Spring has sprung and so has the soft shell crab!

Softshell crabs are simply blue crabs that have molted. Wikipedia image

June 2022

By Jean Kerr

Spring is fully sprung by now in New England (that snow squall we had on May 3rd was surely an aberration), which means all kinds of good things are happening. Boats are sliding down the railway and floating off trailers. Varnish is being refreshed, masts stepped, bottoms painted and moorings checked. The ocean is still breathtakingly cold here on the Maine coast, but that doesn’t stop us.

Someone like myself, for whom food is generally top of mind, the arrival of the early summer season also means a new wave of culinary delights, soft shell crabs and shad roe among them. (For the latter, check out the May 2021 issue of Points East, available online.)

Soft shell crabs are not a separate species of crab, simply blue crabs that have molted. Blue crabs are most plentiful in the mid-Atlantic and southern states, though the Chesapeake Bay has a solid claim to blue crab fame in my book. Eating the entire crab is a bit odd for some people, but the first time I tried it, I was hooked. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just getting to the crabmeat in a more direct way, with the opportunity to add flavors like butter and lemon. The soft shells have a somewhat firm texture, with a hint of slightly crunchy resistance to the tooth.

As these crustaceans grow, they shed their too-tight carapaces to grow new, larger ones. Once the size-too-small shell has been shed, the tender covering beneath takes time to harden into the kind of shell you need a mallet to crack. Ah, Old Bay, cold beer, and… a story for another day.

You can consume all of a soft shell crab, except for a few bits that are trimmed off when cleaned or dressed, i.e., mandibles, apron and lungs/gills. A few years back, my devotion to the culinary arts led me to ask one of my favorite fish vendors (Seaport Fish in Rye, New Hampshire) to show me how to do this. Now I know – it’s not hard. Thanks to them for the lesson. In the future, I’ll still ask you guys to do it.

Frozen soft shells are okay, but if you’ve had them fresh, you’ll notice the difference in texture and flavor. (If you only have access to frozen, defrost them yourself, so you’ll know how long they have been thawed.) If you are lucky enough to find a fishmonger that has live soft shell crabs in season, they will (or should) do this for you.

After getting prepped/dressed, they could hardly be easier to cook. A little dredge in seasoned flour, quick pan fry in butter and/or oil, and a squeeze of lemon, and you’re good to go. On the previous page you’ll find a similar preparation that’s almost as easy, with a classic French name.

Jean Kerr is the author of four cookbooks, including, “Mystic Seafood” and “Maine Windjammer Cooking.” She is the former editor of Northeast Flavor Magazine and a regular contributor to Cruising World.

Soft Shell Crab Meunière

Serves 2-4

Allow 6-8 ounces of crab per person for a main course. They come in various sizes, so ask your fishmonger about how many to serve.

Ingredients

  • 4 jumbo soft-shell crabs, cleaned
  • 1 cup of half and half or buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 6 tablespoons butter, divided
  • Juice of one lemon
  • 1 tablespoon capers

 

Instructions

  • Rinse the crabs under cold water and pat dry. Pour buttermilk into a large shallow bowl and soak the crabs for 5 minutes.
  • Combine the flour, paprika, salt and pepper in a large shallow bowl. Dredge each crab in this mixture and shake off any extra coating.
  • Heat 3 tablespoons of the butter in a heavy frying pan until melted and just beginning to become golden and nutty smelling. Add the crabs to the skillet without crowding and cook til golden brown, about 3 minutes on each side, or until flesh is just opaque and cooked through. Remove to a serving platter and keep warm.
  • Add remaining butter, lemon juice, and capers to the pan, turn up the flame a bit, and allow to bubble up and reduce until slightly thickened. Pour over crabs and serve hot with extra lemon slices and a sprinkle of your favorite fresh herbs.