Whether you choose to buy whole live crab or flash-frozen crab legs, cooking this shellfish is incredibly easy. If you know how to cook lobster, you know how to cook crab. Start by selecting the best crab you can find then, decide which cooking or heating method you prefer. Serve the meat as is with nothing more than drawn butter on the side or use the meat in your favorite recipes.
Know Your Crab
Before you head to the fish market, it's worth spending a little time understanding what kinds of crab are available, regardless of where you live (like lobster, live crabs can be ordered from a number of seafood vendors and shipped to your door).
Blue crab. Blue crabs are harvested on the East Coast all the way down to Florida, but are most plentiful in the mid-Atlantic. You can buy them live and whole or you can also find them cooked and blast frozen before being packaged for sale or whole.
Soft-shell crab. Soft-shell crab are most often blue crab that have just molted. When their hard shell has outgrown, the soft shell begins to harden within a matter of days. After that, the shells continue to harden gradually, making them more difficult to eat than soft-shell crab. Always buy soft-shell crab live and cook them the same day.
Snow Crab. These large crabs are known for their sweet flavor and snow-white meat. Found off the shores of Alaska, snow crabs are usually chosen for the size of their legs and are easy to crack and eat, making them the favorite choice of many.
Alaskan King crab. Like snow crab, Alaskan King crab are sought after for the size of their legs and the sweetness of their meat. Depending upon what parts of the Alaskan waters are being harvested, you might see red, blue or golden king crab. Is there a taste difference based on the color crab you choose? Probably nothing significant, though you may naturally find one sweeter than another.
Dungeness crab. Native to the West Coast, Dungeness crab is a fairly large crab, most often sold whole, both live and cooked. The majority of the harvest is distributed on the West Coast, but some Dungeness crab is blast frozen and shipped to other part of the country for sale in restaurants and supermarkets. Dungeness crab season peaks in early winter, but you can begin looking for it as early as October.
Live crab. If you're buying live, whole crab, it's best to purchase it from your local fishmonger. Look for crabs that are lively and active, but be careful when you pick them up: unlike lobster, crab claws generally aren't secured with rubber bands.
Bring your live crab home immediately and keep it cool and moist. The ideal temperature for storing live crab is around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Too much cooler and you risk freezing the crab to death. Better, store them in an open cooler with a few inches of ice at the bottom.
Keep a close watch on the ice to make sure it's not melting too quickly. Live crab stored in water will deplete the water's oxygen content and the crab will die. If any crabs die before you cook them, discard immediately.
The amount of meat you get from a live crab can range from 15% to 25% of its uncooked weight, so plan accordingly based on the number of guests you'll be serving. Figure 8 oz of crab meat per person. To get 16 oz of crab meat for two people, you'll want to buy anywhere from five pounds to eight pounds of crab, depending on its anticipated yield.
Frozen and pre-cooked crab. If you're buying frozen crab legs, be sure the packages you choose are well above the frost line in the market's freezer. You want packages that are free of ice crystals and afford you a good look at the product.
Pre-cooked crab is sold as either lump crab (also called jumbo or backfin crab) or as flaked crab (smaller pieces of crab meat). Always pick through the precooked crabmeat by hand before using it in a recipe because most often you will find pieces of cartilage and shell mixed in with the crabmeat.
There are two times to clean crab: before you kill it or after. Most people choose the latter. To prepare your crab for cleaning, bring a pan of water to a rolling boil, then thrust the crab into the water for 30 seconds. Remove the crab and place it in a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking process.
When the crab is cool enough to handle, use kitchen shears to snip the crab ¼ inch behind the eyes, and discard the head. Then, flip the crab belly side up and snip off its apron (the flat plate that protects its underbody). Pull the top shell back from both sides of the crab and remove the gills, which will feel spongy to the touch. Rinse the entrails, which are yellow in color, and your crab is cleaned and ready to cook.
The most popular ways to cook crab are steaming, boiling and pan frying and each method is suitable whether you started with live crab or frozen. If using frozen crab, you may want to thaw the meat first. Most fisheries recommend you thaw frozen crab for a full day in the refrigerator.
Steaming crab. Fill a large pot with about two inches of water, then fit with a steaming rack or strainer. Place one to two crabs on the rack and cover the pot tightly with its lid or aluminum foil. Steam on high heat for 20 minutes or until the crab has turned red. Steaming keeps water out of the crab, so there's no need to drain before eating.
Frozen crab legs can also be steamed. They need no special preparation or cleaning and are quick and easy. Simply bring two inches of water to a boil in the bottom of a large pot. Steam the crab legs in the pot (covered) for at least ten minutes (longer if the legs are exceptionally big) or until the meat is warmed through. Drain the water. Serve the crab legs immediately, while piping hot. Serve them with melted butter and lemon wedges on the side.
Boiling crab. Often referred to as crab boil, begin by bringing a pot of water to a rolling boil. Add an equal amount of beer or add one part distilled to three parts water. Next, toss in some chopped onions, celery and carrots along with a packet of crab boil spices (generally, these consist of salt, pickling spices, mustard seed, bay leaves, peppercorns and other spices). Finally, add the crab and boil until cooked through.
Small crab (under a pound) is typically done between eight and ten minutes. If you're cooking between one and 1½ pounds of crab, boil for 15 minutes. For 1½ pounds to three pounds, 20 minutes, for three pounds or more, 30 minutes.
When the crab is cooked through, drain the water and serve immediately with melted butter and lemon wedges on the side.
Pan frying soft-shell crab. Clean soft shell crabs, then coat with batter or a flour and spice mixture. Fry both sides in butter until golden brown. Serve immediately.
Crab cakes fresh out of the pan are delightful as appetizers or as main dishes, especially when served on top of a bed of salad greens with a lovely dressing. Poorly made crab cakes are heavy on the mayonnaise and light on the crab. Try this recipe for a mayonnaise-free lump crab cake that will never get soggy and will please the pickiest dinner guest.
Imitation crab is at its best when you mix it up with other ingredients. These comfort-food dishes will make you realize that fake can be just as good.
Baked crab dip is a great appetizer to serve at parties. Impress guests with these easy crab dip recipes that will taste so good, your guests will be begging for more.
Crab salad is simple, quick and delicious. Perfect for serving for brunch, it is an impressive tasting dish that will be savored by guests. These crab salad recipes are good served cold over a bed of greens or with slices of avocado.