The sight of a whole cooked Dungeness crab is so sad to me. Not because I don’t eat shellfish! Crab is one of my all-time favorite foods. But cooking a whole live crab is *not* the best way to enjoy it, IMHO. While most people assume that crab must be cooked live, I grew up following a different method, with much tastier results.
Cooking a whole live crab means the guts will cook along with the meat, adding discoloration and unwanted flavors. You also have to wait until a whole cooked crab has cooled down enough to clean it, and will miss out on the opportunity to enjoy piping hot crab.
The trick is to kill and clean the crab first, right before cooking it.
It’s very important to clean & cook the crab right away, and disastrous if you wait any longer than 15-20 minutes between cleaning and cooking as the meat will “turn” and result in a horrible flavor (which you’ll also encounter if you undercook the crab).
You should always start this process with a live crab, which can be kept alive for a day or so in a ventilated cooler with ice (be sure any fresh water from melting ice drains out or it will kill the crab) or longer in an aerated holding tank of sea water, just like you might see at your favorite seafood establishment. Also, don’t ever freeze or refrigerate raw crab meat, whether whole or cleaned. It won’t turn out well.
A Dungeness crab can be killed quickly by a blow to the abdomen; I sometimes use an axe, or slam the middle undersection onto a hard edge such as a bench.
Here are the next steps to follow according to the Washington State Department of Fish & Game:
- Remove the abdomen with your fingers (also called the apron, it is the flap of shell on the underside of the crab).
- Remove the outer shell (the back of the crab, also called the carapace) by sticking your thumb into the hole left from removing the abdomen and lifting up firmly.
- The shell will detach from the body with some guts attached.
- Remove and discard the leaf-like, spongy gills from either side of the body.
- Rinse out the greenish-brown guts. Break off and discard the mandibles, which are the mouthparts at the front of the crab.
- Turn the crab upside down, grip it on either side and place your thumbs underneath near the midline on the back (where the shell used to be).
- Push up with your thumbs and pull down with your hands; the crab will crack easily along its center line.
Here’s a video to walk you through it:
Another tip: rather than immersing the crab into boiling water, try steaming it in just two or so inches of salted water, or even better: clean seawater. I don’t recommend using water at the shoreline; when you’re out lifting your pots, grab a bucket from a deeper area where the water will be cleaner and free of dirt, seaweed, etc. Steam for about 8-10 minutes.
It’s astonishing to me how many recipes call for cooking the crab first, then cleaning it. It’s really not hard to clean a live crab, and the end result is cleaner, purer meat that you can enjoy while it’s still piping hot! Try it for yourself and discover the difference.