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Blue Crab

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What is it?

Sold in three different varieties—hard shell, peeler (pre-molt), and soft (post-molt) shell—blue crabs are found most prominently in the Chesapeake Bay but are also caught along the rest of the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. It is a notoriously aggressive crustacean with a shell that is colored blue-green by specific pigments, which degrade when the crab is cooked, leaving only a red hue behind. Because blue crabs are smaller, they are often sold by the dozen or by the bushel. When selecting crabs, make sure they feel full and heavy, without any fishy odor.

Soft-Shell Crabs:

Soft-shells are blue crabs that have shed their hard shells to grow larger ones. For a short time, the new shells are tender and thin enough that you can eat the entire crab, shell and all. We’re crazy about soft-shells—they cook in minutes, are easier to eat than hard-shell crabs, and their sweet, briny flavor and crunchy-soft, juicy texture can’t be beat.

Soft-shells are usually eaten whole, either sautéed, deep-fried, broiled, or grilled, and they make for a killer sandwich. You can also stuff them or use them in soups, curries, stir-fries, tacos, salads, and pastas. Soft-shells are available at fish counters as of mid-April, so pick some up while you can.

Blue crabs shed their shells between April and mid-September, as the waters along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts warm. Fishermen catch the crabs before they shed and keep them in bins of sea water to keep track of their progress. As soon as they molt, they’re packed in wet straw, paper, or seaweed and shipped to restaurants and stores

How to choose:

Because blue crabs are smaller, they are often sold by the dozen or by the bushel. When selecting crabs, make sure they feel full and heavy, without any fishy odor.

For Soft-Shell Crabs:

Buy live soft-shell crabs so they’re at their peak of freshness. Look for active movement to confirm that the crabs are alive, and smell try this soft-shell crabs them—they should smell like the sea, and not at all fishy. If you can find only cleaned soft-shells wrapped in plastic, ask how long they’ve been in the case. Avoid cleaned crabs that are more than two days old.

Soft-shells come to market in five sizes, but hotels (4 to 4-1/2 inches across), primes (4-1/2 to 5 inches), and jumbos (5 to 5-1/2 inches) are the easiest to find.

How to prep:

For Soft-Shell Crabs:

Learn how to clean soft-shell crabs over at the Test Kitchen blog.

It’s best to cook soft-shells over direct heat so their shells become crisp. Because they’re so juicy, soft-shells can splatter during cooking, so stand back or use a splatter screen over your pan. Soft-shells pair well with spring and summer ingredients like asparagus, ramps, English peas, fava beans, tomatoes, basil, and corn. Citrus, butter, ginger, scallions, cilantro, avocado, bacon, and mushrooms are also delicious with soft-shell crabs.

How to store:

For Soft-Shell Crabs:

Buy soft-shells the day you plan to cook them. If that’s not possible, have them cleaned (or clean them yourself) and store them in the refrigerator, tightly wrapped, for up to one day, or freeze them for up to three months. Defrost them in the refrigerator overnight.


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