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How to Steam Crabs, Baltimore Style

The centerpiece of most good summertime parties anywhere near the Chesapeake Bay is almost always a huge pile of steamed crabs. They are a staple of company picnics, family reunions, and Political Gatherings all around Maryland, and many parts of Virginia as well. The crab in question is the Maryland Blue Crab also known as Callinectes Sapidus, which is found in coastal areas of the Atlantic Seaboard and Gulf of Mexico.

Where to find crabs

You can purchase crabs already steamed from many restaurants and roadside vendors. The roadside vendors will usually park their trailer alongside of one of the major highways in the area, such as Ritchie Highway in Anne Arundel County. Sometimes the trailers will have a more permanant location in the parking lot of a shopping center. A few might even have a storefront. In any event, such an establishment will usually have two unmistakable signs that crabs are sold within. First is large lettering on the outside that says the words Steamed Crabs. The second sign is a large picture of a Blue Crab, though frequently the crab is painted red, which is the color crabs turn when they are steamed to death. Often you can purchase live crabs from these establishments as well.

Of course, if you have access to a boat or pier and live near the Bay, you can alway go out and catch your own. See my writeup on how to catch crabs for more information. (shameless self-promotion)

Steaming your own live crabs

In order to steam your own crabs, it is necessary to have a large pot to steam them in. Crab Steamers made for steaming crabs can be purchased at just about any place that sells cookware (at least here in Maryland), but an old pressure cooker, soup cauldron, home canner, or baby bottle sterilizer will do just fine. The main thing is that it is sufficiently large to contain the volume of crabs you wish to steam, and that it has a lid. If you are using a makeshift steamer, you need to build up a porous platform about an inch or so off the bottom, so the steam can escape and the crabs on the bottom don't drown and get soggy. One way to do this is to take an old pie pan or round cake pan and punch a bunch of holes in it and set it in the bottom of the large pot.

Prepare the steamer by heating a mixture of water, vinegar, and some stale beer to boiling that is about an inch deep in the bottom of the steamer. If you don't have any stale beer, fresh beer will do. While you are at it, open a cold beer for yourself and get ready for the fun. Prepare a mixture of seasonings to sprinkle on the crabs as you add them to the pot. Most popular is a mixture of Old Bay and salt, but the following items are often added: Cayenne Pepper, Mustard Seed, Dill, as well as other spices. Many of the local seafood establishments sell their own "special" mixtures to season crabs, you may want to sample a few to find one you like.

Once the water is starting to boil, it is time to add the crabs to the pot. Make sure that you keep your crabs cool and damp if you need to store them more than an hour or so between the water and the pot. DO NOT leave them in the hot sun, or you will soon have a smelly, worthless mess of dead crabs. Remember that crabs have large claws that can inflict painful damage to whatever they grab, so be sure to don a pair of heavy work gloves, the canvas and leather type are fine, but don't bother with lightweight cloth gloves, crabs will pinch right through them. If you are afraid of grabbing the feisty crustaceans with even your heavily gloved hands, get a pair of large tongs made specially for that purpose. Drink down a couple of healthy slugs of beer to fortify your courage, then dig in! Lay the crabs in layers in the pot, discarding any dying or dead crabs. This includes dismembered claws, however an otherwise healthy claw-challenged crab is okay to cook. After each layer of crabs is put down, sprinkle a healthy amount of your seasoning mix on each layer of crabs, until you run out of crabs or the pot is full. Be prepared for lots of hilarious mayhem as the crabs resist being arranged in their death chamber. Also, be prepared for escape attempts, particularly if the pot is tightly filled, until the rattling noises cease. A good way to prevent escape attempts is to hold down the lid with your hand or a heavy weight. I speak from experience! Once steam is shooting out of the lid pretty good, cook the crabs about 30 minutes or so. You may need to add additional water to prevent the steamer from running dry, so check the steam output every once in a while. Once the commotion settles down, take a break and drink the rest of your beer. The crabs are done when the top shells are a bright red. If you see a brownish-blue tint on the shells, steam for a while longer.

