Marylanders have been catching bushels of blue crabs in the Chesapeake
Bay, looking for the special ones - those that are about to molt and
turn into a soft-shell delicacy.
It's nearly impossible to find someone who is ambivalent about
soft-shell crabs. You either love them or you hate them. I'm as Southern
Maryland as the next person and have eaten my share of steamed hard
shells, crab cakes, crab balls, crab pretzels, crab dip and
cream-of-crab soup. But I've never been brave enough to try a soft
shell. The spiky, spindly appearance of a flattened, fried whole crab,
wedged between two slices of white bread has never tempted me.
In the interest of getting over another of my irrational fears, I
decided to try one at a Southern Maryland crab house, cooked by an
expert. The plate arrived with an open-faced white toast sandwich
supporting two meaty, deep-fried soft shells. Crispy, crunchy and
beautifully browned, it looked appetizing enough and smelled wonderful,
but I still wasn't ready to approach the recently molted callinectes
sapidusis, or "beautiful swimmer" with gusto.
LIFE OF A SOFT SHELL
While all crabs must shed their shells to grow, there are only a few
varieties that can be eaten as sof shells - the stage after the old
shell has been sloughed off and before the new, larger shell has
hardened. Among all soft-shell options, the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab
is considered the finest because the Bay's colder waters produce crabs
with a higher fat content, enhancing the delicate flavor.
Blue crabs molt about 20 times during their typical three-year life,
each time increasing their size by about one third. But time is of the
essence for those who hope to dine on them; a blue crab's shell begins
to harden again within a few hours of shedding.
As watermen pull their catch from the Bay, creeks and rivers, they look
for "peelers," showing promise of molting, or "busters," which are
already in the process, and pull them aside to hold in shedding tanks.
Many soft crabbers use these large, dockside tanks, equipped with pipes
and filters to circulate and clean the water, allowing the crabs to be
carefully watched and tended until they are ripe for the market.
TO MARKET, TO MARKET
As soon as the shell is lost, watermen must whisk the crabs from water
and pack them in wet paper or freeze them to delay the shells from
hardening before they can get to market. Crabs can only live out of
water for a few days, so they must be handled with quickness and care to
get them to the table before the shells harden.
There are a number of ways to serve soft shells - including sautéed,
grilled and baked - but never boiled or steamed like their hard-shell
cousins, which leaves them soggy and water-logged. The traditional
Southern Maryland version is breaded, deep fried and served on white
bread or a hamburger bun. Experts advise first-timers to order them in a
restaurant, fried extra crispy. It's the crunchiness, they insist, that
makes them especially mouth-watering.
Most Southern Maryland crab houses and take-out seafood markets sell
soft-shell crabs at various times of the year. There are even online
vendors who will ship to your door. They come in a range of sizes, from
the smallest "mediums," which are less than four inches across, to
"whales," which can span six inches or more. In the market, choose soft
shells that pass the smell test - clean, moist and slightly salty, like
Bay water. Avoid those with an unpleasant or ammonia-like smell and ask
your crab monger to clean them for you; most will do so for no extra
Prices vary widely, depending on supply and the season, and you should
be prepared to pay a premium. Getting soft shells to market is a
labor-intensive exercise and they can fetch top-dollar prices.
I am convinced that Maryland restaurants cook the best soft-shell crabs
in the world - after all, we invented the recipe. The fried soft-shell
sandwich that I ordered was fresh, plump and expertly prepared so I had
no choice but to try it.
But it wasn't what I expected or imagined. The claw meat was creamy,
sweet and briny with only a faint essence of the familiar hard-shell
flavor, more like fried chicken with softer meat and extra crunchy
coating. It was an intriguing and bewildering meal to say the least.
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I didn't
finish the whole sandwich. And, I mostly ate around the edges, where the
soft shell was crunchiest. Next time, I promise to eat the whole thing.
Traditional Fried Soft-Shell Crab
1 cup pancake flour
1 tsp Old Bay seasoning
12 Maryland soft-shell crabs, cleaned
Oil, for frying
If your crabs haven't already been cleaned, use scissors to cut off the
face behind the eyes. Also, cut off the apron, lift the top shell and
snip out the gills or "devil's fingers" on each side. Rinse under cold
Put eggs in one bowl, pancake flour and Old Bay in another. Dredge crabs
in egg first, then coat well with flour mixture.
Heat about a half inch of cooking oil in skillet, add crabs and cook
until browned, about five minutes on each side.
For sandwiches, serve on hamburger bun or bread. Makes six servings of
two crabs each.
The recipe is courtesy of the Maryland Department of Agriculture's
Seafood Marketing and Aquaculture Development department.