Atlantic blue crabs need to get rid of their hard exoskeletons in order to grow larger, and the females must be in a soft-shell stage in order for the crabs to mate. When a male blue crab (a jimmy) finds a female who is getting ready to molt, he holds on to her, cradling her under his body, waiting until she has lost her hard shell, and protecting her from predators in the meantime. Male crabs aren’t so lucky—they get no such protection when it is time for them to slough out of their hard outer shells; they just try to keep a low profile until their soft shell hardens and once again provides them with armor and weapons (their claws). Fortunately for the crabs, it takes less than a day for their shells to harden.
Professional fishermen and crabbers call crabs of either sex who are getting ready to molt 'peelers'. Fishermen like ‘em because they make good bait; crabbers separate them from the rest of their catch and keep them alive in shallow trays of running water until they molt, and can be sold to restaurants as soft-shelled crabs. There is a soft-shell crab season, in early spring and summer; the rest of the year, if you can get soft shells in a restaurant, they’ve probably been frozen.
Soft-shells, which are called soft-backs in the UK, are an acquired taste. They’re usually served breaded and fried, or maybe sautéed, scampi-style. You eat the whole thing, claws and appendages and all; I’ve found that it’s easier to order them served in a sandwich, so that dining partners with delicate stomachs are spared the sight of me snacking on their little crunchy flippers—instead, they’re neatly hidden under the bun.
For people lucky enough to have access to the Chesapeake Bay in the summertime, it is possible to catch and cook your own soft-shelled snack. Like fishing and cleaning fish, this pastime puts the individual in charge of every stage of food preparation. Me, I read all sorts of symbolism into the act. It reminds me that I’m a carnivore, and I tend to feel that, if I’m willing to partake of this particular delicacy, I should be willing to take responsibility for the whole process. It’s not as though I’m ever going to go out and slaughter a cow and make my own hamburger from scratch, but I like to think that, since I'm willing to eat beef, I could.
Anyway. Here’s the process with soft-shelled crabs. You catch ‘em, you clean and cook ‘em, you eat ‘em. The details:
At low tide, don a pair of old sneakers and grab a bucket and a crab net (like a butterfly net; a 4-6 foot pole with a net attached to one end) and head for the bay. You’ll want to position the bucket inside an old inner tube or slab of Styrofoam so that it floats, and don’t put water in the bucket.
Soft-shell crabbing is about as sophisticated as spear fishing. It involves wading through the water at low tide, spotting the crab swimming along or hiding in the seaweed, and using the crab net to scoop the critter up and into the bucket. If it’s hard-shelled, toss it back. With any luck, you’ll see a doubler; a male cradling a female soft-shell. Scoop them both up, deposit the female (called a sook) safely in the bucket, and discard the male. This can be tricky, since the male can deliver a nasty pinch; sometimes it’s better to grab his back fins while both are still in the net, hold on to him (he can’t reach you to pinch you while you’re holding his back fins), and dump the sook into the bucket.
Soft shells are harder to catch than they used to be; the crab population of the bay has shrunk considerably in the last twenty years. Dad used to go crabbing with two or three kids and a dog in tow, romping and splashing through water less than a foot deep, making enough noise and waves to scare anything away, and still manage to catch a soft-shell or two. These days, we come up empty handed more often than not, but it’s still fun to try. Wading through cool water with the hot sun on your face and shoulders is a lovely sensation. I once caught a seahorse while out crabbing, and I frequently see dolphins and manta rays in the water. Jellyfish are also plentiful; both the ‘four leaf clovers’, which look like big, translucent dinner plates and don’t sting, and the stinging nettles, which HURT. Jellyfish grow in prevalence over the course of the summer.
Occasionally, a soft-shell will wander into the crab pot. Crab pots look like square cages made out of chicken wire, about a yard long in each direction. They are baited with fish heads or chicken, tossed into the water, and left for a day or two. The crabs enter in order to get to the food, and then can’t get back out. Crabs will cannibalize a soft-shell, unless you get to it first. If you’re lucky enough to catch a soft-shell while out crabbing, or find one in the crab pot, you’re ready for step two.
Cleaning and cooking
This is not a task for the faint of heart. The first time I cleaned a soft-shell, it was the last one I ate, store-bought or hand-caught, for about a year. I’m over that now.
Rinse the crab in fresh water. Using a knife or sharp scissors, cut off the face (eye area). This is done while the crab is still alive. Recover composure; lift the points on either side of the top shell and cut out the lungs. Dredge the crab in flour or cornmeal and whatever spices you desire (pepper, salt, garlic, old bay seasoning, etc.) and fry in a hot pan with oil or butter, 4-5 minutes on a side. Serve immediately.
Restaurants often serve soft-shelled crabs on a bed of rice, or sometimes pasta, with a side of veggies; it usually takes at least two crabs to make a meal. If you’ve only got one crab, or one per person, your best bet is to make a sandwich on bread or hamburger buns. Sandwiches have the added benefit of making the meal more pleasant, and less graphic, for any tablemates.
When I was a kid, Dad would make a sandwich for himself with the body of the crab, and give me the appendages—the claws and flippers. I still like those parts best; they’re crunchy and succulent.