Beginning around mid-May in cold Atlantic coastal waters, the blue crab undergoes a growth spurt and swaps its too small hard outer shell for a newer, roomier one. In the few weeks between the crab’s shedding of one covering for the other, when the crab is protected only by a thin flexible covering that is flimsier than cellophane, seafood lovers have the opportunity to sample the treat that is soft shell crab.
Briny yet as delicately sweet as shelled crabmeat, these crabs are a distinctive delight, and you will see the crabs on restaurant menus and in fresh seafood shops now through June. With such a short molting season, you might empty the piggybank trying to eat as many as you can at your favorite restaurants. Instead, do what I do and grab some from the fish market while they are available. If you have an obliging fishmonger, or better yet, if you can screw up your courage for a few minutes’ worth of cleaning the crabs yourself, you can enjoy softshell crabs any number of times over the next few weeks.
A good fishmonger will clean, or dress, the crabs for you, but I prefer to dress my own. Since the crabs are alive until cleaned, you must eat ones dressed by your seafood person almost immediately. By doing the task yourself, you can keep the crabs alive for a day or two, refrigerated and stored on a bed of continually replenished ice, until you are ready to dress, cook, and eat them.
I prefer a pair of kitchen shears for the task but a sharp chef’s knife works well too. After you decide on your utensil, the soft shell crabs can be cleaned in three steps. First, place the crab right side up on a cutting board or mat and snip the face off just behind the eyes.
Next, lift up the flexible shell flaps from the end points on each side of the crab, one at a time, to expose the body. Here, just above the meatiest parts of the crab, you’ll find the sets of beige-white, feathery, tendril-like gills. These, too, should be snipped off.
Finally, turn the crab over, belly side up, and locate a triangular flap of soft shell tucked against the back end of the belly. This is called the apron.
Lift the apron from the belly and snip it where it joins the body, cleaning off any gooey-looking bits left behind.
That’s it. Your soft shell crabs are now recipe ready.
See? Easy. (But if you still can’t bring yourself to do the cleaning yourself, ask for help at the seafood counter.)
Cooking soft shell crab is equally simple. In fact, the simpler the presentation, the fewer ingredients and spices, the better. The key with these crabs is to stay simple to highlight clean, sweet flavors. I like the simplest of light and crisp batters, so when we cook soft shell crab at home, we first soak them in buttermilk then dredge them in a cornmeal-flour mixture before frying each to a deep golden brown. A fancier take on this classic crab shack preparation is soft shell crab a la meuniere, where lightly flour-dusted crabs are sautéed in butter, finished with lemon juice, capers, and parsley.
Finished soft shell crabs are great on a plate with a pile of vinegary vegetable slaw along with pasta sauced simply with sauteed shallot and garlic in a fruity olive oil. Or tuck one or two into your favorite bread, liberally spread with mayo, adding a thick slice of tomato and a buttery lettuce leaf for the finishing touches on a slightly decadent sandwich.
The following preparation is more of a method than recipe, but follow along and give these soft shell crabs a try while you can. They’ll be gone from the market in the blink of an eye. Remember, though, to only select soft shell crabs from your fishmonger that are guaranteed fresh and alive and not already packaged in cellophane wrappers.
Method for Soft Shell Crabs
Allow 2 soft shell crabs per person.
When home, gather two shallow dishes or pie plates. In one, pour one cup of buttermilk (or whole milk). Into the second combine 2 heaping Tbsp. all-purpose flour and the same of cornmeal.
Stir the flour and cornmeal together with your fingers to combine.
Dress your crabs as detailed above and set them to rest in the dish of buttermilk for a few minutes.
While the crabs are soaking, begin to heat ¼-inch of vegetable oil in a heavy steel pan that is large enough to hold up to four of the shellfish without crowding. (If you are making more than 4, you may fry the crabs in batches of up to 4 at a time, keeping the first cooked soft shell crabs warm in a low [175 degree] oven on a foil- or parchment-lined baking sheet until all are done and ready to serve.)
When oil is hot but not smoking, remove a crab from the buttermilk, shake off the excess liquid, and dredge it through the flour mixture.
Place the crab gently and away from you into the hot oil. Repeat with the remaining shellfish. Fry these, turning once, until they are a deep golden brown and crispy on both sides.
Serve in one of the ways suggested above, or come up with your own favorite.
©2011 Jane A. Ward