Working with live crab doesn’t have to be a harrowing and briny episode of Iron Chef, but it does take a steady hand, confidence, and the tolerance for mess-making. If you have the patience and tenacity, you’ll be well-rewarded in flavor and freshness.
Fish markets are bountiful enough in coastal regions, but crab can often be found at Asian markets as well. Find out what's in season before heading to the market, especially when planning to prepare a dish that requires large chunks of meat, or risk picking through Shell Mountain for half the day and come up short.
Be prepared to choose your crab, preferably from a tank rather than a cardboard box full of upended shellfish and crab-fight detritus. Your crab should look lively and feel heavy. If your fishmonger is kindly and good at his job (or if he just likes you), he will bind the claws with rubber bands to discourage wrestling and car mayhem, but you might want to bring an open box to hold them in. Avoid taking long road trips with your live crab. Once the crab is home, you have to act fast for the best results.
"We always kill [the crab] first — so they don't shed their claws — by piercing the brain with a knife," says Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen Executive Chef Kevin Sippel. Sippel pours boiling water over the crab and lets them sit for an hour to loosen the meat. He then cuts the legs with scissors to remove the meat.
And don’t forget to get into the body cavity if your crab has edible body meat. Pull back and snap off the tab under the crab’s body to get into the crevice at the snapping point where you can pull off the top shell. Break the body into halves and work the meat out of the channels with a butter knife or even chopsticks. Once you have all of the meat out, it’s time to cook. There are a number of things you can do with the crab, but the best and easiest thing if you’re starting out would be a traditional boil.
"Spending all my summers on Fire Island as a kid, most days were spent with my cousins crabbing off the dock for blue claws and then bringing them back to the beach house to boil them up," said Resto Executive Chef Francis Derby. "Our parents would steam them in some Old Bay beer for us and we would eat them with melted butter out on the back porch and make a total mess."
These days Derby takes a trip to Chinatown for the large chunks of sweet meat found in fresh Dungeness crab, and he likes to use them in a loose and easy boil like the recipe below. It can be for any amount of crab, and if you don’t have beer, Derby also uses rosé, sake, and even mead in its place.
- beer (anything will do)
- Old Bay seasoning
- onion, chopped into large chunks
- garlic, whole cloves
- fresh Dungeness crab
- summer squash, chopped into large chunks
- corn, halved
- green beans
- mustard greens, roughly chopped
- Rinse the crabs. Pour about 4 12-oz bottles of beer and Old Bay seasoning into a large pot. Place the onions and garlic into the pot. Add crabs, then vegetables. Put the pot on high heat, reducing the heat to medium-high when the beer comes to a boil. Cook another 15 to 20 minutes or until the crabs are cooked through.
- Remove the crab and vegetables from the pot and add a generous amount of butter and a splash of lemon juice to the liquids to make a sauce. Pour some of the sauce over the vegetables and reserve some as a dipping sauce for the meat.