Soft shell crabs are soft-bodied, freshly molten blue crab. The blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, is a variety of swimming crab typically found in the Western Atlantic. It is ‘famous’ in the mid-Atlantic coast region of the US. This blue crab variety is being discussed here, although there are other similar swimming crab species endemic to other oceans and are harvested in the same methods as soft shells and sold commercially live fresh or frozen.
A blue crab has a life span of about three years. In that life span, it becomes a soft shell after each mold and is in this stage for less than a couple of hours. In their three-year life span, this crab may molt between 18 to 23 times. The peak times for the molting stages are May through September, making the soft shell crab season beginning and ending then, too.
The soft shells are typically sold fresh and live, although the frozen stuff is available year round. In restaurant kitchens, the season’s first delivery of soft shell crabs is a highly anticipated event. They are usually tightly packed in shallow cardboard boxes lined up like tiny soldiers, perfectly aligned and dressed in brilliant red, white and blue uniforms. They are covered in hay to keep them moist and alive.
On the first delivery, a few crabs are sacrificed to a speedy cook’s ritual one-eye-on-the-door for the owner, then they ‘address the crabs’: faces removed, gills trimmed and aprons pulled off. A quick salt, pepper, dust of flour and into a hot sauté pan. They are then torn apart with a pair of tongs, dipped into whatever remoulade or pesto is on the prep carts. The newly addressed crabs are usually prepared, cooked and eaten within 5 minutes after checking in the delivery – you just can’t wait.
Differences in Preparation between Hard Shell and Soft Shell Crabs
The hard shell blue crabs are considerably more stubborn in relinquishing their tasty tidbits. The hard shell crab is first cooked in court bouillon or a crab boil mix. Then the fun begins – removing the tiny edible portions from the crab’s armor defenses. At this stage you will need formal training: a mallet, picker, knife and brute force are the equipment and the challenge is to access the meat. The hard shell protects the arms and claws. The carapace presents another challenge in that the meat is segmented by numerous slots of hard and brittle shell. These shell pieces do break off and find their way into the meat during removal. More than a few cooks have made crab cakes that had an additional crunch other than just what the panko crust had imparted.
Hard shell crabs provide the commercially available crab seen in #1 can size ‘lump’ meat (removed from the carapace) and ‘claw’ meat from, yes, the claw but also the merus (arm section) may be included.
The hard shell crabs are fun to eat and better suited to outdoor picnic benches, with some old clothes, a big mallet, and a few hours to relax and pick and scrape through the carnage of shells and mallet-smashed meat.
Soft shell crab preparation is much simpler: you eat the entire crab – shell and all except for some small unpleasant bits that are easily removed in less than a minute. Prep includes some snips with only a pair of kitchen shears or regular scissors and the crab is ready to cook. Crab eating free from teeth shattering crunches.
Recipes for Soft Shell Crab
Good recipes are as simple as salt and pepper and a dredging in flour. A quick sauté in hot pan and served with a favorite brand of cocktail sauce or on a bun with lettuce, tomato and onion. For stunningly sophisticated simplicity, check out the soft shell crab recipe “Soft Shell Crab Sandwich” and techniques from the French Laundry cookbook.