Just a few weeks ago, I was in Washington DC and stopped by the Fish Wharf, or simply, the Wharf as locals know it. It’s an open-air seafood market located in Southwest Washington, D.C., and one of the few surviving open-air seafood markets on the east coast.
I stopped by because it was the height of the soft shell crab season, and I wanted to see their assortment of fresh Chesapeake Bay soft shell blue crabs. In bin after bin, there they were, displaying glorious blue claws with red tips; what a sight to behold.
Realizing I had no way to cook them at my hotel, I wisely decided not to buy any. But I did get some advice from locals on what to serve with them. Most of them, purchasing these mid-Atlantic jewels by the dozen, were enthusiastic about sharing their menu ideas.
But before we discussed any side dishes, they always recommended their favorite way to cook them. Breaded and deep-fried was the most popular technique, but just as many were planning on sauteéing them in white wine or grilling them.
For a side dish, the same advice came from everyone, make sure your flavors don’t overpower the delicate and sweet taste of the crabs. Fresh produce, especially corn of all types, tomatoes, and wilted greens are popular side dishes. Coleslaws seems to be a mandatory side dish no matter how you’re cooking the crabs. The real choice was about which spice to use: Old Bay Seasoning or something spicier.
Many people were making soft shell crab sandwiches, including a dipping sauce of aioli. Others were serving soft shell crabs as appetizers, deep-fried on toast. For dessert, summertime classics, such as Key Lime pie, lemon icebox pie, and of course, Elvis Presley’s Favorite Pound Cake were what the locals shared as their perfect ending for the meal.
- What Are Soft Shell Crabs?
- Side Dishes
- Top Desserts
- Best Seasonings For Soft Shell Crabs
- Soft Shell Crab Season
- Catching Soft Shell Crabs
- What To Look For When Buying Soft Shell Crabs?
- What Are The Sizes Of Soft Shell Crabs?
- How To Dress The Crabs?
- How To Eat Soft Shell Crabs?
- Final Words
What Are Soft Shell Crabs?
Contrary to popular belief, soft shell crabs are not a different species of crab. It’s a particular time in the crab’s growing cycle when they walk out of their current shell and before the new one becomes solid. Depending on the age of the crab, they shed their shells every 3-30 days. However, the new shells begin to harden after just 9 hours. Once they create this new paper shell, they are no longer desirable for soft shell recipes.
When serving soft shell crabs, you will need about two large crabs per person. The fish markets price them by the dozen, so keep that in mind when estimating the costs. Thankfully the remaining side dishes don’t have to be extravagant.
Corn is best fresh, which means summertime. At grocery stores and farmer’s markets, you’ll find many fresh seasonal varieties, all of which are perfect for soft shell crabs. If you like corn on the cob, simply husk the corn (removing the silky threads) and put it in boiling unsalted water. (Salt will toughen the corn.) Boil for 3-4 minutes.
Creamed corn, highly recommended, is another side dish that is easy to make at home. It balances the salty, crunchy texture of the deep-fried crabs. For a gluten-free option, try scalloped corn; just combine corn, eggs, and cream, and bake in a souffle dish.
Corn succotash is another classic side dish. Succotash is often a combination of corn, beans, and squash, the Three Sisters. Fresh vegetables are best, but it’s fine to use frozen or canned vegetables; just make sure you don’t boil them — only simmer or steam them.
Though there may have been a variety of corn dishes mentioned, there was only one choice for cabbage — coleslaw, that quintessential summer dish. With a little sliced cabbage, grated carrots, and either vinegar or cream-based dressing, you have summertimes past, present, and future in a single bowl.
I won’t recommend a recipe because we know the best one is the one your mother makes. So ask her to share your family recipe next time you’re serving soft shell crab.
Wilted may seem like an unappetizing way to describe a fresh summer vegetable, but it comes from the cooking process, not from too much time in your refrigerator. Summer greens, like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard need a little heat to soften their fibrous leaves. But not too much, or you’ll get a dark green mush.
To lightly cook them, add a little olive oil to a pan on medium heat and saute them until they begin to wilt. They will continue to cook for a few moments after you take them off the heat. For added zip, include some garlic, hot peppers, and seasoning.
Fresh summer tomatoes are best at room temperature, sliced, and served with a little olive oil and fresh herbs. Many people like to include them in a sandwich, but I like them as a salad all by themselves this time of year. At most grocery stores now, you can find a selection of heirloom tomatoes. Though they usually have irregular shapes and colors, their flavors are sweet and tangy.
Soft Shell Crabs make an excellent appetizer to a more extensive seafood menu. One popular appetizer is to bake the meat with cheese and serve it as a warm dip alongside crusty bread.
Another one, also a toast, is a deep-fried soft shell crab crostini. Halve the crabs, or buy small ones, bread, and deep fry them. Then add garlic aïoli and sautéed leeks on toasted baguette slices. These are popular appetizers, so make sure you buy enough for seconds!
6.Soft Shell Crab Sandwiches
All summer long, along the Atlantic seaboard and into the deep south, you’ll see advertisements for soft shell crab sandwiches slathered with mayo, iceberg lettuce, and a squeeze of lemon. Most of them are breaded, deep-fried, and served on an everyday bun. For a lighter version, you can saute the crabs in white wine.
The choice of bread is intentional, for you don’t want the bread’s texture or flavor to compete with the taste. After all, the crab is the rightful star of the show.
When serving soft shell crabs, it’s usually a feast with friends and family, and a slice of dessert to finish off the evening is appropriate. There are so many wonderful summertime sweets, but it’s a bit challenging to follow up a fried seafood fest.
