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.
Soft shell crabs are actually blue crabs that have recently molted their hard shell. In the spring, 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 says. “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 much 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 adds. If you’re looking to prepare this gourmet treat at home, follow chef Frank’s simple cleaning and cooking steps below.
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. Then, turn the crab over and pull away the tail flap, or apron, which curls up under the body at the rear.
- Heat a couple of tablespoons of butter in a sauté pan over medium heat until it just begins to sizzle.
- Add the crabs, 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.
- 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 tasty butter from the pan.
- Enjoy the entire crab, shell and all, soaking up every drop of butter with soft white bread.
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