To make crab cakes, you don’t need to cook and pick the crabmeat yourself; fresh or pasteurized picked meat is fine. But picking and eating crabs can be a lot of fun if you have melted butter and few a friends to join you. So if you want to give it a try, here are chef Tom Douglas’s tips for buying, cooking, and picking live crabs, either for crab cakes or for a pick-and-eat crab feast.
How to buy: Live East Coast blue crabs are small and sold by the dozen or the bushel. Larger West Coast Dungeness crabs are sold individually—some get as big as 4 pounds, though Tom prefers the 3-pounders. If you live in a part of the country where live crabs are available, choose ones that feel full and heavy.
How to cook: To cook live crabs, get out your biggest pot—Tom uses a gigantic 33-quart black enameled canning pot. Fill the pot with a couple of gallons of water, add some sliced lemons, crushed bay leaves, and a few tablespoons of salt and bring to a boil. Add the crabs, cover with a lid, and boil until the shells are bright red and the crabs are cooked through, 12 to 20 minutes for Dungeness crabs, 5 to 10 minutes for blues (blues may also be steamed). When the crabs are cooked, put them in the sink and quickly rinse with cold water. Let them cool, but don’t cover them with cold water because that will wash away their flavor.
How to get to the crabmeat
Though a Dungeness crab is shown here, blue crabs can be picked the same way. Dungeness crabs have the largest crabmeat-to-shell ratio, but expect, at best, only about 1/2 pound of crabmeat from a 2- to 3-pound crab.
1. Pick up a cooked crab and pry the top shell from the body. Gently rinse the yellow substance, called the “mustard,” from the crab, if you like.
2. Remove and discard the triangular gills from both sides of the crab.
3. Break the crab body in half and remove the tab-like apron from the bottom shell.
4. Using your hands or a knife, break the body halves into sections between each leg.
5. With your fingers, pick the white meat from each section. Try to pick out the crabmeat in the largest pieces possible. To break open the claws and leg knuckles, use kitchen shears or whack them with a mallet or the back of a chef’s knife.