A 2019 survey found that nearly 600 million blue crabs live in the Chesapeake Bay. That's a 60% increase from last year, which is great news for the Chesapeake Bay, for blue crabs, and for anyone who loves fresh crab meat!
If you enjoy crab, you know that fresh crabs are the freshest and tastiest on the market! But it can be a little bit intimidating to buy and prepare live crabs if you've never done it before.
As experts in the crab business, we know a thing or two about cooking with live crabs.
Read on to learn everything you need to know and feel more confident with live crabs in your kitchen!
Types of Crab
Of course, you have your Dungeness crab in the Pacific, known for its sweet meat and harvested from December through the spring season. Then you've got your king crabs and your snow crabs, coming from the cold waters in Alaska.
Over here off the Chesapeake Bay, what we're really interested in is the blue crab and soft-shell crab. Which one is better? Well, it all comes down to the time of year.
Blue crab has a strong, rich flavor and are harvested from the Chesapeake Bay between April and the end of November. (Once the weather starts to cool, blue crabs scramble for warmer waters!)
Soft-shell crabs are a great delicacy, and no, "soft-shell" is not a breed! Soft-shell crabs are crab that have just shed their old shell and it's part of their natural molting cycle. This stage is sometimes referred to as the "postmolt" stage usually occurs between May through July.
Understanding these distinctions will help you buy crab knowledgeably!
Picking the Best of the Bunch
If you're buying straight from the fisherman's wharf, you'll have to pick from a full holding tank of live crabs! How do you know which crabs will be the best tasting?
Look for crabs that appear lively. Crabs that don't move around much may have something funky going on underneath their shell, which can taint the meat and give it an unpleasant taste.
Don't be afraid to pick them up! Test their weight in your hand--if they feel light, almost airy, that's probably because they don't have much meat. You want your live crabs to feel heftier, almost like they've been chowing down on an underwater buffet all year!
Admittedly, female blue crabs tend to be meatier than male blue crabs. If you can track down a few, great, but if not, that's okay. Some fishermen throw female crabs back into the Bay to ensure that there are still more crabs next year!
Wondering how to know the difference between a male and a female? Male blue crabs will have blue claws, while the ends of a female blue crab's claws will exhibit a red tint.
Preparing Live Crabs
There are two important things to keep in mind when you are cooking with live crabs.
The first is that you shouldn't wait longer than 24 hours to cook them. Crabs out of the water aren't eating anything, which basically means they're on a diet and losing mass as time passes. The longer you wait, the less meat there will be to enjoy!
The second is that a dead crab's stomach starts to release some pretty nasty digestive bacteria. That bacteria is going to cause the crab to begin decomposition and it's going to make the meat taste weird. Left for too long and it can make your crab toxic to eat, which means you're better off throwing it away.
Keep your crab alive until it's time to cook by placing them in a wet paper towel-lined container in your fridge. The key is to keep them moist but not wet, cool but not freezing. And don't leave them hanging for too long!
Time For the Kill
This is the part that no one likes, but if you want to enjoy live crabs, you're going to have to get through the process of killing them.
If it makes you feel better, you have a few options.
The first option is to boil them.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Pick your crabs up individually with a pair of tongs (from behind, unless you want to fight off a crab who has grabbed onto your tongs or the edge of the pot). Stick the crab in headfirst, but not until you know your proper cook time, as this method begins the cooking process immediately.
Another option might seem a little more gruesome, but may be preferable for anyone who isn't comfortable boiling the crab alive.
First, you want to stun the crab by immersing it in ice-cold water for a few minutes. After this is finished, flip the crab over so it is belly up. Use a sharp, thin knife to puncture in the centerline an inch below its mouth.
If this process is too much for you, don't worry--you can always buy crabs already steamed!
If you're going to boil your crabs, you don't have too much to worry about in this department. Boiling water will sterilize the shell.
If you're using another cooking method, a quick 60-second blanch is your best bet. Toss the full crab into boiling water for one minute, then into a bowl or pot of ice water to stop the cooking.
Cooking Blue Crab
Fill a large pot with enough water to cover each crab that goes into it. You can salt the water, but don't overdo it, since crabs are on the saltier side, to begin with.
Add any seasonings you may want to include (and don't forget the Old Bay if you want an authentic Maryland meal).
For one pound of crab, boil for about 12-15 minutes. Add 5 minutes of that for two pounds of crab or 10 minutes for three pounds. If you've got three-seven pounds of crab, cook for about 30 minutes.
If you've read through this article and you feel up to the challenge, it's time to get cracking!
Maybe you don't live close enough to the Bay to pick up your own live crabs or you don't feel confident choosing the best ones. We've got you covered!
At Crab Dynasty, we take out the guesswork and travel time by delivering live crabs right to your door! We let you choose the size, gender, and amount of crabs you want, and always send the freshest, highest quality crabs the Chesapeake Bay has to offer!
What are you waiting for? Order live crabs today!