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How to cook soft-shell crab at home

We got a Michelin-starred chef to show us the proper way to cook soft-shell crabs

Soft shell crab La Toque
Megan Menicucci / La Toque

Soft-shell crabs are one of our favorite seafood delicacies. Whenever we see it on a menu, we jump at the chance to order the succulent crustacean, because it isn’t a super common item.

A soft-shell crab is a blue crab that has molted its hard shell. In the spring, the start of soft-shell crab season, crabbers collect the crustaceans and monitor them closely. As soon as they molt, the crabs are removed from the water and packed before the shell can harden.

Though it seems like a daunting task if you don’t cook a lot of shellfish at home, preparing soft-shell crab is actually quite simple, and the payoff is a meal that’s both exciting and more affordable than what you’d pay in a restaurant. To get some expert tips on how to do it right, we employed the help of chef Ken Frank from Michelin-starred La Toque restaurant at The Westin Verasa Napa. He almost always has soft-shell crab on the menu when it’s in season, and he encourages home cooks to try preparing it at home.

“While it’s not necessary to buy them alive, they still need to be fresh enough to smell good,” Frank said. “They should be purchased from a good fishmonger the same day you plan to cook them.”

You’ve probably had your fair share of deep-fried soft-shell crab, likely piled high on a soft bun with lettuce and tomato. But Frank prefers to cook them simply, as he finds that the breading gets in the way of the crab’s delicately sweet flavor. “Cleaning and cooking soft-shell crab is really very easy if you know what to do,” he added. If you’re looking to prepare this gourmet treat at home, follow Frank’s simple cleaning and cooking steps below.

How to clean and cook soft-shell crab

Soft-shell crab La Toque
Megan Menicucci / La Toque

How to clean

There is a little work involved in getting soft-shell crab ready to be cooked, but you only need basic kitchen tools and skills, so it’s nothing you should be intimidated about.

First, trim and clean the crab. Using a pair of kitchen shears, trim off the mandible at the front (you’re basically removing the crab’s eyes and mouth when you do this). With the crab belly down on your cutting board, pull up each side of the top shell to reveal the soft, pointy little gills underneath. Trim them away where they meet the body and discard them. Then, turn the crab over and pull away the tail flap, or apron, which curls up under the body at the rear.

How to cook

Now that you have the crab cleaned and trimmed, it’s time to get it ready for the pan. It doesn’t take long to cook, so make sure you keep an eye on it at all times.

  • Heat a couple of tablespoons of butter in a saute pan over medium heat until it just begins to sizzle.
  • Add the crabs, with the white belly down, and cook for three to four minutes in the sizzling butter. The belly will begin to brown nicely when they’re done. Turn them on their backs and cook for another minute. It should look like the photo below:
Soft-shell crab La Toque
Megan Menicucci / La Toque
  • Turn them back on their bellies, remove from heat, and add a generous squeeze of lemon juice.
  • Allow them to simmer in the lemon butter for about a minute before transferring to a plate to serve.
  • Drizzle the crabs with some butter from the pan.
  • Enjoy the entire crab, including the shell, soaking up every drop of butter with soft white bread.

Grilled soft-shell crabs

Blue crab
wpopp / Wikimedia Commons

Since soft-shell crab season coincides with the warmer months, there’s no reason not to cook these crabs on the grill to let the flames do their magic and bring out their flavor. You can eat these crabs as-is, or they can be the main ingredient in a delicious sandwich.

(Recipe from Food & Wine)

Ingredients

  • 12 soft-shell crabs- cleaned and trimmed (see above for cleaning and trimming directions)
  • Vegetable oil for the grill grates
  • 4 ounces unsalted butter (1 stick)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 small shallots, minced
  • 1 teaspoon seafood seasoning (Old Bay works well)
  • Salt and pepper

Method

  1. Light the grill and brush the grates with vegetable oil.
  2. Melt the butter in a saucepan.
  3. Add the garlic, shallots, and seafood seasoning and cook over high heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Do not let the garlic brown.
  4. Brush the crabs generously with the flavored butter and season with salt and pepper.
  5. Grill the crabs over high heat, turning occasionally until they are bright red and charred in spots, about 4 minutes.
  6. Remove from the grill and serve.

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Amanda Gabriele
Amanda Gabriele is a food and travel writer at The Manual and the former senior editor at Supercall. She can’t live without…
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