As a child, I had an aversion to seafood, so this meant strange looking things like shrimp, lobster, and crab were most definitely not to be dealt with. Now that my taste has matured, it makes me think back to those family vacations to places like Ocean City, Maryland where crab was served by the bucketload as missed opportunities. So why not try to recreate it at home with a crab boil?
If you’ve ever been to a crab boil or eaten at a dive of a seafood shack in a place like Ocean City, you know the drill: a table covered in paper towels/newspaper, a pile of napkins, maybe some shell crackers, and a trash can. This is not fine dining and not a time for your finest evening wear…but the taste is well worth it. Basically, you’ve got a pile of freshly cooked, whole crabs and the tools to tear through those tough shells so you can get at every bit of meat hidden in there. Messy, fun, social, and delicious.
The simple reality is that cooking crabs in this style is phenomenally easy–you just leave all the work to those trying to eat the crabs, lol! As long as you’re cooking for more than just yourself, this means you, the cook, get to come out ahead and dump work on your guests, who will most happily accept. So what is there to it? First, you need to get your hands on some live crabs, and on the east coast of the U.S., that probably means blue crabs. These guys are kind of on the smaller side, so figure you’ll need about 6 crabs per person. Then, cooking them is easy: you simply mix a well spiced, flavorful broth in a big pot, get it boiling, and you boil the crabs in batches for just a few minutes until you get through the lot of them. You’ll need all that extra time to eat them!
I prepared a key lime flavored tartare sauce to go with the crabs (derived from Julia Child’s version of tartare sauce in Mastering The Art of French Cooking, Volume One), but I found I was more than happy with the crabs just as they were. If you’re not sure where you stand, it can’t hurt to have the sauce handy at the table, right? Be warned though, preparing tartare sauce is like making mayonnaise, so if that scares you…get over it and give it a shot.
- 18 live blue crabs (figure ~6 crabs per person)
- Cooking broth
- 10+ black peppercorns
- allspice (berries or ground)
- celery seeds
- mustard seeds
- 1-4 cloves
- ground chipotle
- ground cayenne
- ground mustard
- sweet hungarian paprika
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 dried red chilis
- 6+ key limes, halved
- 1/2 carrot
- 1/2 celery stalk
- 4-5 garlic cloves
- 1 shallot
- at least 1 cup of white wine
- water (enough to fill the pot up to about 3/4)
- Key lime tartare sauce
- ~3 Tbsp worth of key lime juice (this can be a surprising number of key limes!)
- 3 eggs
- 1 Tbsp mustard (I used dijon)
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 cup olive oil
- 3 Tbsp capers
- 1 Tbsp chives
- 1 Tbsp parsely
- ground chipotle
- ground cayenne
The first thing you need to do is get your hands on some crabs…well, not literally, or you’ll regret it (these guys are armed and pissed off). If you’re crabs don’t have their claws rubber banded shut (like mine), proceed with care and always keep an eye on them, taking precautions to ensure they don’t escape and reign terror in your kitchen (e.g. put them in the sink with a grate on top or something).
Now that you have the crabs, the next step is to subdue them a bit. The reason for this is two-fold:
- to be humane and reduce what the crabs will go through when you get to cooking them later and
- more selfishly, to protect yourself
By simply chilling them down a good bit, the crabs will all get fairly quiet and calm down. They’ll stop fighting each other and be much less snippy with you. If you have a big cooler, some ice water is the way to go. If not, there’s always the sink (which you’ll clean very well when you’re done!). Give this about an hour to calm them down. It will make a world of difference.
While you’re waiting for the crabs to calm down, now is a good time to make the tartare sauce (if you’re making any). So begin by preparing the ingredients: dice the fresh herbs, the capers, juice the key limes, and hard boil the eggs (refresher: get water really boiling, eggs go in, wait for water to start boiling again, set a timer for ~8 minutes, and put the eggs in a cold water bath to stop cooking. Peel off shells), separating the whites from the yolks.
In a bowl, mash the egg yolks, mustard, and salt into a fine paste. It is absolutely essential that no lumps remain or the sauce won’t come together. Use you fingers, a mortar and pestle–whatever.
Now either in a food processor or a big bowl with a whisk, we’ll make the sauce. Warm whatever bowl you’re using under some hot water and dry it off. Put the yolk mixture in and either turn the food processor on or start beating with a whisk (and don’t ever stop or slow down). Very slowly start pouring in the oil and keep on mixing to emulsify the oil into the yolks. If you want to ensure you go adequately slowly, do it a teaspoon at a time. Don’t rush this step! If you’re beating this by hand with a whisk, once you’ve added about 1/2 cup of oil, you can safely take a moment to rest your arm if you need it. Ok, now keep going and finish it up.
