When I was 17 years old and just hired on as a cook’s helper at the Hotel du Pont in downtown Wilmington, Delaware, I remember looking up at chef Jim Irby, a tall, intimidating man. He glanced at me while draining 50 pounds of blue jumbo lump crabmeat, and said, “There ain’t no finer creature from all the seas.” He kind of winked then, as if letting me into some secret brotherhood. Chef Irby made the finest crab cakes, crab imperial, and crab-stuffed scampi that I ever tasted.
After moving to Seattle in 1977, I looked around the area for the dish of my roots. In Delaware, crab cakes were served from the boardwalk to the boardroom, but in Seattle I couldn’t find one restaurant featuring the local Dungeness crab—or King or Snow, for that matter—in any way other than stir-fries, steams, and cocktails. In 1980, I was hired as the chef for a brand-new restaurant called Café Sport, and from the first draft of the menu, Dungeness crab cakes were a centerpiece. I still serve the very same ones at my own restaurant, Etta’s Seafood, 26 years later. They’re the most popular item on the menu—thanks to the lessons Chef Irby taught me.
The rule for making great crab cakes and fish cakes—heck, I’ve even made duck and chicken cakes—is basically the same. This is not a time to use up old ingredients. The key to seafood cakes is to buy the freshest possible ingredients, handle them gently, season with restraint, and pan-fry until you’ve got a crisp, brown crust and a succulent center.
It’s fun to add interesting flavors to fish and seafood cakes—as long as you don’t overdo it. In these recipes I use a range of seasonings, from star anise and sesame oil to Tabasco and fresh thyme. For the final touch, I match each seafood cake with a simple complementary sauce or relish.
Sorting out your crabmeat choices
You have choices when it comes to crabmeat for crab cakes: You can begin with live crabs and cook and pick the meat yourself. Or you can buy already-picked fresh crabmeat (shown in the photo at right), which comes in cans or plastic tubs. You can find it in the fresh seafood section of many supermarkets and at your local fish market (your best bet). That’s what I used for the recipe in this article and the results were excellent
Understanding crabmeat lingo. If you see a package labeled “jumbo lump blue crabmeat,” grab it—I think it makes the best-textured crab cakes because the meat is plump, white, and sweet, with little or no shell. Also very good is “backfin lump crabmeat,” lovely big white pieces that come from the crab’s backfin and have very little shell. Some cans are labeled simply “lump crabmeat”; that’s your next best bet. The word “lump” is your clue that you’ll find nice big, juicy pieces of sweet crabmeat and not shredded stringy bits.
Much of the picked crabmeat on the market comes from blue crabs, the favorite crab variety on the East and Gulf Coasts. But on the West Coast, Dungeness is the crab of choice, and picked is also available.
The saltiness of crabmeat varies. Whichever crabmeat you use for your crab cakes, it’s a good idea to taste the meat for salt and adjust the amount of salt in the recipe as needed. Dungeness, in particular, can be quite salty.
Check out our collection of crab recipes for more ideas on cooking crab.