eaten Dungeness, snow, and king crab legs, but blue crabmeat is my favorite, even though it’s harder to “get to.” That’s mostly due to the fact that blue crabs are smaller than most other edible crabs. Snow and Alaskan king crabs have lots of meat in their legs, but this isn’t the case with blue crabs. With them, the meat is in the claws and in the body—not in the legs.
Blue crabs are found mostly on the western side of the Atlantic and in the entire Gulf of Mexico. The species, however, has been accidentally introduced into many other parts of the globe. Their size is measured at the carapace—the points that stick out on either side of the shell. Although these crustaceans can grow to a carapace-width of nine inches, it’s pretty rare to find one this big. When we catch seven-inch crabs, we consider them to be large.
The meat from blue crabs is delicate, and it falls apart easily. Their meat has a different texture than other species you might have eaten. The flesh isn’t as tough, but it has a slightly sweeter flavor. The meat you get from the body will be flaky. It often separates into individual muscle fibers. If you’re careful retrieving the meat from the claws, you can get larger pieces of crabmeat, which some people prefer in their blue crab recipes.
Tips for Cooking With Crab
- Get the tiny bits out: If you're using the meat in other recipes, be sure to go through it first. It’s easy to overlook tiny bits of shell and cartilage.
- Mix gently: You might want to be careful mixing the ingredients gently so that the lumps aren’t broken up.
- Easy on the seasoning: Crabmeat is mild in flavor, and it doesn’t need a lot of heavy seasonings. Use a light hand until you have some experience with making crab cakes.
Only Eat Live Crab
If you’ve visited the Eastern coast of the U.S., you might have noticed fishermen on the side of the road selling live blue crabs. The “live” is sometimes highlighted. Have you ever wondered what the big deal is? Blue crabs should be alive when you buy them. If you catch your own, make sure all your crabs are still alive at prep time. Discard any dead ones—you want to consume only live ones. Well, obviously, you don’t want to eat the critters alive, but you want them to be alive immediately before they’ve been cleaned and cooked. Once the crab dies, the flesh immediately begins to deteriorate. Actually, you might want to keep the dead ones for fish bait. Cut a crab into sections to catch some large predatory fish species.
How to Kill Crabs
Before killing the crabs, place them in the sink. Scrub the critters with a brush, especially the backs. Rinse them really well in clean running water. Crabs resist this procedure vehemently—I strongly suggest wearing a pair of heavy gloves while doing this. Before the scrubbing, many crabbers place the crustaceans in the freezer for a few minutes. This slows them down considerably and de-sensitizes them. Once your crabs are nice and clean, it’s time to kill them as quickly as possible.
There are basically three ways to kill a crab:
- Cut its "head" off. As the name suggests, you cut the “head” off, right behind the eyes
- Stick a pick in its apron. Turn the crab on its back and locate the apron. That’s the part that is somewhat triangle-shaped, coming to a sharp point. Halfway between this point and the edge of the shell where the crab’s eyes are, forcefully insert an ice pick.
- Just cut it in half. To do this, place the crab on its back. Place the blade of a sharp chef’s knife or cleaver against the crab’s abdomen, and use a quick mallet blow to the top edge of the blade. This can also be accomplished with a small hatchet.
I’ve experimented with all three methods, and I prefer to cut the crabs in half. I’ve found that this makes the crab easier to clean before cooking and easier to pick after cooking.
I prefer to kill crabs by cutting them in half. It seems to be the quickest and cleanest method.
The Piercing Method:
The Halving Method:
How to Clean Crabs
Learning how to clean crabs properly is important.
- When the crustacean is dead, remove the gills—the little rubbery-looking things just under the leg flaps that are often called "dead men's fingers."
- Now, lift the apron, and tear it off.
- Rinse the crab under cool water, making sure to remove all the mustard.
Inside blue crabs is a yellowish substance often referred to as “mustard.” This mustard often contains PCBs—dangerous toxins. If you cook the crabs whole, the PCBs can leach into the water. Even if you remove it before eating, there could still be enough in the juices to be harmful. Besides, I don’t like the idea of boiling something alive!
