Pat’s Wildways: Blue Crabs

By Pat Foster-Turley
October 28, 2022

Blue crabs turn red when cooked.

I’m sure lots of you readers have happily feasted on steamed blue crabs laid out on a table covered with newspaper, and served whole complete with nutcrackers, seafood picks, hammers and other utensils. For the most part, though, this feast is limited to the Chesapeake Bay area and some coastal areas nearby. You might be surprised to know that many of the crabs served there actually originate in our Florida waters and are shipped north to meet the demand for crabs there.

But here it is not the custom to serve whole steamed blue crabs. Any number of local restaurants have crabs on their menu, but never local blue crabs. In many places here you can easily feast on crab cakes made from some kind of canned crabmeat and even king crab legs imported from Alaska, but never whole blue crabs, unless they are they are soft-shelled blue crabs that are frozen right after they molt. If you travel to St. Augustine or Palatka, or Kingsland or Brunswick, Georgia you can locate a crab shack where they can steam blue crabs for you—but it’s a drive.

Lofton Seafood usually has live blue crabs for sale.

For the most part, here, when I get a craving for steamed blue crabs it’s a do-it-yourself project. Often Atlantic Seafood at the marina, or Lofton Creek Seafood off-island have live blue crabs, but it always pays to call first to see if they have any on hand. Once the crabs are pulled from the traps set in our waterways they only live a day or so out of water and their availability depends on when the crabber brings in their catch.

Pat’s cat Dumela is skeptical about live crabs.

When I procure my half-dozen live blue crabs I immediately set to work getting a big pot of water boiling along with some lemon slices, Old Bay spice, black peppercorns, and whatever else is on hand and seems appropriate. Just for the fun of it I sometimes show the live crabs to my indoor cat, Dumela, who is fascinated, but afraid of their pinching claws—rightly so. I once worked for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife ring-netting Dungeness crabs from docks and measuring them. I know the drill about handling them from the back end—away from those claws.

So, I carefully dump the crabs into the boiling water, put the lid on and in a few minutes I have delectable cooked crabs ready for picking. Here’s how to do it. Turn the crab on its back and look for the “apron,” which is an external plate that is wide and rounded in a female, or narrow and pointed in a male. You need to lift up the apron and yank the whole top shell off, revealing gills that need to be scraped from the remaining hard clusters that contain the succulent meat. Then with the aid of nutcrackers and small hammers, if necessary, you crush the hard body and claw pieces and then use a seafood pick to extract the meat. For more instructions, there are any number of YouTube videos that can help you out. Some blue crab aficionados say that the best tasting crabs come when you actually rip up the crabs while they are still alive, and just boil the meaty parts but that’s a bit too gruesome for me.

Females on the left and males on the right can be identified from the shape of their “apron.”

If you are like me, you will easily consume all the meat from six good sized blue crabs while you are picking them. Um, um, good. It’s a messy task for sure. At least it tastes good. This last time I cooked and picked six blue crabs and retained the meat. It only amounted to a few ounces of food, not that satisfying from a quantity perspective but delicious nonetheless.

I must admit that for most people this task is tedious. It certainly is much easier to buy canned, refrigerated blue crab meat that someone else has picked and it is easy to explain the allure of crab cakes with the meat mixed with fillers that appear on many restaurant menus here. But for me, some of the fun is in the process.

You must hold live blue crabs from the back end to avoid their powerful claws.

I enjoy visiting fish stores like Atlantic Seafood and Lofton Creek Seafood and seeing what they have currently on sale. I don’t enjoy killing the crabs but I do it as quickly as possible and relish the sweetness that comes with crabs that are freshly cooked. And even the picking process is fun for me every so often—a Zen-like experience trying to extract every last tender morsel. Maybe you will enjoy it too—you just don’t know until you try.

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]

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Gerry Clare
Gerry Clare(@gerrycclaregmail-com)
1 year ago

Dungeness crab parts from Publix are larger, meatier and easier to deal with. You can order them frozen flown in. I can’t do live anything anymore.

MaryAnne Waikart
MaryAnne Waikart(@mwaikartgmail-com)
1 year ago

Loved the description of eating crabs. I’m a Marylander and had my own crab traps there. In 2009 moved to Fernandina and asked about the bait crabs sold here (then for $10 a dozen – they were selling for $60 a dozen in Maryland!), wondering if they were edible. Why else would people not eat them here?! Two observations about your wonderful article, Pat: 1) in Maryland we never eat the females, leaving them and their eggs to replenish the supply. 2) We never boil them – just steam them with kosher salt, lots of Old Bay, a little vinegar and water. UMMMMM….. And if you are in a restaurant (likely even in Maryland) and order “Maryland crab cakes” they are made with crabmeat from Thailand or the Philippines – where 95% of crabmeat in the USA originates. You are lucky to have a source of fresh local crabs here near or on the island.

