In many ways, soft shell crabs are the snow cones of seafood: an iconic, delicious and timeless summer treat. Soft shell crab also has a universal appeal and versatile flavor profile, making it suitable for diverse audiences and cooking methods. Party planners rejoice! So, don’t let menu planning dampen your summertime bliss! Here's your guide for soft shell crabs: their production process, purchasing tips, cooking methods (including humane ways to prepare live crab), and delicious soft shell crab recipes.
Soft shell crabs are actually "hard shell crabs" that are going through the molting process. Unlike humans, whose skin grows and stretches to accommodate growth, a crabs' shell is external and must therefore be shed and replaced or "molted" as the crab grows. To initiate the molting process, the crab releases enzymes which separate its old shell from the underlying skin. Over the course of several weeks, the crab then grows a new, soft, paper-like shell under the old shell. The crab then ingests enough water to bloat itself, loosening the old shell. A king crab may molt 20 times in its lifetime, molting yearly in adulthood (young crabs molt more frequently). In addition to their shells, soft shell crabs can also replace their legs (ie. in case of injury or the loss of a leg), in as few as three molt cycles.
Harvesting Soft Shell Crabs
After molting, the crab converts its water bloat to protein while the new shell hardens. This "intermolt" period is the worst time for harvesting crabs, since the water bloat affects flavor. Within a few hours of molting, the new shell begins to harden, and within a month, it's impenetrably hard. To access crabs while their shell is still soft, fishermen typically capture and hold them in saltwater tanks before molting. Then, when the crabs shed their shells, they’re pulled from the water to prevent the new shell from hardening.
Soft shell crab is in season spring through fall along the Gulf Coast, with slightly shorter seasons along the Chesapeake and East Coast. Soft shell crabs are not in season during the winter months, when the water temperature drops.
When you are purchasing soft shell crabs, keep the following in mind:
Soft shell crabs come in different sizes. Soft shell crabs are categorized into 5 basic size categories: mediums, hotels, primes, jumbos, and whales. These size categories are defined as follows:
- Mediums: 3.5 to 4 inches
- Hotels: 4 to 4.5 inches
- Primes: 4.5 to 5 inches, on average
- Jumbos: 5 to 5.5 inches
- Whales: over 5.5 inches, on average
There's a two-step process for humanely killing soft shell crabs:
- Chill the crab. Since crustaceans are cold-blooded, they are rendered insensible to pain at sufficiently cold temperatures. So, chilling them either in a saltwater ice slurry (crushed ice mixed with salt water) or by putting them in the freezer will render them calm and unable to feel pain.
- Quickly cut off the front of the crab. Hold the crab in one hand, and using a pair of kitchen shears, cut off the front of the crab, about 1/4 inch to a 1/2 inch behind the eyes and mouth.
Flavor Profile and Cooking Methods for Soft Shell Crabs
Soft shell crabs have a rich, buttery sweetness and tender, flaky meat. The body meat is white, the claw meat brown, and shells orange-red. Since soft shell crabs are eaten shell and all, the shell adds a crunchy texture. Soft shell crabs are perfect for boiling, broiling, frying, grilling, sauteing, or steaming.
We've collected a few of our favorite soft shell crab recipes for you to try! These recipes are simple summer fare sure to delight your whole family.
Soft Shell Crab Sandwiches
Fried soft shell crab sandwiches are the perfect summer treat. There is something decadent and comforting about putting high-end seafood into a sandwich. Easy to assemble, package, and transport, sandwiches have a universal appeal, so they'll satisfy people of all ages at a summer picnic. You can make the sauce for this recipe up to two days ahead of time; just cover and chill in the fridge until serving.
Grilled Soft Shell Crabs
Nothing says summer like cooking fresh seafood on the grill. Not only is grilling a time-honored summer tradition; it is also a great way to prepare seafood healthfully (with no added fat). Serve grilled soft shell crabs as an entree, or incorporate crab into other recipes for added flavor. Invite your friends and neighbors over, and fire up the grill.
Chef Raul Rodriguez’ Fried Soft Shell Crab
Soaking the crab in buttermilk makes this fried crab recipe a rich and delicious experience for summer. This quick and easy recipe goes great with summer sides like fruit salad, cole slaw, or sautéed veggies, and could be a great option for introducing kids to seafood!
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