Soft Shell Crab aka Blue Crab Culinary Profile
Soft Shell Crab Flavor Profile
Blue Crab is more commonly called Soft Shell Crab because that is the most commercially sought-after part of the crab’s life cycle. Eating Soft Shell Crab is a uniquely different experience than eating Dungeness or any other crab because you are eating the shell and all. And although it does taste like crab, it is a milder crab flavor than simply eating the meat of other crab, because you are eating meat, shell and all. This adds complexity of flavor and texture, but a milder crab taste.
The shell adds a bit of “crunch” and has a fried rice paper-like texture and an earthier flavor component. The meat is sweet, briny, and buttery in texture. The soft shells are orange-red in color, the body meat is white, and the claw meat is beige.
image source: Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
If you purchase frozen Soft Shell Crab, then they should already be dressed and ready to cook. But if you have fresh crab then you will want to clean them as follows. Chill the crab in the refrigerator or freezer until they go dormant from the cold. This will make the next part of the process quick and painless. Using a pair of scissors cut off the front of the crab about ¼” behind the eyes. This will instantly kill the crab. Next, gently raise the shell and remove the feathery gills…replace the shell. Now turn it over and remove the triangular or domed plate at the back of the belly. That’s it…ready to cook!
The most common cooking methods include: breading or battering, sauteing, deep frying, baking, broiling, grilling, or steaming.
Blue crabs are a highly prized and much sought-after shellfish both by commercial and recreational fishermen, and it is the most valuable fishery in the Chesapeake Bay region. It is so important and prized in that region that the blue crab is the Maryland state crustacean. Their Latin name – Callinectes sapidus – translates as “’beautiful savory swimmer”.
Blue Crab Alternate Names
Soft Shell Crab (just molted male or female, not yet hard), Jimmy (adult male blue crab), Sook (adult female), Sally or Sallies or She-crabs (immature female), Hard Shells (not molting male or female), Peelers (about to molt), Busters (just started to molt), Sponge Crab or Sponges (females carrying eggs), Chesapeake Blue Crab or the Atlantic Blue Crab
Soft Shell Crab Typical Wholesale Products
Fresh: Live, Crab Meat, Whole (dressed)
Frozen: Whole )dressed), Claws
Louisiana provides about 26% of the total blue crab harvest for the USA.
Blue Crab Description (Callinectes sapidus)
Despite their name, blue crabs have a shell that is grayish-blue or olive-green and only their legs, swimmers, and claws are blue. Mature males have claw tips that are bright purple-blue and mature females have pincers that are bright red. They have three pairs of legs and one pair of rear swimming legs which resemble paddles.
Another characteristic separating males from females is the shape of the “apron” on the underside of the crab. Males have a T-shaped apron while females have a broader, triangular, or dome-shaped apron.
“Soft Shell” crabs are Blue Crabs that are caught during their molting process while in transition from shedding a smaller hard shell and are developing a newer, larger shell which hasn’t hardened yet. The process of shedding its old shell and developing a new one takes only 1 -2 days for the new soft shell to become hard, so the time to capture “soft shell” crab is very limited.
Blue crabs have an average lifespan of 3 – 4 years during which time they will molt 21 – 23 times. Females will mate during their final molting and produce 750,000 and 3,200,000 eggs. The largest blue crab recorded weighed 1.1 pounds and was 10.72 inches across the carapace. But they commonly only grow to a max size of about 9 inches across the shell from tip to tip, with most of them harvested before they reach this size.
They reach maturity in 12 to 18 months with growth rates dependent on water temperatures. They grow more quickly in the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico and less quickly in the colder waters of the Chesapeake Bay area and north.
Their primary food source is essentially anything they can find including clams, oysters, mussels, snails, fish, sea worms, dead fish, plants or even other smaller soft-shelled crabs.
Range and Habitat
Blue crabs live along the Atlantic coast, from as far north as Nova Scotia and southward to northern Argentina, including the Gulf of Mexico. The preferred habitat of blue crabs changes with age, sex, and season. They tend to be more abundant in shallow water regions during warmer weather when they inhabit submerged aquatic grass beds, and then move to deeper waters to burrow into the sediment during the colder months.
Soft Shell Crab Sustainability
Different regions manage their blue crab stock based upon their own current crab populations and fishing activity. The highest regulated area is the Chesapeake Bay region. In 2011 a benchmark stock assessment was completed for the female blue crab population and that benchmark is used to evaluate each season’s stock management decisions. In the Chesapeake Bay area, NOAA, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources work together to evaluate annual stock assessments.
FishChoice has a detailed sheet on Blue Crab sustainability by region and gives sustainability ratings by Seafood Watch and Ocean Wise for each region.
Texas – closed February but open the rest of the year
Louisiana – late spring thru early fall
Georgia – year around
Florida – year around with some short 1 week closings
South Carolina – year around
North Carolina – late spring thru September
Maryland – April thru December 15th
The majority of Blue Crabs are harvested with simple gear such as pot, dip net, trotline, handline, or scrape. Since crabs more densely inhabit areas with a structured habitat such as submerged aquatic vegetation, the best gear leaves the least impact on the ocean floor.
based upon a 6 oz (170 grams) raw edible serving.