How to Steam Crabs to Include Them in Other Dishes
Even if you’re going to use the crabmeat in other recipes, you need to start with steamed blue crabs.
- To do that, you’ll need water that has the same salinity as ocean water. You can approximate this by adding ¾ cup of salt to every gallon of fresh water. Add crab boil or other seasoning to the pot. I like to also add some vinegar and some beer.
- Bring the water to a rolling boil, and add the crabs.
- Depending on the size of the crabs, they’ll be done in six-ten minutes.
- When cooked, the crabs will turn a bright red.
There Are a Myriad of Ways to Prepare This Sea Creature
I’ve used numerous blue crab recipes over the years. Of course, lots of folks enjoy simple steamed blue crabs with some melted butter, cocktail sauce, or a seafood seasoning mix like Old Bay. This is a wonderful way to enjoy this crustacean, but there are lots of other recipes you might like to try. Crab cakes would have to be near the top of the list with most folks, and practically every crabmeat-lover has his own ideas about what makes the best crab cakes.
Other recipes I’ve prepared include:
- corn and crab chowder,
- deviled crab,
- crab dip,
- crab spread,
- and soufflé—all with crab.
Blue crabmeat can also be used in a stuffing for fish, shrimp, and chicken breasts.
How to Prepare and Eat Crab Claws
Tips for Preparing Crab Claws
- Meat from different areas has different consistencies. The meat from the claws has a slightly different texture than body meat. It’s a tad more tough. The flesh from the claws “holds together” much better.
- Cut the claws at the joint. Once your blue crabs have been cleaned and cooked, you might want to save the claws for other recipes, like sautéed crab fingers or crab cocktails. If you are going to use the claws, you'll want to break them off at the first joint.
- Leave the point intact. To prepare these blue crab recipes, leave the point of the claw intact, and remove the rest of the shell from the claws. This piece will function as a handle for the eater to hold as they strip the meat from the rest of the claw with their teeth—at least, that’s the way we eat claws down South.
- Crack the claw; don't obliterate it. When you’re cracking the claws, be careful not to disturb the meat. You want to crack the shell—not obliterate the flesh. It might take a little practice for you to get this right, but after cracking a few claws, you’ll get the hang of it.
Fried Crab Claws
- One egg
- 1/2 cup of milk
- 1 cup flour
- ¼ cup cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoon cayenne
- Break the claws off before cooking.
- Remove the shell, leaving the longest part of the claw.
- Whisk one egg and 1/2 cup milk together in a small bowl.
- In another bowl, combine 1 cup flour, ¼ cup cornstarch, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon black pepper, and ½ teaspoon cayenne.
- Shake or roll the claws in the flour.
- Holding the crab claws by the claw shell, dip the meaty part into the egg wash, and then dredge them in the flour again.
- Fry claws in two or three inches of oil at around 365-375 degrees.
- When claws brown, remove from oil and drain on paper towels.
Get Creative With Crab Cakes
I sometimes think I could eat my weight in crab cakes! Crab cakes are pretty easy to make, yet some people are afraid their “crabbie patties” won’t turn out well. I think it’s sort of hard to mess them up, actually. A basic recipe has just a few ingredients: crabmeat, an egg, a binder, and some type of breading. Of course, most people add other ingredients to make their cakes tastier. Below are some ingredient ideas.
- Whatever else tickles your fancy
- Add only enough breading to the other ingredients to hold everything together. You want more crab than cake.
- Once you’ve combined all the ingredients, place the uncovered mixture in the fridge until it’s firm.
- Form into patties. At this point, some cooks like to dust the crab cakes with flour, while others don’t.
- Fry the crab cakes in a little butter or oil at medium heat.
- When the first side is golden brown, turn the patties over, and brown the second side.
- Serve with cocktail sauce, tartar sauce, mustard sauce, or remoulade.
Ideas for Crab Cakes
dry bread crumbs
Italian bread crumbs
soft white bread
Thousand Island dressing
commercial seafood seasoning
whole wheat bread