Cook, Clean, and Serve Whole Crab Like a Local: A Photo Tutorial

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Cooked whole Dungeness crab. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Cooked whole Dungeness crab. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

All Photos: Wendy Goodfriend

Happy New Year, newcomers! Welcome to our fine City by the Bay, where lemons grow on trees and fresh Dungeness crab is our favorite winter treat.

San Francisco being the destination city it is, we’re pretty confident many of you might be having your first encounter with our signature crustacean this month. Even if you’ve lived here for a while, chances are you’ve left the crab-cracking to the experts (or your born-here West Coast friends). But now’s the time to get crabby like a local.

Thanks to weeks of mild and mostly storm-free weather since the commercial season opened in mid November, the City’s favorite Dungeness crabs are abundant and affordable right now, sold everywhere from supermarket fish counters to speciality fish stores, Asian markets, and yes, from fishermen right off the boats.

The body, shells and claws of a Dungeness are packed with sweet white meat. But how to go from live crustacean to dinner on a plate? There are several ways to take down your crab. We’ve rated them by Freshness, Squeamishness, Value, and Time.

Picked fresh crab meat with watermelon radishes and Meyer lemon wedges. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Picked fresh crab meat with watermelon radishes and Meyer lemon wedges. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

    Picked Crab Meat

    If what you need is a pile of crabmeat, fast, and money’s no object, then go straight for the high-dollar stuff: straight picked crabmeat. This is expensive–expect to pay upwards of $25/lb–because all the waste (all those shells) and labor (all that picking) it takes to turn a whole crab into a mound of tasty meat. On the plus side, once you’ve paid, your job is done and your crabmeat is instantly fork-ready. Picked crab is very perishable, so make sure you’re buying from a reputable market with high demand and fast turnover. Keep it well-chilled and use within one day of purchase.

    Be warned, though: if you invite friends over for a crab feast, they’ll expect their crabs shells and all. Getting messy with the crackers and forks is part of the fun. Crab cakes, however elegant, are an appetizer; crab in the shell is a meal.

  • Freshness: Fair to Good
  • Squeamishness: Low to None
  • Cost: High
  • Time Investment: Low to None
Cooked, cleaned, cracked whole fresh crab. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Cooked, cleaned, cracked whole fresh crab. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

    Cooked, Cleaned, Cracked Whole Crab

    Most crab fanciers in the Bay Area pick up their crabs already cooked. Most markets will clean and crack them for you, typically for an additional dollar or so a pound. For cleaned and cracked crab, once you pick out your whole cooked crab, the counter staff will remove the back shell, clean out the viscera and gills, separate the legs, crack the claws, and quarter the body. All that’s left for you (or your guests) to do is pick out the meat, either beforehand (if you’re planning on making crab cakes, crab Louie, or other dishes calling for straight crabmeat), or at the table.

  • Freshness: Fair to Good (look for a busy store that reliably moves a lot of crab)
  • Squeamishness Rating: Medium (some work required, but the bulk of mess, including boiling and dismemberment, has been taking care of
  • Cost: Medium
  • Time Investment: Medium
Live crab with basic ingredients for a crabfest. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Live crab with basic ingredients for a crabfest. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

    Live Crab

    The freshest crab is, of course, a live crab. Many fish markets, especially at Asian markets, have live crabs in tanks at this time of year. Make sure your crabs are lively before you buy them, and check to make sure they have all their claws and legs. They should also be heavy for their size, to ensure that they’ve fully filled out their shells.

  • Freshness: Best
  • Squeamishness Rating: High
  • Cost: Medium
  • Time Investment: High

Once you’ve secured your crabs, cook them promptly, preferably within a few hours of purchase. Keep them well chilled until cooking. Store them in an open container (like a loose, open bag or wide bowl) in the refrigerator until ready to cook. They’re salt water creatures, so don’t immerse them in fresh water, and don’t store them in a sealed or tightly knotted plastic bag.

You’ll need a large, tall-sided pot with a lid. It should be big enough so that you’ll still have 4 or 5 inches of clearance above the crabs once they’re dropped in. Bring enough water to just cover the crabs to a rolling boil. Add a couple tablespoons of kosher or coarse sea salt.

