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.
- Freshness: Fair to Good
- Squeamishness: Low to None
- Cost: High
- Time Investment: Low to None
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 (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
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: Best
- Squeamishness Rating: High
- Cost: Medium
- Time Investment: High
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.
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.
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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.
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.