Simply put, preparing live soft-shell crab is a morbid chore. First, you must cut the faces and eyes off the crab while the little creatures are still alive. Unpleasant as it might be, the task is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the messy and sometimes complicated issues involved in eating crab meat.
For those willing to literally face up to the challenge of making soft-shell crab, now is the time to do it. Soft-shell crab, which are blue crab that have molted their hard shells, are currently in season. March and April usually bring smaller crab, but larger ones start showing up in June, noted Louis Rozzo, the owner of F. Rozzo and Sons. As the season continues through early fall, the crab get larger and smaller in cycles, with the largest of the season appearing in midsummer.
Chef Michael Cressotti of The Mermaid Inn (pictured below, photographed by Melissa Hom) recently put soft-shell crab back on his menu. He explains that the industrialization of crab harvesting played a key role in the popularization of the soft-shell crab.
“What they do is they put the hard-shell crabs in pens and they wait for them to molt or lose their shell,” he said. “They have to be taken out of the water within an hour after loosing its shell or its new shell will become hard and leathery.”
Cressotti said that restaurants most often serve soft-shell crab from the jumbo category, measuring 4.5 to 5 inches across. Whales, which are the largest size available, will measure 5.5 to 6 inches across.
Rozzo said that on a busy holiday, his company sold more than 7,000 soft-shell crabs to area restaurants.
As for preparation of the crab, which often come packed in wet newspaper, Cressotti warned that they may not look alive until you touch them.
“Don’t clean the crab until you’re almost ready to use the crab,” he said, adding that The Mermaid Inn usually prepared no more than a dozen crab at a time. Live crab can be stored in the refrigerator, uncovered and on top of ice for a few days. Just change the ice every day.
Now for the graphic task of preparing live crab: “First of all, you have to take the face off, kind of like [in] hockey,” said Cressotti with a chuckle. “And then you remove the lungs by lifting up the sides of the crab. The lungs are right there exposed, a little membrane. And then taking off what they call the abdomen part, a little piece off the tail.”
Rozzo said it was necessary to remove the face before frying.
“If you don’t cut the eyes out and you cook it, they’ll pop in the frying pan,” he said. “That’s how you burn yourself.”
Here’s a step-by-step video from New York Times food writer Mark Bittman on how to prepare soft-shell crab. He makes his into a fried Soft-Shell Crab Poor-Boy.
Cressotti also shared his recipe (below) for crispy Maryland soft-shell crab.
Crispy Maryland Soft-Shell Crab with Peas, Oven Roasted Tomatoes and Panchetta Butter
- 4 jumbo soft-shell crabs
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2 cup fine ground cornmeal
- 2 quarts carnola fry oil
Dredge crabs in buttermilk, then cornmeal, fry at 375 degrees for 5 minutes until golden.
For the Tomatoes:
- 6 plum tomatoes
- 1 tsp chopped garlic
- 1 tsp fresh thyme
- 3 tsp olive oil
Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise and toss with the remaining ingredients. Then place on cookie sheet pan and bake at 250 degrees for 1 hour.
For the Sauce:
- 2 cup fresh shucked peas (blanched)
- 2 cups oven roasted tomatoes
- 2 teaspoons thinly sliced garlic
- 1 cup fish stock
- 3 tbsp softened butter
- 1/2 lb diced cooked panchetta
Heat a small skillet and heat the garlic, add the fresh peas and oven roasted tomatoes, then sauté for 1 minute until warm. Add the fish stock, cooked panchetta and bring to boil. Remove from heat and add the softened butter, spoon the sauce onto four serving place and top with the fried soft-shell crabs.