Edward lewis
Edward lewis (@guest_66287)
1 year ago

My granddad was a waterman on the lower Potomac river in Virginia back in the 1920s thru the 80s. I have great memories of going out and bringing in bushels full of crabs and oysters fresh off the boat and having big family get together‘s sitting out at the picnic tables picking crabs and slurping down raw oysters along with grannies baked rockfish. we would steam them up with j.o seasoning & a little Apple cider vinegar with saltine crackers and Coors light or sweet tea. A bushel number ones back then $25 at the most …. nowadays they want 65 for dozen of jimmy’s. We never like eating the females also although some people do women think that they’re sweeter. I miss those days

Mike T.
Mike T. (@guest_66322)
1 year ago
Reply to  Edward lewis

Your granddad didn’t have J O seasoning

Edward lewis
Edward lewis (@guest_66343)
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike T.

He was friends with the original guy from Tangier Island. Don’t write nonsense to me.

Rich ireland
Rich ireland (@guest_66260)
1 year ago

i grew up in crab-plentiful South Jersey and spent many days crabbing and eating! My dad always put a little bit of vinegar in the water. He claimed it made the meat easier to pick out.

William Ruark
William Ruark (@guest_66271)
1 year ago
Reply to  Rich ireland

We owned a crab picking operation on Hoppers Island. A Island in the Chesapeake bay. We picked mostly all female crabs year round. We also picked female crabs carrying eggs. The ones with eggs came from Virginia as they could catch them an was legal to sell to MD. picking houses. (FYI)

1 year ago

Maryland girl here. Definitely Steam them! We had a can of beer, vinegar, and lots of J.O. Spice instead of Old Bay. That’s the Maryland crab house restaurants go to. Ive found nice live crabs in Kingsland GA at M & A’s Seafood Market. Yummy

Thomas (@guest_66269)
1 year ago

“Dump them into the (big pot of) boiling water.”

Those aren’t steamed crabs, those are boiled crabs. Not the same thing.

Neal Hazen
Neal Hazen (@guest_66270)
1 year ago

How you clean a boiled blue crab does vary a bit, depending if you are saving the meat for other things, such as West Indies Salad.
After popping the back and removing gills and entrails, break the crab into right and left halves. Most of the crab meat is attached to the legs. A simple twist-and-pull motion on each leg exposes all that succulent goodness. No smashing necessary. Next, use a dull paring knife to cut the side chambers in half, horizontally. Use the point of the paring knife to slip these morsels out to your awaiting lips!

Ron Bovasso
Ron Bovasso (@guest_66276)
1 year ago

That crab you are holding in the picture must be dead or close to it!
No self-respecting male would let you hold it like that without taking a piece of flesh.
You need to hold them at the very base of the swimming flipper.
Ask any 10 year old boy at the Jersey shore!☺️

Todd (@guest_66277)
1 year ago

Boiling crabs will give you soggy wet meat. Most definitely steam the crabs. Most low country pots will have enough room below the bottom of the basket for some water, vinegar, a pale ale and some spices without the need to soak the crabs. Use plenty of spice on top of the crabs before you lower the basket into the steam. 22-25 minutes later you are ready for picking.

HOOK (@guest_66278)
1 year ago

They call me the”Hook” I have been a crabbers and fisherman in connecticut since 1974 on the Quinnipiac river and long island sound and surrounding towns water ways,my favorite blue crabs are cooked in a red sauce served over thin spaghetti. Sautee the cleaned crabs in olive oil and garlic until a beautiful red glow then put them in a sauce pot and four cans of crushed tomatoes) at least 6 crabs I use 10) ad spices as your taste suotes you simmer on low over a two day span then cook your spaghetti enjoy with the sauce and pick juicy crab meat for a good hour messy but delicious

Marilou Bray
Marilou Bray (@guest_66292)
1 year ago

I’ve got almost every bit of this wrong

Mike T.
Mike T. (@guest_66321)
1 year ago

This guy doesn’t have a clue as to eating blue crabs in Md

Last edited 1 year ago by Mike T.