Would you like crab even more if it was easier to eat?
Do you like your food fried?
If you answered “yes,” soft-shell crabs are for you!
And from now until the end of summer is the time to go out and get some.
Soft-shell crabs are freshly-molted blue crabs that are plucked from the water and put on ice before their shells harden up. They are delicious. Blue crab meat is sugary sweet and you can eat the whole animal right after it molts, shell and all.
Admittedly, the first time that I cooked a soft-shell crab, I was a little squeamish. I mean, how can you not be? Ideally, you should bring the suckers home alive, but it’s pretty hard to determine if they are dead or not because freshly molted crabs never look alive . . . until they swivel one of their telescopic eyeballs in your direction. Aaaaah!
Ideally, you should clean and trim them yourself, but I don’t fault anyone for having their fishmonger do it for them. If your fishmonger trims and cleans your crabs for you, you should cook them the same day that you buy them.
To properly trim and clean a soft shell crab, first you need to snip off those swivelly eyeballs by removing its face with a good pair of scissors. Then, you need to trim the tail off its backside. Finally, you have to gently separate the top shell from the bottom shell on both sides of the crab to rip out its lungs. Why do you have to do this? Because the lungs taste disgusting, you don’t want to eat the gucky stuff in and around the tail, and if you don’t remove the eyeballs, they can explode during cooking and injure you.
I just sold you on them, didn’t I?
But prepping soft-shell crabs is really pretty simple and not as bad as I made it sound. The rewards far outweigh any ickiness. Soft-shell crabs taste wonderful and they are a quick, elegant meal to put together.
A word on frying them: make sure that your frying fat is nice and hot. Test it by sprinkling a little flour into the fat. If it sizzles and turns golden, you are ready to cook yourself some crab. Keep your frying fat hot by not overcrowding the pan. If the temperature of the oil drops, your crabs will be soggy and greasy instead of crispy and light. If you are making soft-shell crabs for a crowd, fry them in batches and keep them warm in a 300° oven on a wire rack-topped baking sheet.
Many people like to serve soft-shell crabs with a remoulade or some kind of spicy mayonnaise. If it’s prime soft-shell crab season, I like to let the sweet crab meat shine on its own with just a shower of good finishing salt and a spritz of lemon.
1/4 cup of yellow corn meal
1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt
1 pinch of cayenne pepper
2 soft shell crabs, trimmed and cleaned (you can watch Bittman demo it here)
4 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons of olive oil
How to prepare:
1. Combine the corn meal, the salt and the cayenne pepper together in a large shallow bowl or plate.
2. Heat the butter and olive oil together over medium-high heat in a large cast-iron skillet. When the butter begins to foam, rinse each crab with water and dredge it through the corn meal mixture. Gently shake off any excess corn meal and add the crab — top side-down — to the pan. Repeat with the other crab.
3. Fry the crabs until they are browned and golden, about 3-4 minutes per side. They should be plumped up and firm when they are done. When the crabs are finished cooking (they will not take longer than 8 minutes total), remove them to a paper towel-lined plate to drain for a minute or two before serving.
Serve with a spritz of lemon and a sprinkle of good salt.