People say I’m lucky because I married a chef who whips up wonderful meals for me and our son every night. But I’m also lucky because my husband, Bill, has an aunt and uncle who live on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A few years back, we went for a visit at the height of soft-shell crab season. Uncle Bill and Aunt Lucy introduced us to their neighbor, Randolph Davis, a sherman who specializes in soft-shell crabs when they’re in season in late spring. Randolph was kind enough to take my husband and me to see his crab tanks (or floats, as they’re called) and show us how a soft-shell crab comes to be. For a seafood lover like me, this was like winning the Lotto jackpot.
Get the recipe: Simply Sautéed Soft-Shell Crabs
When to buy
Soft-shell crabs come into season along the East Coast when the water temperature rises above 50°F, which usually happens in April or May. The farther down the coast you travel, the longer the season lasts, ending along the Gulf Coast as late as October in some years.
What to buy
I strongly suggest buying live crabs; it’s insurance that the crab is fresh, healthy, and tasty. They are sold in several sizes, measured across the back of the shell, point-to-point:
Mediums: 3-1/2 to 4 inches
Hotels: 4 to 4-1/2 inches
Primes: 4-1/2 to 5 inches
Jumbos: 5 to 5-1/2 inches
Whales: Over 5-1/2 inches
How to store
Refrigerate live soft-shell crabs covered with a towel for no more than a day. If you can’t cook them within a day, clean them, wrap them individually in plastic, and freeze them for up to 3 months.
Timing is everything
Soft-shell crabs aren’t a unique species of crab, but rather blue crabs that have shed their shells when they’ve outgrown them. Until their soft new shells harden, the crabs are almost completely edible—shell and all.
Being there to see Randolph’s crabs molt was a small miracle, because with soft shells, time is short. Randolph has only a couple of hours before the molted crabs’ new shells harden, so to avoid missing that window, he has to catch the crabs a couple of days before they molt and then keep a very close eye on them. He keeps the “peelers” (so called because they’ll soon peel out of their shells) in open tanks, watching for clues that the molting will begin.
There are external signs that tell Randolph when the crabs will molt. The “white sign” appears about 2 weeks before molting begins; it’s the first faint outline of the new shell forming underneath the old along the edge of the crab’s back fin. It’s very difficult for laymen to spot—I couldn’t see it even when Randolph was pointing right at it. The “pink sign”—which I could see—is a fingernail-thick pinkish coloring along the back fin that means molting is about one week away. When that pink coloring turns rust red, the “red sign,” there’s less than two days to go. That’s when Randolph transfers the crabs to his tanks, checking on them every three or four hours, 24 hours a day, until they molt.
When the molting starts, Randolph has to be ready. The old shell cracks along the back of the crab’s abdomen, and in just about 30 minutes, the crab wriggles and squirms its way out, emerging with an entirely new shell, thinner than paper. Then Randolph has just an hour or two to remove the soft-shell crab from the water before its shell hardens past palatability; once it’s out of the water, its shell stops hardening.
He immediately packs the live soft shells in wet newspaper and seaweed, and ships them overnight to restaurants and seafood purveyors all over the country, where they command a steep price—one that I’m perfectly happy to pay.
The soft-shell sell
So why am I such a fanatic for soft shells? I think regular blue crabs are a pain to eat, thanks to the laborious digging involved in getting the meat out of their hard shells via tiny forks or fingers. I just don’t have the patience for it, no matter how tasty the crabmeat. But with soft shells, I get to enjoy the sweet, fresh crab with no muss or fuss because I can eat the whole thing. And if you ask me, the way its almost-crunchy texture offsets the tender meat makes the shell one of the best parts.
Winner, winner, soft-shell dinner
Bill and I watched about a dozen crabs molt that May afternoon, and were thrilled when Randolph wrapped up the soft shells for our dinner. They came with strict instructions: “Cook ’em quick, and don’t do much to ’em. All they need is a hot pan, butter, flour, and lemon.” We took heed, and cooked up some of the sweetest, most delicious soft shells I’ve ever tasted. I wrote down Randolph’s recipe for sautéed soft shells, along with lots of ideas for serving them in everything from sushi rolls to salads to sandwiches.
While most people enjoy soft shells sautéed or deep-fried, there are other ways to cook them. Come spring at the Mickelsen household, we love grilling the crabs and wrapping them in warm tortillas to make Grilled Soft-Shell Crab Tacos. And I can’t get enough of the slow-cooked Soft-Shell Crab Spaghetti with Spinach and Peas. Give any of these recipes a try, and I bet they’ll make you feel as lucky as I do.
See the video: How to Clean Soft-Shell Crab
There are a couple of steps to getting your soft shells ready for cooking. If you plan to cook them that day, ask your fishmonger to clean them for you. But if you’ll be waiting to cook them, it’s easy enough to clean them yourself. Here’s how:
How to clean a soft-shell crab
10 Ways with Sautéed Soft Shells
They cook up quickly and taste like heaven all on their own, but you can also create wonderful soft-shell-centric meals if you think of them like any other seafood. Here are a few ideas:
1. Sandwich Whole crabs, mayo, ripe tomato, pickles, thicksliced white toast.
2. Green salad Halved crabs, tender greens, shaved asparagus, lemony vinaigrette.
3. Eggs benedict Whole crabs in place of the ham.
4. Bean-and-pea salad Chopped crabs, cooked cannellini beans, green beans, sugar snaps, cherry tomatoes, white wine-Dijon-shallot vinaigrette.
5. Rice noodle salad Chopped crabs, fresh sprouts, carrots, cilantro, mint, radishes, cucumber, chile, salted peanuts, fish sauce-lime-brown sugar dressing.
6. Soft-shell roll Chopped crabs, mayo, lemon zest, minced celery, buttered and toasted hot dog bun.
7. Soft shells-n-grits Whole crabs, wilted spinach, Cheddar grits.
8. Sushi rolls Chopped crabs, avocado, red bell pepper, sushi rice, nori.
9. Crostini Halved crabs, garlic aïoli, sautéed leeks, toasts.
10. Omelet Chopped crabs, mascarpone, fresh basil or chervil, eggs.