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The Great Crab Debate: To Clean Now, or Clean Later

by: Shannon Rice

The most traditional way to prepare crabs is to cook them first and clean them later. (Photo by Julie Burwood)

Nothing says summer like an afternoon spent picking fresh steamed crabs on a newspaper-lined table. The smell of Old Bay, a cold beverage and the sound of shells a-crackin’ – now that’s Rivah relaxation few can argue with. However, in recent years there has been some debate over how that bushel of crabs is prepared.

What it all boils down to (pun intended) is whether you want to clean your crabs before or after you cook them.

The easiest and perhaps most traditional way to do it is to cook first, clean later. Karen Arnest of Arnest Seafood in Tappahannock walks us through the process.

First, fill a large pot with water and vinegar or beer. You should have about one inch of liquid, said Karen. Then, place a steamer rack inside the pot.

There is little to do to prepare the crabs for steaming. A quick spray with the water hose and then the crabs go in the steamer pot live.

“For the freshest crab, they need to be kicking and pinching when they go in,” says Karen.

If a long, live boil seems barbaric to you however, Karen’s husband, Lee, offers a couple different suggestions. He notes some people will stab the crabs first. Others “shock” the crabs by placing them in ice water then turn on the stove.

“This makes the presentation a little nice as all the legs will stay on,” he says.

Place the crabs on the steamer rack belly-side down. Then, all you add is a little bit of J.O., Old Bay or seasoning of your choice.

“This is done to taste here,” says Karen. “We add more or less depending on how the customer likes it.”

Those looking for a different flavor may add pickling spices to the pot as well.

A half-dozen blue crabs typically take 12 minutes to cook while a half bushel make take up to 45 minutes.

“There should be no green color left to your crabs. That’s how you know they’re done,” says Karen.

Remove crabs from the steamer using tongs. Add a little more seasoning if you like and then it’s to the table where the picking and butter dipping commence.

While keeping crabs intact is the steaming method most locals use, there is another way. Take the backs off the crabs before they are steamed.

Removing Crab Shell: To remove the outer shell, stick your thumb into the hole left from removing the abdomen and lift up firmly. (Photos by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi)
Water hose cleaning: The best way to rinse the guts and goo from a crab is with a water hose.
Crabs are clean and ready to be steamed.
Sprinkle with seasoning: Give your crabs a good coating of your favorite seafood seasoning.

“When you do it the traditional way, all of the seasoning is on the outside, on the shell. Nothing gets to the meat itself,” says Lee.

“Pulling the backs off first helps the seasoning get in a little better.”

The steaming process is pretty much the same but the preparation is a bit different. Essentially you are cleaning the crab before you cook it rather than while you pick it. Additionally this method requires less water for boiling and results in a cleaner table product.

“This way isn’t as messy as the classic style,” says Arnest Lee.

First, remove the abdomen with your fingers. Also called the apron, the abdomen is the flap of shell on the underside of the crab. Then, remove the outer shell (the back of the crab) by sticking your thumb into the hole left from removing the abdomen and lifting up firmly. If you have any trouble handling the live crab, the crab can be killed quickly by a blow to the abdomen. The shell should detach from the body with some guts attached.

Now the cleaning begins.

Remove and discard the leaf-like, spongy gills from either side of the body and then rinse out the greenish-brown colored guts.

“A good old water hose is the best thing for rinsing,” says Lee.

Break off and discard the mandibles, which are the mouthparts at the front of the crab.

From here, you simply follow the same steaming procedures as the traditional method.

Whether you prefer a cleaner, well-seasoned end product or you don’t mind getting down and dirty, you can’t go wrong with crabs. Happy picking!

Frequently asked cooking questions
from Steven C. Zinski

Q: Most of the claws fell off during cooking! How can I prevent this from happening in the future?

A: One of the crab’s natural escape mechanisms allows it to “drop” a limb in order to avoid capture. This is known as autotomy. Should a predator clamp down on a crab’s claw—or any other limb—preventing its escape, the crab may “self-amputate” or sacrifice the limb so that it can free itself and swim to safety. When you pile a bunch of crabs into a pot and turn up the heat, the crab instinctively tries to escape. Dropping its claws is simply the crab’s last futile attempt to run away.

To avoid this (and be more humane), you can stun each crab by immersing it in ice-water for several minutes prior to cooking (this causes the crab to enter a dormant state, or “sleep.”) Or, you can euthanize the crab immediately prior to cooking. This is done by poking a sharp, pointed object (e.g., an ice pick) through the crab’s “head” which kills it instantly. Hold the crab on its back and insert the pick through the shell just below the crab’s mouth parts.

Happy picking: Enjoy!

Q: I just cooked some crabs and they were hollow and full of water. I bought a new steamer and know they did not touch the beer/vinegar brine that I use… but where did all the water come from? They were definitely alive and didn’t look bad when I bought them… when you cracked off the legs, water just poured out all over. My husband is telling me it was something I did wrong, but I know something was up with the crabs. Can you help?

A: This is a very common occurrence and is not the result of your cooking technique. You simply got a hold of some “whiteys” or “water galls”, recently shed crabs that have not fattened up enough to fill their shells.

Q: What is the yellow stuff inside a cooked crab? Some people call it “mustard.” Is it fat?

A: Contrary to popular belief, the “mustard” (or the “green gland” or “tomalley”) is not fat, it’s actually the crab’s hepatopancreas, a main component of the crab’s digestive system.

The hepatopancreas is a gland made up of very small branched tubes (ramified tubules) located on both sides of the mid-gut in the main body cavity directly under the top shell and functions as both liver and pancreas. It is involved in producing digestive enzymes and is responsible for filtering impurities from the crab’s blood.

Feeling spicy? Want to try your own crab seasoning? Here’s a recipe from The Crab

Poor Man’s Crab Seasoning
3 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons salt
1 to 2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dried leaf oregano
1 tablespoon dried leaf thyme
Mix together and store air-tight. Shake well before using.

The “mustard” has a strong taste and is eaten by many people who consider it a delicacy.

Caution: Research shows that chemical contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxin, mercury, and poison-inhalation hazards (PIHs) can accumulate in the crab’s fatty tissues and concentrate in the hepatopancreas. The contaminants, which are colorless, odorless and tasteless, and can increase one’s chance of developing cancer, neurological impairments and miscarriage. Women of child-bearing age and children under the age of 5 are at particular risk. Crabs caught in advisory areas may contain high levels of these contaminants. If you catch crabs in these areas, it is highly recommended that you eat no more than six blue crabs per week and do not consume the “mustard” or cooking liquid.

Q: Why does a crab’s shell turn red-orange when cooked?

A: The red pigment is the most stable component of the coloring in a crab shell. The greens, blues, and browns which darken the shell in a live crab are destroyed by cooking. The red pigment common to all shrimp, crab, and lobster shells is astaxanthin, a carotenoid (e.g., like Beta-carotene, the pigment that makes fruits red-orange). Astaxanthin was first identified in the exoskeletons of crayfish (Astacidea), hence its name. In crabs, as in many decapods, astaxanthin is not a free pigment, but is complexed with a protein called Alpha-crustacyanin, which alters the resonance of astaxanthin such that the complex acts as a blue-green pigment. As mentioned above, astaxanthin is heat stable, while the Alpha-crustacyanin protein is not, so boiling the crab shell denatures the blue-green Alpha-crustacyanin releasing the red-orange astaxanthin.

posted 06.28.2013

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