Photo: Victor Protasio; Prop Styling: Claire Spollen; Food Styling: Torie Cox

Whether you're starting with the live crustacean or looking for a slightly more approachable option, here's everything you need to know about cooking crab. 

Gillie Houston
September 17, 2018

There’s no denying that crab is one of the most satisfying and versatile kinds of seafoods… once you’ve figured out how the heck to cook it. After all, fitted with hard-to-crack shells and protective pinchers, crabs are intimidating creatures, always ready to put up a fight. Luckily, there are many ways to purchase and prepare crabs, and once you’ve nailed down your go-to method, recreating endless kinds of crab recipes will be a breeze. Follow these tips for buying, storing, cleaning, and cooking four ways, and you’ll be a crab master in no time.

Buying, Storing, and Cleaning

While crab comes in many forms, there are three options for purchasing the shelled sea creatures: still alive, pre-cooked fresh or frozen, or processed and canned. For the freshest possible crab, purchasing still-kicking crabs straight from the water is the best bet. However, raw crab must be kept alive up until the point of cooking, as crabs’ bodies contain bacteria that deteriorate the meat quickly after death, making it extremely mushy in texture and eventually toxic to eat. The ideal live crabs will be lively—avoid any that are sluggish or barely moving—and have some heft to them, as about ¼ of a crab’s weight comes from its meat.

The other option, if you’d rather not deal with the still-moving specimens is to buy portions of the pre-cooked meat fresh or frozen from your fishmonger, grocery store, or an online retailer. When purchasing pre-cooked crab, make sure the meat is completely white, with no blue or grey spots, which indicates it wasn’t stored properly before cooking. If you’re looking to save money and are willing to compromise slightly on flavor—particularly in recipes where the crab is well integrated, like dips—you can also opt for processed crab meat in cans, or even imitation crab meat.

Once you’ve purchased your crab, the storage requirements differ based on which form you bought your crab in. Live crabs should be cooked on the same day they were purchased, but can be stored in an open container covered with wet paper or towels in a refrigerator or freezer for a few hours before cooking. Fresh pre-cooked crabmeat can be stored in the refrigerator for two days before it should be prepared or frozen. Check the printed expiration date and storage instructions for any canned and processed crab meat, as these will vary from product to product.

When purchasing live crab there are a couple of options for guaranteeing the crab is safe to consume. The first is to drop the live crab directly into boiling water, which will kill any bacteria before it has a chance to release into the crabmeat. For those who find it squeamish to cook the crab while still alive, the crab can be numbed in the freezer for a few hours or shocked in an ice water bath for a few minutes before having the tip of a sharp knife driven into the crab about an inch below the mouth in the center of its body before cooking. 

The second option is to remove the guts of the crab prior to cooking after following the numbing method above, which results in a cleaner and faster-cooking end product.  In order to de-gut the freshly killed crab, cleave the body in half down the center between its eyes, scoop out the loose guts and gills and spray the halves down with water. If you do decide to bisect the crab, make sure to reduce the cooking time of a whole crab recipe by a few minutes, as it will cook faster.

When purchasing and preparing frozen crab, make sure the crab is fully thawed before cooking. This can be done by keeping the frozen crab in the refrigerator overnight, or by placing in cool water on the counter for a few hours, replacing the water occasionally when it reaches room temperature. 

WATCH: How to Make the Best-Ever Crab Cakes

Boiling

 Once you’ve purchased your crab of choice, there are a handful of options for cooking the crustaceans. The most traditional method of these is boiling the crabs in a large stockpot, filling the pot with enough water to completely cover all of the crabs, along with ½ cup salt for each gallon of water. In addition to water, popular additions that add some extra flavor to the crab include a glass of white wine or can of beer, as well as herbs and seasonings like Old Bay, garlic, bay leaves, pepper, and parsley.

Bring your water to a rolling boil and use tongs to lower your crabs in entirely; then, reduce the water temperature to a simmer and cook the crabs between 15-20 minutes depending on the size of your crustaceans before transferring them to an ice bath, which will prevent the meat from sticking to the shell. Once cooked and cooled, peel back the top shell and rinse the crab with water to remove the guts and gills. 

Steaming

Another traditional method for cooking crab is steaming, which is a great way to ensure flavorful crab that hasn’t been watered down by the boiling process. Unlike the boiling method, the crab cannot be steamed alive, and must be killed before cooking. Fill a large stockpot fitted with a steamer with a few inches of salted water, optionally adding a cup of beer or wine, cloves of garlic, and the seasonings and herbs of your choice to the liquid. Once the water is steaming, add your crabs to the basket, cover, reduce the heat to medium-high, and cook for about 15 minutes per 2 pounds of crab before transferring to an ice bath. 

Baking

Baked crabs are a great option for those who want to go a slightly less traditional crab boil route, and add extra flavors and ingredients to their crab during the cooking process.  For this method, live crabs must be pre-cooked by being half-steamed or boiled before the baking process begins; if you’ve purchased pre-cooked crab they can be baked as-is. Once the crab has been cleaned properly, brush the meat with butter infused with the ingredients of your choice, such as garlic, shallots, and ginger.

Place the halved crabs in a single layer on a large roasting tray and cook for approximately 10 minutes in a 450-degree oven until the meat is golden brown.

Grilling

Similar to baking, grilled crabs should be pre-cooked half way—about 5 minutes in boiling water or the steamer—cooled and cleaned before heading to the grill. Brush the crab meat with butter or olive oil mixed and the seasonings and herbs of your choosing and cook on a medium-hot grill for approximately 4 minutes per side.

To learn how to cook soft-shelled crab, check out this easy-to-follow guide.

Finishing Touches

Once you’ve made some perfectly cooked crab, the options for serving your seafood are plentiful. You can go the traditional crab boil route, serving your crabby creatures whole with crackers and butter for dipping, or integrate the freshly cooked or processed crab meat into a variety of recipes.

Keep it classic with the likes of Crab Cakes, a Crab Roll, and Crab Bisque. Or get the party started with the help of Hot Crab Dip and Greek Crab Dip, Mini Crab Melts, and Baked Crab Rangoon.

Throw a crab-inspired brunch complete with Crab Cake Eggs Benedicts, Lump Crab Salad, and Cucumber Gazpacho with Blue Crab. Or, think outside the net with an unexpected play on crab, like Crab Pot Pie, Asian Fried Crab Balls, and Italian Crab and Pasta.

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