Why Eat It
Nutrition Chart

Why Eat It

Found in the Atlantic and the Pacific, these crustaceans can be divided into two categories: swimming crabs, such as the blue crab, and walking crabs such as the rock crab. Beyond that, there are dozens of different crabs, but a handful dominate the market.


Blue crab: In the East, the hard-shell Atlantic blue crab (sold as soft-shell crab in the seasons when it is molting) is the premier variety: Live hard-shells are marketed when they are about 5" to 7" across and are most abundant in summer. Soft-shells are available from May to September. Boiling and steaming are the easiest way to cook hard-shells; soft-shell crabs are usually sauteed, but can be baked.

Stone crab: Another East-coast species, the Florida stone crab is unusual in that only its meaty, thick-shelled claws are eaten: When the crab is caught, just one leg is removed and the crab is thrown back--it has the ability to regenerate the missing leg. Stone crabs are caught from October through March.

Dungeness crab: The Pacific coast from California to Alaska is the source for the Dungeness crab, one of the larger species. Most weigh between 1 1/2 and three pounds, but the largest can weigh as much as four pounds. Winter and early spring are the prime seasons for live crab.

Alaska king crab: The Alaska king crab, the largest of all crabs, is mostly sold as cooked and frozen meat from the legs and claws.

Snow crabs: Snow crabs are harvested in both the North Atlantic and the North Pacific; like king crabs, their meat is mostly sold cooked and frozen, so it is available all year round.


Crabs are sold live, and their meat--delicately sweet, firm yet flaky--is available fresh cooked, frozen, and canned. Fresh crabmeat is sold as lump, backfin, or flake. Lump crabmeat, which consists of large, choice chunks of body meat, is the finest and most expensive. Backfin is smaller pieces of body meat. Flake is white meat from the body and other parts and is in flakes and shreds. Some fresh-cooked crab is pasteurized after cooking, which helps it keep longer. Canned crab is often imported from Asia and may come from a variety of species.

As with finfish, your nose and eyes can tell you a lot about the merchandise. Crabs should smell briny-fresh, and look bright and clean. Shells should be hard (except for soft-shell crabs) and moist. Live crabs should be active, moving their legs when touched. Choose crabs that feel heavy for their size.

Cooked crab should smell perfectly fresh, with no trace of ammonia or a "fishy" smell, and should have bright orange-red shells. Crabmeat should be snowy white (meat from some parts of the crab may be tinged with brown or red). Cooked crab should be purchased the same day they were cooked. Fresh-cooked crab should not be displayed alongside raw fish or shellfish, as bacteria can migrate from the raw to the cooked.

Before using cooked crabmeat, check for any stray pieces of cartilage or shell. Wearing gloves, pick over the crabmeat and discard any shell or cartilage you may find. Chances are, even if you've purchased crabmeat that is clean, it still has a little shell or cartilage in it.


It's best to cook and eat live crabs the same day they are purchased. Fresh-cooked crabmeat will keep for two days in the refrigerator. Pasteurized packaged crabmeat will keep for about six months unopened.


If you plan to boil live hard-shell crabs, you can simply drop them headfirst into boiling water. If you plan to cook them by another method, such as broiling, they need to be killed first. If you want the fish seller to perform this task for you, be sure to make your purchase shortly before you plan to cook the crabs; or you can do it at home using a heavy chef's knife.

To kill a crab: Place it upside down on a cutting board, lay the knife lengthwise on the belly of the crab and strike it firmly with a mallet to cut the crab in half. Break off the shells, first the bottom belly flap and then the top shell; remove and discard the spongelike gills. Then twist off and crack the legs and claws to extract the meat. Remove the body meat as well, pick over all the meat for shell bits, and it is ready to cook. Soft-shell crabs can be killed by cutting off their eyes and about 1/8" of their head with a sharp knife or large shears. Lift up the side flaps and remove and discard the soft, spongy gills. With your fingers, remove the tail flap. If you prefer, your fish seller can do this for you, but have it done just before you plan on cooking the crab.

When it comes to cooking hard shell crab, the trick is to heat them sufficiently to destroy harmful organisms, but not so long as to make the flesh too tough. This requires careful monitoring, as crab can be toughened by just seconds of overcooking. Cooking times vary depending on size and species, but crabs undergo a characteristic change when cooked, which can help you judge doneness: The shell of a live crab will turn from green or blue to scarlet, and its flesh will turn from translucent to opaque. In addition, the apron (a triangular flap of shell on the crab's belly) will loosen when the flesh is cooked.

Baking: Soft-shell crabs should be cleaned, coated in crumbs or with a sauce and baked at 350°F for 30 to 40 minutes.

Boiling: Live crabs are often cooked by dropping them into boiling water, which cooks them quickly. Cook them at a rolling boil. For extra flavor, use fish stock instead of plain water, or add a few lemon wedges to the water.

Sauteing: This method for cooking soft-shell crabs traditionally requires quite a bit of butter or oil. For a healthier low-fat saute, be sure to use a nonstick pan; spray it with cooking spray or brush it lightly with oil. Soft-shell crabs should be lightly dusted with flour or cornstarch before sauteing. Make sure the crab is well dried before cooking or it may splatter in the pan. As a further precaution, shake the pan gently and remove the crabs from the pan promptly when they are done, or they will continue to cook (and will likely overcook) from the heat retained by the pan. Saute until firm to the touch. Cooking time: two to three minutes per side.

Steaming: Hard- or soft-shell crabs can be steamed, not in a rack over boiling water, but in a small amount of liquid: Place them in a pot with about 1 to 2 inches of boiling liquid (water, wine, or seasoned broth), cover, and steam over high heat for a minimum of six minutes for safety's sake. If desired, season the steaming liquid with cloves, ginger, and whatever other spices you care to use.

Stir-frying: This Asian technique works well for shelled cooked crabmeat. Follow directions for stir-frying the dish, cooking vegetables and seasonings first, then add the crab at the end and cook just long enough to heat through.

Nutrition Chart

Dungeness Crab/3 ounces cooked

Total fat (g)
Saturated fat (g)
Monounsaturated fat (g)
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
Dietary fiber (g)
Carbohydrate (g)
Cholesterol (mg)
Sodium (mg)
Niacin (mg)
Vitamin B12 (mcg)
Copper (mg)
Phosphorus (mg)
Selenium (mcg)
Zinc (mg)

Date Published: 04/20/2005
Previous  |  Next
> Printer-friendly Version Return to Top