A rite of spring in eastern North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland, soft shell crab season has arrived.
Between April and May, blue crabs are shedding their shells to accommodate summer growth, meaning the season for fresh soft shells is short, usually ending in late June or early July.
The meat is sweet and tangy, and the crabs are sold by size.
NC Catch, a statewide group that works to promote, educate and strengthen the North Carolina seafood economy, offers the following tips for picking the perfect soft shell:
The trick to harvesting soft-shells is to catch them in the transitional stage. Rather than scour the ocean for soft-shelled crabs, fishermen typically capture them before they molt and hold them in saltwater tanks. As soon as the crabs drop their shells, they’re pulled out of the water, which stops a new exoskeleton from hardening.
Shopping for soft shells
Crabs are at their weakest when molting. They won’t move much. But if the soft-shells at your local seafood market aren’t moving at all, don’t buy them. Soft-shells should be alive until no more than a few hours before cooking. If you’re taking live crabs home, keep them on ice in the coldest part of the refrigerator and cook them within a day.
Do I need to clean them?
Plenty of fishmongers will take care of the cleaning for you, and you caneven cook an uncleaned crab if you’re so inclined. You’ll just have to deal with gristle and chew, and you’ll have a few tough pieces on the plate when you’re done. But the cleaning process is easy, and highly recommended. Here’s how it goes: First, using a sharp pair of kitchen shears, slice off the mouth and eyes, and squeeze out the jelly-like substance behind the cut. Then, gently lift the top shell on the left side. Reach a finger inside and scoop out the gills. Repeat the process on the right side. Finally, flip the crab and remove the tough apron on the belly. Now, you can eat the whole crab. Just keep it on ice until you’re ready.
And finally, a recipe for a simple soft shell crab sandwich from the N.C. Cooperative Extension:
- ¼ cup mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
- ¼ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
Whisk mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, whole grain mustard, and Old Bay seasoning in small bowl. Sauce can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and chill.
- 1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
- 2 cups thinly sliced cabbage
- 1 Jalapeno pepper, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced crosswise Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
Whisk vinegar and mustard in medium bowl. Add cabbage and pepper and toss to combine; season with salt and pepper.
- Vegetable oil (for frying; about 2 cups)
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning, divided Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
- 2 large eggs, beaten to blend
- 1¼ cups panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
- 4 soft-shell crabs, cleaned 4
- soft buns, warmed
Pour oil into a large skillet, preferably cast iron, to a depth of 1/2″ and heat over medium-high heat until oil bubbles immediately when a pinch of flour is added. Meanwhile, whisk flour, cayenne, and 1 tsp. Old Bay seasoning in a shallow bowl; season with salt and pepper.
Place eggs into another shallow bowl. Whisk panko and remaining 1 tsp. Old Bay seasoning in a third shallow bowl; season with salt and pepper. Dredge crabs in flour mixture, shaking off excess, then dip in egg, letting excess drip back into bowl. Coat in panko mixture.
Working in 2 batches, place crabs, shell side down, in skillet and cook until golden brown, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Season with salt. Build sandwiches with buns, sauce, crabs, and slaw.