Friday, May 21, 2010

Recipe: Pan-Fried Soft Shell Crabs

Once a year, Gateway Market gets a shipment of live soft shell crabs.  These delicious crabs have a short season, usually just a few months toward the start of summer.  Naturally, they're even more rare here in Iowa - I can only find them once a year, for one short week. 

That week, my friends, is now.

Soft shell crabs are actually Maryland blue crabs who have molted and shed their hard outer shells.  Once the shells are gone, you can eat them whole - no peeling, no fuss. (The crabs stop eating during the molting process, so you don't need to worry about eating digestive tracts and such.)  There's a very short window for packing and shipping them to far-flung places like Iowa because their hard shells start to grow back within a matter of days. Gateway was selling the crabs live on Wednesday; on Thursday, they were cleaned and ready to cook.  So despite being in landlocked Iowa, I was working with some pretty fresh specimens. We'll call them Pepe, Pierre, and Jacques.  Here is their story.

Pan-Fried Soft Shell Crabs, or: Pepe, Pierre, and Jacques take a hot bath
3 soft shell crabs
3 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
3 tbsp cup Old Bay seasoning (I didn't have Old Bay, so I made a substitute based loosely on this recipe)

For breading:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. onion powder
1/4 cup Old Bay seasoning (or substitute, as noted above)

For frying:
6 tbsp clarified butter
6 tbsp olive oil
2-3 cloves garlic

Spread out crabs in a dish where they can all lay flat, then pour just enough buttermilk into dish to fully cover them. 

Pour over lemon juice, salt and pepper, and Old Bay seasoning. Mix to combine, making sure to get liquid under all the shell pieces and under each crab.  Place the dish in the refrigerator for at least an hour, or until ready to cook.

Above: Pepe, Pierre, and Jacques take a buttermilk bath.

In a plastic bag, combine dry ingredients for breading.  Remove the crabs from the buttermilk and dredge on both sides with the flour mixture.

Heat clarified butter and oil in a deep, wide skillet. Throw in a couple of whole cloves of garlic, then saute crabs one at a time, for 3-4 minutes on each side or until crabs are a golden brown color. (Adding more than one crab at a time will cause the oil temperature to drop, so it's best to cook them individually.)   

This is Pierre.  He was delicious.

Be careful; crabs will not splatter, but they will occasionally pop in the hot oil.

Working one at a time, transfer cooked crabs to a baking dish and keep in a warm oven until all the crabs are finished.  Because the breading is so flavorful, you won't need dipping sauce; just dress crabs simply with fresh lemon juice and a little sea salt.

Serves 2.

Footnote: This is the first time I've ever made soft shell crabs, and not only were they easy to cook; the seasoning mixture in the flour made them absolutely addictive. Charlie and I were planning to split the three crabs between us, but I ended up eating both Pepe and Pierre while he was left with only Jacques.  

Further note: Why do the crabs have French names when they are in fact from Maryland?  I don't know, perhaps so I could address them with ze French accent while I cooked zem.  Sometimes it gets silly in my kitchen.


  1. They look delicious!

    But, it looks like you need a bigger dish for the crab bath so the delicious bath liquid doesn't end up all over the counter/floor/fridge. Or, is that just the angle of the photography?

  2. It's true, I did have to carry them very carefully to the fridge and back. Next time, a deeper dish!

  3. Please tell me you sang "Les Poissons" while you cooked them. :D