If the sauce seems too thick at any point during this process, add in a bit of the lime juice to thin it out. Once you’re done adding the oil, add the rest of the lime juice and beat it in to thin out the sauce. Finally, season the sauce to taste with the spices and beat in the herbs and capers.
Now, dish out your sauce and give it a minute. Take a look at it. Does it look good? If you look at this photo, you could imagine what choice words I had to say–after all of this careful work, my sauce broke! If it looks curdled, the oil starts to separate out, etc, then yours broke, too. But have no fear! Recovery is easy.
If you need to rescue your sauce, get a clean bowl, warm it, and dry it off. Then, start with a teaspoon of mustard and a tablespoon of your broken sauce. Beat these until they cream together (no food processor–you’re doing this by hand now! Bowl and whisk!) and now, one teaspoon at a time, add your broken sauce into the mix and constantly beat it. Be patient, don’t rush, and don’t stop beating. In the end, your sauce will come together and stay together! If you’re not using it right away, transfer it to the fridge.
So now that the sauce is done and the crabs have been mellowing out, prepare the broth. To speed up my cooking time later (figure about 10 minutes per batch, where I could fit about 4 crabs in a pot), I prepared two pots. This is quite simple really: coarsely chop the whole veggies, halve the key limes (or any tart citrus), and throw these in the pot along with the spices, wine, and everything else.
Top it off with water, bringing the pot to roughly 3/4 full and get this up to a boil. Smell it, taste it, and adjust the seasoning. I lost track of the measurements of pretty much everything in my broth–just give it some real punch. If it tastes bland and watered down, add more to it, mix, and adjust.
So its time to get things moving. With some long, sturdy tongs, grab a crab. Some won’t put up much of a fight and others will really go to town trying to destroy your tongs, so be sure you have a good grip on them before you carry them to your pot.
Then, simply place them in the boiling water. If you’re feeling squeamish about this part, its over for them pretty much instantly in there. If any of them clipped you earlier though, I doubt you’re feeling too squeamish.
If you put more than one crab in your pot, don’t overcrowd or you risk breakage (legs and claws), which won’t detract from the taste, but will detract from presentation. Figure you’ll need around 6-10 minutes to cook the meat to the right texture. Those muted blue shells will now be bright red. To figure out the appropriate cooking time for you, steal a claw from your first crab, crack it open, and sample the meat. Underdone? Overdone? Lesson learned for the next batch.
As each crab finished, carefully fish them out with your tongs and set them aside in a colander to drain before you serve them.
Now if you’ve never eaten whole crabs before, getting to the meat can be a daunting task. I meant to take photos, but I guess I got a little messy and preoccupied with eating. Firstly, have a big bowl handy for discarding the cracked shells and plenty of napkins/paper towels. Utensil-wise, a fork and knife are nice, but you might not ever touch them. Having something long and thin (like for walnuts) and a nutcracker can be handy though.
So say you have a whole crab in front of you. Twist off each leg–they should come off effortlessly. These little crabs don’t really have much to the legs, so you can toss them. Twist off the claws–I think these have the best meat. With your nutcracker, you’ll want to break the two “parts” of the claw arm. Pick off the shell and there’s the meat!
Then there’s the limbless body of the crab. Flip it bellyside up. There should be a triangle or t-shaped kind of shape near the butt area of the crab. Lift this up and peel it towards the back of the crab (you might need to slide a knife or something underneath to get a grip on it). Pull this straight out the back of the crab and discard. Now, slide a knife into the body of the crab where that tail fin was and use it for leverage to pop the top half of the shell off of the body. Some people smash this open with a hammer/meat mallet instead. That works, but you’ll be picking shards of shell out of your meat, which I find to be really annoying.
With the inside exposed, you’ll want to tear off and discard the “dead man’s fingers”–those 6 or so spongey looking gray things on each side of the crab. Same goes for any blackish membrane. The orange and yellow stuff (“roe” and “tomalley” respectively) you see everywhere is ok though–its actually quite delicious even though it looks like someone sneezed all over the inside of your crab. So now, all that remains are hard chambers on the left and right side of the crab. Inside those are the backfin and lump meat, so this is where you have to find the technique that works for you. Whatever you do, don’t rush!
When dinner is over, don’t waste time–take the trash out or it won’t be long before your kitchen absolutely stinks. If you find yourself with leftovers, just pack them up in a sealed container, throw them in the fridge, and briefly (like 5 minutes) steam or boil them (in only water) the next day to reheat. I imagine you can freeze them, but I’ve never done it, so I can’t say with certainty.