Eating Steamed Crabs

Prepare for the feast by covering the table with brown craft paper, but a back issue of the Baltimore Sun will suffice as well. Eating crabs is a messy undertaking, so have plenty of napkins or paper towels at the ready. Have plenty of Natty Boh for the adults who enjoy adult beverages, and Iced Tea for everyone else. Also have at the ready claw hammers, paring knives, and so on to aid the dismemberment of the steamed up crustaceans. Finally, have a lined garbage can at the ready to clean up the mess.

To efficiently dismember the crabs, one should first pull or cut off the claws and set them aside. Next, remove the shell by pulling the "apron" on the bottom of the shell. On a male crab, the apron is shaped like a narrow "vee", and on a female, the apron is rounded. Once the apron is pulled around, you can pull off the top shell. Once the top shell is off you will be confronted by a mess of guts and so on. Scrape off the lungs (the white fibrous looking things that set on top), then cut a V shaped notch to remove most of the mustard, guts, and so on. Once this is done, you can break the main body in two and after cutting some shell away, get access to the best part of the crab, the Backfin Lump. After eating the lump meat, you can usually get meat out of the smaller chambers with your paring knife and pulling off the swim fins, sucking a little meat out of the fins as you go. Finally, crack open the claws. If the crabs are peelers or "fat and heavy", you will find a new shell starting to form under the old, and its chambers filled with meat. That in a crab shell Hon is why they call Maryland the Land of Pleasant Living. If you are unfortunate enough to have picked up a papershell, the meat chambers will be nearly empty, and the shell thin and fragile. You will starve to death eating papershell crabs. If you catch your own crabs, you will quickly learn to avoid crabs that are light and have nice clean shells, or if you buy your crabs, avoid places that sell too many of them.

Well Hon, I think I have said all I got to say about steamin' crabs, so I think I will take a break for another Natty Boh.

Here’s another method that I use whenever the Crab Gods have bestowed upon me a bountiful harvest of Atlantic Blue Claws. It differs from the method in the excellent writeup above only in that the crabs are cleaned before steaming.

To clean your crabs, you will need a pair of tongs and a work glove. Don the glove on your non-dominant hand. Then, pick up a crab with the tongs.

Warning – Be careful at this stage, as you are in danger of getting pinched if you do it wrong. Keep the crab’s claws occupied and pointing away from its body, preferably with the tongs, or another person.

Lay the crab’s belly on the palm of your non-dominant and gloved hand, with the base of your ring finger and middle finger right in front of its face. One of the the crab’s claws should be sticking out between your middle finger and index finger, and the other claw between your pinky and ring finger. If you keep your fingers as close to the crab’s body as possible, it will not be able to pinch you. Lay your thumb over the base of its legs. Now, use the thumb of your dominant hand to pry open its shell.

After a couple tries, you should be able to get the entire shell off with one flick of the wrist. There are a lot of icky guts inside the crab. Right in the middle is a dime-sized mass of gray goo (the brain). Stick your finger or other object (wuss!) into the brain and wiggle around.

It is now technically dead, but be aware! Crabs are much too stupid to know they are dead, and will still squirm and pinch on occasion. Clean away all the blood and guts (anything that’s not white) with a hose, and throw the squeaky clean crab into your pot. Peel the apron off the crab as described in the writeup above, and rip off the face.

Repeat en masse, and enjoy!

Alternate method for Wussies and the ASPCA:

Clean one crab using the method above. Remember where the brain is. For the following crabs, drive a nail (not a lead nail) through the shell and into its brain before cleaning it. This will make cleaning easier (but less fun), and should minimize the pain for the crab.

Me, I’ve had a proverbial buttload of scars and wounds that say “Make ‘Em Suffer.”

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