As early colonists, we believed the Maryland blue crab to be poisonous, until the Native Americans showed us otherwise.
Soft shells were slower to catch on than hard shells: About two centuries slower, when finally, in 1873, a Philadelphia market accepted a shipment of soft-shell crabs from the tiny Eastern Shore town of Crisfield. But it worked.
Just a decade later, the Boston Cooking School included instructions on their proper preparation and, by the mid 1940s, nearly 300,000 soft-shell crabs were shipping from the Chesapeake Bay to all 50 states and beyond every single day during the April-to-November season.
Today, we still can’t get enough: 51 million pounds strong in 2008, says the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, yielding $54 million in revenues.
And no wonder. Soft-shell crabs are incomparably delicious. Just be sure to ignore the slightly disconcerting, bug-like look on your plate (indeed, they’re related to wood lice, spiders, and water fleas). It’s worth it for the singular reward of indulging in this iconic Free State fare.
She Sells Soft Shells
Like all crustaceans, soft-shell crabs sold at the market are quite volatile. How do you get the best?
“Become friends with your fishmonger,” says Whitey Schmidt (aka the Blue Crab Guru), longtime foodie and author of multiple Chesapeake Bay-centric cookbooks. That’ll get a primo selection set aside for you, or at least a phone tip-off about a new catch arriving.
But not straight from the bay, exactly: Watermen drop their crab pots in the Chesapeake, pull them out a few days later, and bring the “jimmys” back to the dock. Here, the crabs are transferred to shallow slough trays, which are constantly irrigated with bay water. Every four hours, the crabs are closely inspected; any molting ones—called “busters”—are removed and taken to market.
To select worthy crabs, run your fingers over them; they should feel soft and smooth. And alive, because they are. Smell ammonia? Move on. That’s the distinctive odor of a blue crab gone bad.
Store your selections in wet newspaper or seaweed at 50 degrees or below, all the way down to 36 degrees. Lower than that, they’ll die, and then you better start heating up the skillet.
Or freeze them for out-of-season eating. Yes, they’ll lose that special bloom of freshness only to be had with a live catch, but when the siren call for a soft shell starts ringing in your head, a frozen one always trumps none at all.
Dress ‘Em Up
Like anything worth eating, there’s some necessary prep before actually cooking soft shells. As you know, they’re sold alive, like lobsters and mussels, to ensure freshness (this is preferred to ptomaine poisoning, which can happen with eating already-dead seafood).
So brace yourself—and the crab—for the first step: Chop off its eyes. Actually, you’re chopping behind the eyes, effectively removing the head. Sharp scissors work well here.
(Note: You can do this more compassionately by first plunging the crabs into icy water, lulling them into a state of semi-consciousness before axing off their faces. Or, effectively euthanize the crab by ice-picking its head from the underside, behind the mouth. Yes, this is unsavory. But remember, crabs will happily cannibalize each other without a single remorseful thought in their crunchy little heads. So keep your eyes on the prize: a feast-food extraordinaire.)
Pry up the front shell and remove the white feathery appendages—the lungs—which are unpalatable. Then pry open the back to remove the intestines, if desired; some people skip this step.
You can also skip squeezing out the bile, called the “mustard,” if you want, but many people like the tangy taste. Up to you. Flip open the apron and thoroughly flush the crab with water to remove sand and debris from all sides and crevices.