One of the more coveted restaurant dishes during their brief season, soft-shell crabs offer the most intense natural flavor of any crab dish. Part of the reason is that they are eaten whole, shell and claws, with meat that is sweet and bursting with ocean flavors.
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Soft-shell crabs are Eastern blue crabs caught right before they molt in May. A signature dish around Chesapeake Bay and parts of the Atlantic coast, they are usually held in tanks just before molting, with just a matter of days before they set a new, hard shell.
Soft-shells are usually sold live, wrapped in a damp covering for shipping. Only pick those that move a little, discarding any that smell anything other than briny. Although they will keep overnight in the refrigerator, they should really be cooked on the day they are bought.
- Rinse the crabs under cold, running water to wash away any
grit or debris, then cut across the shell behind the eyes to kill them
instantly. Scissors are ideal for the purpose.
- Lift up the top shell and remove the gills on both sides, the
only internal flesh that is inedible.
- Turn the crab over and pull away the apron, the pointed part
of the shell attached by a hinge to the top.
Soft-shells are also available frozen, in which case they will already have been cleaned and prepared. Defrost them in the refrigerator before cooking.
Soft-shells are easy to cook, requiring only a few minutes in a hot skillet. To showcase their natural flavors, fry them in butter for no more than four minutes per side until they change color from blue to red and puff up.
Drain them on paper towels and dress with lemon juice, parsley and capers, chopping them up if necessary to allow the sauce to penetrate.
For a spicier twist, prepare a curry butter with ginger, garlic, cumin and cayenne pepper, toasting the spices first in a dry skillet to release the aromas.
Because soft-shells are so tender, they can also be sauteed in garlic, butter and white wine, then chopped up and tossed with pasta.
A crunchier version calls for tossing the soft-shells in all-purpose flour and some Old Bay Seasoning, ubiquitous around crab country.
For the greatest contrast between the moist crab meat and the shell, toss the softies in flour, egg and breadcrumbs, with some paprika or cayenne pepper for spice.
Deep-fry the crab in small batches at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for no more than four to five minutes, turning once, then drain on kitchen towel.
Steam builds up rapidly in the legs, which can then rupture and spit hot oil, so pierce the claws and legs first with a pin.
Whether pan- or deep-fried, soft-shells make an indulgent, if unlikely, sandwich filling. Serve in a po’ boy or sesame bun heaped with coleslaw and mayonnaise or tartar sauce, with a dash of Tabasco or hot sauce for some kick.
Soft-shells can also be dredged directly in cornmeal for a rough, abrasive coating or dipped in a tempura batter of flour, egg yolk and club soda for a moister, Asian-inspired finish.
To cut out the oiliness, lay soft-shells on a grill or under a broiler, basted with melted butter, lemon juice and some Tabasco sauce.
After a matter of minutes, the shell will change color and swell, but the meat inside will have absorbed the dressing.