What Makes a Crab Cake Maryland?

What Makes a Crab Cake Maryland?

Story by Kathryn McKay and Photography by Jacqueline Roggenbrodt

Louisiana is famous for crawfish. Maine is the land of lobsters. Alaska is the state for salmon.  Mention Maryland and you’re talking crabs.  And when you’re talking crabs, you’re talking crab cakes— Maryland crab cakes.

In Southern Maryland, like all over Maryland, crab cakes are a favorite.  My grandfather, W. Louis Ryon, used to say, “There’s nothing like a Southern Maryland crab cake.” I always figured he should know. He lived in Charles County for 80 years.

No matter where you are eating your crab cakes in Maryland, Barbara O’Banon of the National Marine Fisheries Service says, “Maryland crab cakes mean Maryland crabs.” Some Marylanders insist that a Maryland crab cake is any crab cake that’s seasoned with Old Bay, a Maryland made concoction of celery salt, pepper, mustard, pimento, cloves, and more.  Some say the secret is to use only backfin crab meat.  Still others argue, it’s any crab cake eaten in the state of Maryland.

Some folks say that traditional Maryland crab cakes are spicier than most.  Others insist that they’re made with green peppers and onion.  “Even chefs don’t agree on what makes a Maryland crab cake, but they would all claim theirs is the best,” says Whitey Schmidt, self-proclaimed “king of crabs” and author ofChesapeake Bay Waterside Dining Guide and The Chesapeake Bay Crabbiest Cookbook.

Actually Marylanders can all agree on one point:  Maryland crab cakes must be made with blue crabs, scientifically known as Callinectes Sapidus, which translates into “the beautiful savory swimmer.”

Maryland harvests close to 23 million pounds of crab meat each year.  That’s enough crab to create 324 crab cakes for every person living in Southern Maryland. But of course, not all crab goes into cakes and not all crab gets gobbled up here. Some meat goes into soups and salads. Other crabmeat gets stuffed into potatoes, mushrooms, and even green peppers.  And, of course, Maryland crab is exported all around the world. But still there’s something about a Maryland crab cake.

Despite the fact that restaurants up and down the East Coast serve their own versions of “Maryland” crab cakes, we know the best Maryland crab cakes are made only in Maryland.  I prefer to make them myself.  Make them yourself, they’re more economical, you know how fresh the meat is and you’re not limited to the one or two that you’re usually served in a restaurant.

Pride in crab cakes runs deep through the state.  My husband and I have relatives all over Maryland who claim their crab cakes can’t be beat.  We never tire of tasting crab cakes, whoever they’re made by, but we do have our favorite recipes.  My husband’s favorite recipe?  His mother’s, of course!  It’s a simple recipe with just enough ingredients so that the crab cakes stay together.  And my favorite recipe?  His mother’s too.

In the Chesapeake Bay Crab Cookbook, John Shields outlines three steps to prepare crab cakes for cooking:

1.              Picking— Pick the crab meat over very carefully to remove pieces of  shells.

2.              Batter— Make the batter in a separate bowl, not in the same one that holds the crab meat.  Gently toss or fold the ingredients together taking great care not to break up any lumps of crab.

3.              Forming— Gently form the crab cake mixture into slightly flattened, rounded masses.  Do not compact the crab cakes too much.  They should be held together loosely.  Size depends on the chef.  For appetizers, small cakes are wonderful.  Refrigerate for at least one hour before cooking to allow the binding to absorb some moisture so that the cakes hold together better.

Crab cakes can be pan-fried in cooking oil, sautéed, or broiled.  Schmidt says one of his secrets is sautéing crab cakes in a little bit of butter and peanut oil.  By broiling crab cakes, you reduce the fat content.

If your crab cake doesn’t stay together just right, don’t worry.   Schmidt, who has judged crab cake contests throughout the state, says, “You can’t always judge a crab cake by its looks.”

You can top off your crab cake with hollandaise sauce, mustard, ketchup, tarter sauce, cocktail sauce or just a squeeze of lemon.  Some people even use a little red wine vinegar.  Put your cake on top of a saltine cracker and you have “a real Maryland thing,” says Schmidt.

Crab cakes can be accompanied by a variety of side dishes.  French fries and coleslaw are probably the most popular, but fresh asparagus, biscuits, and potato salad are great as well.  My mother-in-law always serves her crab cakes with corn on the cob, potato salad and a platter of sliced ripe tomatoes.  My husband insists that the most important side dish is an ice-cold beer.   Schmidt says, “All you really need is a crab cake and a dash of Tabasco sauce for a slice of heaven.”

For your own slice of heaven in Southern Maryland— make your own Maryland crab cakes and savor the flavor of the blue! 

Crab Cake Recipes all Marylanders will Enjoy

Here are a few of the many “Maryland” crab cake recipes.  Try a few, improvise, and then create your own.

Maryland Crab Cakes, The Crab Cookbook
by Whitey Schmidt

Ingredients:

  • 4 slices white bread

  • 1 cup milk

  • 2 pounds crab meat

  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise

  • 2 teaspoons prepared mustard

  • 2 teaspoons seafood seasoning

  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

  • 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

  • juice of 1/2 lemon

  • salt and pepper

  • 2 eggs, beaten

  • 3 to 4 tablespoons shortening (for frying)

Preparation:

Put bread in bowl, pour milk over it and soak 15 minutes.  Squeeze bread fairly dry in your fist, transfer it to a large bowl and break it into crumbs with two forks.

Add crab meat, mayonnaise, mustard, seafood seasoning, baking powder, and parsley and stir until well mixed.  Sprinkle with Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, salt, and pepper, and stir and taste for seasoning.  Stir in beaten eggs.  Crab cake mixture can be prepared  up to 4 hours ahead and refrigerated.

To finish, divide mixture into 16 parts and shape into cakes about 1/2-inch thick.  (Work gently so cakes are light.) In a large frying pan, heat half the shortening and fry half the cakes over brisk heat until golden, about 2 minutes. Turn and brown the other side.  Fry remaining cakes in remaining shortening and serve as soon as possible.  Yield:  16 servings.

Crab Cakes from the Maryland Department of Agriculture

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup cracker crumbs

  • 1 large egg, beaten

  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons low calorie mayonnaise

  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons prepared mustard

  • 1/2 teaspoon seafood seasoning

  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper

  • 1 tablespoon minced onion

  • 1 tablespoon celery, finely chopped

  • 2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped

  • 1 pound regular crab meat, cartilage removed

  • 1 tablespoon oil

  • paprika for garnish

Preparation:

Mix together all ingredients except crab meat in a medium size bowl.  Fold crab meat in gently. Shape into 8 crab cakes.  To broil, preheat broiler.  Sprinkle crab cakes with paprika and place on a lightly oiled baking sheet.  Broil 4-6 inches away from heat source until golden brown.  Yield:  4 servings, 2 crab cakes each. 

Mother-in-Law Doris McCoy’s Maryland Crab Cakes

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound backfin crab meat

  • 1 egg beaten

  • 8 saltine crackers, crumbled

  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise

  • 1 teaspoon mustard

  • dash Worcestershire

Preparation:

Carefully remove all cartilage from the crab meat.  Put meat in a bowl and set it aside.  Mix together all other ingredients.  Gently mix in crab meat.  Shape into 6 crab cakes.  Put crab cakes on a plate, cover with wax paper, and refrigerate for an hour.  In a large frying pan, heat about 1-2 tablespoons of vegetable oil.  Sauté until golden brown (about 2-3 minutes per side).

Click here for more books about Maryland Cooking.  More great Southern Maryland recipe can be found in the Southern Maryland Online Cookbook.

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