To estimate cooking time, you’ll need to estimate the average weight of your crabs. Are they one-pounders? Two-pounders? Absolutely mammoth? The rough rule of thumb is about 7 to 8 minutes per pound of average weight. That’s the average weight of one crab, not the total weight of all your crabs. So if you have three crabs of approximately two pounds each, you’ll want to simmer the whole pot for about 15 minutes. The colored parts of the shells should turn bright orange, and the meat should be white and opaque. If it still looks gooey or translucent, the crab is underdone and needs additional cooking.

Click on any image to activate the step-by-step slideshow

Drop in the crabs straight from the fridge. Cover the pot. Bring back to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer, and cook for 7-8 minutes per pound of one crab’s average weight.

Once crabs are cooked, cool them in a sink or colander under cold running water. They can also be plunged into a ice bath (a sink or wide bowl filled with ice water) to stop the cooking.

Clean the crabs once they’re cool enough to handle. Place the crab on its back. Starting at the point, peel back the triangular “plate” at the center of the shell. Remove the small spiky bits around the base.

Prise off the top shell in one piece. Pour off any liquid in the body cavity. Peel off the slender, spongy gills on either side of the body and discard. Peel off the thin, purplish membrane over and around the body cavity and discard. Rinse well.

Twist off legs at base and reserve. Using a sharp, heavy knife or cleaver, hack the body into four quarters. Using a crab cracker, crack the claws along the joints. Gently crack the thin shells along the legs to make getting the meat out easier.

Tip: If you don’t have a crab fork, use the sharp, pointed end of the leg to dig meat out of the claws and crevices. If you don’t have a crab cracker use a mallet or hammer, employed gently to keep from smashing the crabs to bits.

If you’re serving the crab in the shell, you’re done! Arrange the body quarters, claws, and legs attractively on a platter and chill until serving. Serve with plenty of lemon, warm melted butter, and sourdough bread.

Fresh crab served two ways. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Fresh crab served two ways. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

If you need to go all the way down to crabmeat, use your well-washed hands, crab cracker, and crab fork (or pointy leg tip) to crack the shells as needed and methodically remove the meat. Much of the body meat is packed in the “tubes” where the legs were attached; use your fingertips to feel what’s meat and what’s shell, and try not to mix the thin, translucent body shell in with the meat. It’s most efficient if you try to get as many large pieces out as you can. Chill crabmeat immediately and eat within one to two days.

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Category: bay area, Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, cooking techniques and tips, san francisco

About the Author ()

Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen is a longtime local food writer, author, and cook. Her books include World of Doughnuts (Egg & Dart Press); Kids in the Kitchen: Fun Food (Williams Sonoma); Honey from Flower to Table (Chronicle Books) and The Astrology Cookbook: A Cosmic Guide to Feasts of Love (Manic D Press). She has studied organic farming at UCSC and holds a certificate in Ecological Horticulture from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. She does frequent cooking demonstrations at local farmers’ markets and has taught food writing at Media Alliance in San Francisco and the Continuing Education program at Stanford University. She has been the lead restaurant critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian as well as for San Francisco magazine. Last year, she worked as an assistant chef at the Headlands Center for the Arts, an artists' residency program located in the Marin Headlands, and worked as a production cook at the Marin Sun Farms Cafe in Pt Reyes Station. She has lived in San Francisco for nearly 20 years, interspersed with stints in Oakland, Santa Cruz, Brooklyn, and Manhattan.
  • http://wintercreekranch.com Sam Bledsoe

    Thank you, Stephanie, for all the crab basics. For a special treat, all the soft parts of the inside of the crab are not only edible but especially delicious. When you remove the shell from the body, scrap all the soft and watery inside of the shell into a very small sauce pan. Do not discard the soft, purple membrane but quick-chop it into small bits and add to the pan. Then scrape any pale yellow and greenish goo in the body into the same pan, being careful to avoid any hard parts of shell and the lungs. Add a tablespoon of butter to the pan and bring to a quick boil over high heat. Then use a small whisk to break up any larger parts into a fine sauce replete with small succulent bits. Finish with a teaspoon of dry vermouth or a few drops of lemon juice. The sauce can be poured over a small pile of crab meat on your plate after you’ve dug it out of its shell. Or it’s especially delicious for dipping a chunk of crusty, hot sour-dough bread.