How to cook soft-shell crabs, a seasonal delicacy

Fried Soft-Shell Crabs With Almond Green Beans

Total time:25 mins

Services:4 to 8

Total time:25 mins

Services:4 to 8

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“Tell people they can eat the whole thing,” one of my colleagues urged me when I told her I planned to write about soft-shell crabs.

If you love blue crabs but are daunted by all that cracking and picking, consider this waste-free, less messy and delicious way to eat them. The key is getting the freshest, tenderest crabs you can find.

One of my favorite food memories from my days as a reporter at the Daily Comet in Thibodaux, La., is when a neighbor knocked on my door. She and her fisherman husband had come across some soft shells, and she wanted to know if I wanted a share of them. She held out a tray with live small crabs.

They obviously had just recently swum free of their old shells. I was so excited that I hope I said thank you as I quickly took them inside. Immediately, I called my mother and asked how to clean them. I sauteed them in a couple of tablespoons of butter, sprinkled them with salt and pepper, and devoured them with a few quick squeezes of lemon.

And that’s how I’d recommend cooking soft shells if — and this is a big if — you can find them when they are at that just-right soft and pliable stage.

Blue crabs molt about 20 times in their lifetime. This is how they grow. They shed their outer shell, then take in water, causing the softened shell to expand and grow. Within a couple of hours after they shed, the new shell begins hardening. Once they reach “paper shell” stage — most experts say that is within about 12 hours — the shell is tougher. In a couple of days, the shells usually are hard once again.

Soft-shell crabs are easy to clean and prepare, so for home cooks, the toughest part is getting your hands on fresh ones. You can buy the soft shells at supermarkets and from seafood purveyors.

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Rather than catching them soft, commercial fishermen catch them when they are close to molting and a black line has formed along the edge of their swimming legs. When this line turns pinkish or red, the crab is referred to as a “shedder.” The fishermen watch them molt and then remove them from the water, which stops them from hardening. Then they pack the crabs for shipping to a fish market, restaurant or processor for freezing.

“Fresh ones are just ambrosia,” said Tenney Flynn, founding chef at GW Fins in New Orleans and author of the seafood cookbook “The Deep End of Flavor.” He recommends avoiding frozen soft shells because they are so delicate. Once frozen, they have a less-than-fresh flavor. “If they are paper shells, you can try to peel off a layer of the shell on the top shell and discard it and snip it off,” he said.

If the soft shells you are buying are live, Flynn says, you want them to be docile. “The proper attitude of a soft shell is the opposite of a [hard shell] blue crab — cowering passivity as opposed to ‘I’ll fight you.’”

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The crabs I was able to find at DC-area markets were not as pliable I would have liked, but even at this slightly later stage, I still enjoy them. I just prefer to beat and deep fry them. You can soak them in buttermilk, but I like to simply dip them in an egg wash; beat them with seasoned cornmeal, flour or a combination; and quickly fry them until golden.

You can ask your fishmonger to clean them, but once cleaned, they should be cooked right away. Besides, crabs are easy to clean yourself.

Gently rinse them and pat them dry. Place a crab on a work surface and, with kitchen shears or a sharp knife, cut away just behind the eyes. Then slip your knife inside and pull out the stomach if you choose. (Some people do not do this, but if you are deep frying, it is a good idea, Flynn said, noting: “They’re much more likely to explode when you’re frying them, which can throw 350-degree heat around , and you don’t want that.”)

After that, lift each top side of the shell and cut or pull off the gills. Then flip the crab over and cut off the apron — the little part that flips up — on the belly.

Try fried crabs with your favorite vegetable on the side, like the green beans amandine here. (Toss some of the buttery, golden almonds and garlic atop your crab, too, if you like). Or tuck them between two slices of French bread with a slice of juicy red tomato and a smear of tartar sauce or remoulade.

Fried Soft-Shell Crabs With Almond Green Beans

The soft-shell crabs are best eaten immediately after frying.

Storage Notes: Refrigerate the crabs for up to 1 day, the beans for up to 3 days.

Where to Buy: Soft-shell crabs can be found at Asian and seafood markets and well-stocked supermarkets.

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  • 2 tablespoons salted butter
  • 1/4 cup (about 1 ounce) sliced ​​almonds
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 pound fresh or frozen green beans, stems removed, thawed if frozen
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup fine yellow or white cornmeal
  • 1 cayenne pepper teaspoon (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
  • 4 cleaned large soft-shell crabs (about 3 to 4 ounces each; see NOTE)
  • Vegetable oil, for frying
  • Lemon wedges, for serving (optional)
  • Remoulade, for serving (optional); store-bought or homemade, see related recipes

Make the green beans: In a large skillet with a tightfitting lid over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the almonds and garlic and fry, stirring frequently, until both are just golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the beans and toss occasionally until well-coated. Cook until the beans turn bright green but are still crisp, about 2 minutes. With the skillet lid handy, add the lemon juice. Quickly cover the beans as the steam rises and remove the skillet from the heat. (The thin beans will continue to cook with the residual heat. If you use thicker green beans, you may want to steam them over low heat until tender, after adding the juice.)

Make the crabs: In a bowl, whisk the egg with water until combined. In another shallow bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, cayenne (if using), smoked paprika and salt. Gently rinse the crabs under cold water and pat them dry, pressing very gently to remove any excess water. Dip each crab in the egg wash, then lightly coat it with the flour mixture, shaking off any excess. Transfer the coated crabs to a plate.

Place a towel-lined platter near the stove. In a Dutch oven or high-sided skillet over high heat, pour the oil to a depth of about 1 inch, and heat until the oil reaches about 350 degrees. Working in two batches, if necessary, use thongs to lower the crabs into the oil. Fry, turning once, until golden and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to the prepared platter and drain. Repeat with the remaining crabs, if needed.

Give the green beans a stir, then evenly divide them and the crabs between two plates. Serve with lemon wedges and remoulade, if desired.

NOTE: Most soft-shell crabs you buy in grocery stores will be cleaned, but if you buy live soft-shell crabs, you will have to clean them yourself. It is best to clean and cook them right away, but you can store them in the refrigerator for up to 1 day. When ready to cook, gently rinse with cold water and pat dry. Using kitchen shears or a sharp knife, cut the crab across the face to remove the eyes and lower mouth, about a 1/4-inch strip. Using the tip of the knife, reach inside the crab and remove the stomach. Carefully lift the top shell of the crab to pull out or cut away the gills. Turn the crab over and remove its apron, or underside.

Due to deep frying, the amount of oil absorbed will vary, making a meaningful analysis impossible.

From recipes editor Ann Maloney.

Tested by Ann Maloney; e-mail questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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