7.Lemon Icebox Pie
Once a staple of home cooking, dust off your old recipe and see why this is a perfect choice for summer entertaining. Icebox pies are eggless, no-bake pies that use sweetened condensed milk and citrus. No need to add flour or turn on the oven. The pie thickens as a result of mixing the milk with the citrus juice. It’s up to you whether to refrigerator or freeze.
8.Key Lime Pie
Key limes, native to Florida, have a distinctive flavor, sweeter and less acidic than regular limes. The sweet citrus balances the crunchy fried texture and rich tastes of a deep-fried soft shell crab.
Like the icebox pie, a key lime pie also uses sweetened condensed milk and no flour; however, it does bake for a few minutes in the oven.
9.Elvis Presley’s Favorite Pound Cake
Not just any pound cake, but the King of pound cakes would be an ideal choice for a sweet ending to your meal. A favorite in the deep south and among the patrons of the fish market, it’s perfect for a crab feast. Served room temperature, or slightly toasted on the grill, just a dollop of whipped cream is all you need –unless, of course, you have some ripe summer Georgia peaches!
Best Seasonings For Soft Shell Crabs
If you’re from the east coast, there are two schools of thought for the best seasonings with soft shell crab. For crab lovers, it’s either Old Bay or “something spicy.”
Although recipes vary, Old Bay seasoning, invented in Baltimore, is the crucial ingredient common to almost every blue-crab concoction in the mid-Atlantic region. A blend of 18 spices, it’s a mild spice and herb combination with prominent flavors of salt, paprika, celery, and mild pepper.
For those who prefer something spicier, with more Louisianna creole flavors, then the clear choice is Zatarains. With the added flavors of spicy mustard seeds and red peppers, you’ll taste a notable “kick” to your crab.
Soft Shell Crab Season
In the Chesapeake Bay—the most biologically diverse estuary in the United States—fresh blue crabs (also known as Maryland crabs) are available primarily in the summer months.
The soft shell season is April through November when crabbers catch these bottom-dwellers in the warmer shallow waters off the coast. The harvest generally begins when ocean temperatures reach about 58 degrees and the crabs migrate towards the shore. Once the oceans cool in the winter months, they move back to deeper waters.
Catching Soft Shell Crabs
Soft shell crabs only have a few hours when they have backed out of their shells and the new ones harden. In order to bring them to market, crabbers and grocers have a unique process.
Crabbers catch the crabs when their shells are hard and keep them in large, temperature-controlled salt-water tanks until they molt. When they lose their shells, they are then removed from the water, which stops the process. They are then packed in damp straw and shipped fresh to the market. The fishmonger can sell these crabs still live and with a soft shell.
What To Look For When Buying Soft Shell Crabs?
When purchasing fresh soft shell crabs, buy them live if at all possible from a reputable seafood market. Live soft shells will move very slowly, and their shells will be very pliable.
Make sure they are not wrapped in cellophane, which means they were probably previously frozen. They should not be cleaned—you can do that yourself right before cooking. Also, the crabs should have all of their legs and claws. Finally, don’t buy crabs with paper shells. It means they were left in the water too long after molting.
What Are The Sizes Of Soft Shell Crabs?
At the fish market, you’ll see they are sold in five categorize weighing between 2 – 6oz and 3.5 – 5.5 inches, measured across the top. Mediums are 3.5 to 4 inches, Hotels: 4 to 4.5 inches, Primes: 4.5 to 5 inches, Jumbos: 5 to 5.5 inches, and Whales: over 5.5 inches.
How To Dress The Crabs?
Cleaning or “dressing” a crab is a simple process with many How-to Videos on Youtube. Serious Eats has an easy-to-follow description with clear photos if you like a more step-by-step process.
Frozen soft shell crabs are almost certainly ‘dressed’ (cleaned) and ready to cook. However, the flavor might be slightly muted from being previously frozen.
How To Eat Soft Shell Crabs?
Softshell crabs are eaten whole because the shell is now “pliable.” The soft, almost-crunchy texture offsets the tender meat making the “shell” one of the best parts. The meat inside is sweet, juicy, and bursting with pure crab flavor.
Breaded and deep-fried soft shell crabs are a real treat. You can use a standard coating mix or even a tempura coating. For for a gluten-free batter, you can choose a gluten-free panko. Just keep the coating light as you want to retain the shape of the crab.
Breaded and fried, sautéed with white wine, simply grilled or in a sandwich, soft shell crabs are a hallmark of summer. Serving these exquisite treats is a snap when pairing them with these easy to prepare and equally fresh summertime sides.
For a vegetable side dish, choose from your favorite corn and coleslaw recipes. Whether it’s corn on the cob with butter or a succotash medley with green beans and carrots, corn is a perfect pairing for crab. And when you serve it along with coleslaw, it’s two summertime traditions, side by side.
You can include steamed or sautéed greens and a plate of fresh sliced summertime tomatoes for additional vegetables. These sides don’t have to be fancy, just fresh.
Dessert, too, is something that can be made well before your kitchen feels the afternoon heat. Lemon icebox pies don’t require any baking and can be made one day ahead. Key lime pie only needs a few minutes in the oven, and pound cake too can be made early and cooled.
So next time you pass by the fish market and see a sign for soft shell crabs, be sure to buy some and share them with your family. You’ll be taking part in an honored summertime tradition that brings memories of laughter, messy fingers, and happy faces to all.
Kelly is a native of California. After graduation from UCLA, she began her travels living and cooking in Europe, Asia, and the Northwest. In Tokyo, she earned the Grand Diplôme, for both Cuisine and Pâtisserie at Le Cordon Bleu.
Kelly is a freelance food writer. She started the website, Tokyo-Table.com, where she reviews Tokyo restaurants from the perspective of a professional chef. Kelly has written for publications in Asia and North America on all aspects of cooking. Kelly now lives in Los Angeles with her family and her vegetable garden.