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How to Cook Soft-Shell Crabs

How to Cook Soft-Shell Crabs

This recipe and photography were provided courtesy of local cookbook author and chef, Carla Snyder. Learn more about Carla and discover her recipes at 

In late spring and early summer, there’s a lot to celebrate. Warmer weather, flowering trees and a general “waking up” from winter boosts everyone’s spirits, but for fans of crab, it’s not spring they’re excited about; it’s soft-shell crab season. Fans love them because they’re so easy to eat, no shell to remove and pick out the meat … just chow down on all that tasty crab meat. So, what are these crazy, shell-less crustaceans we crave? Don’t be crabby and I’ll fill you in on all things soft-shell.

What is Soft Shell Crab?

First, soft-shell crabs are not a separate crab species. They’re regular blue crabs that have gotten too big for their shells. In late spring and through the summer, crabs go through a process called molting. When conditions are right, crabs begin to molt, growing larger and shedding their hard-outer shells. Left in the water, the new crab shell will begin to harden in a few hours but pulled from the water right after molting, the shell remains soft. This process results in the delicacy known as soft-shell crab. Kind of like local strawberries or tomatoes, we delight in that “get it while you can” feeling since their season is so fleeting.

How to Select and Handle  Soft Shell Crab

Most soft-shell crabs are farmed where they are fattened-up and encouraged to shed their shells in an orderly manner, making them available to us all summer long. You can buy them live and clean them yourself or you can purchase them “cleaned,” which means your fishmonger will dispatch them and clean out the gills and apron for you. Refrigerate live soft-shell crabs covered with a towel for no more than a day. If you can’t cook them within a day, clean them, wrap them individually in plastic, and freeze them for up to 3 months.

If you buy them cleaned, you should cook them that day in order for them to be fresh. Otherwise, you buy them live (like lobsters) and clean them yourself. It isn’t hard, but if you’re squeamish, by all means, have your fishmonger do it for you. If you’re curious, this is how you do it:

  1. Use a sharp pair of kitchen scissors to cut off the crab’s face, about 1/2-inch behind the eyes. This kills the crab.
  2. Squeeze out any of the yellow goo and rinse under cold water.
  3. Lift up the tapered points on each side of the crab’s shell to reveal the gills and cut them out.
  4. Flip the crab over and pull off the apron which looks like a skinny triangle.

How to Cook Soft-Shell Crab

Soft-shell crab can be fried, grilled or sautéed. To fry it, soak the crab in milk for a few minutes and drain and toss in flour seasoned with Old Bay Seasoning. Heat a heavy skillet with about 1/2-inch of canola oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, check the temp by tossing a pinch of flour into it. It should sizzle. Immediately add the crab, being careful not to crowd them, and cook for about 3 minutes. Flip them over and cook another 2 or 3 minutes or until golden crispy brown.

It’s easy to fry crab but even easier to grill it. At it’s most basic, a brush of oil or butter, a sprinkle of salt and pepper and 4 minutes on the grill will give you the perfect grilled crab for a sandwich. I’ve taken this method to the next level in the recipe for Grilled Soft-Shell Crab Sandwich with Spicy Mayo. Butter flavored with garlic, shallot and Old Bay Seasoning is brushed on the buns and crab, then toasted and grilled and served with a slab of tomato, crunchy iceberg lettuce and spicy mayonnaise. If the spicy mayo is not your speed, I’ve offered other options for the creamy sauce including tartar, lemon basil, lime cilantro and pesto mayonnaise. No need to gild the crab with more than that as you want to taste the succulent crab meat most of all.

Soft -Shell Crab Sandwich

Another classic method is to sauté soft-shell crab. Start off with a heavy skillet and little fat. I like to use half oil and half butter because it allows me to use high heat without worrying about the tasty butter burning as fast. Just sprinkle the crabs with salt and pepper and add them to the pan. They’re cooked in about 4 minutes and ready to serve however you like. I’ve given you a recipe for Sautéed Soft-Shell Crab with Buttery Wine Sauce which is pretty basic, but fabulous. The crab is sautéed and removed from the pan, which is then used to make a quick buttery wine sauce with shallot, garlic and capers. Add a splash of wine and the sauce is ready to top anything from crab to shrimp, or even a steak. I couldn’t resist offering a delicious side dish to go with these crabs. It’s a Simple Fresh Corn Salad fresh as the crab and ready to eat with just a few minutes of chopping and no cooking whatsoever.

Sauteed Soft-Shell Crab

Soft-shell crab is so easy and delicious to cook that it deserves to be included in your summer meal plans. But, why wait? Grill up some crab this weekend, crack a few cold ones and kick off summer. It will be delicious.

Carla Snyder in her kitchen
By Carla Snyder
Carla has spent the past 30 years in the food world as a caterer, artisan baker, cooking school teacher, food writer and author of 6 cook books including the James Beard nominated Big Book of Appetizers. Her passion is sharing fresh, cooked-from-scratch weeknight meals that cut prep time and practically eliminate that nightly sink full of dishes.

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