“So, who serves the best crabs?”
That’s one of the most frequent questions people from Maryland get from non-Marylanders, right up there with “Ray Lewis killed a guy” (not actually a question) and “Have you ever seen The Wire?” (yes, here’s my HBO Go login, please go away). And though I’ve committed the names of a few famous seafood houses to memory, my heart’s not in any of these answers. That’s because there’s no debate. I serve the best crabs, hands and claws down.
I don’t mean me, specifically. Any native who fully embraces our hardshell-picking state tradition (those who don’t = weirdos) secretly wants to respond to such queries the same way. That’s because “going out” for crabs, to some pricey restaurant with ship’s wheels and nautical knots nailed to the walls, just isn’t what we want to do. Steaming and picking through big piles of Number Ones, surrounded by loved ones, an O’s game on TV and an endless stream of Natty Bohs rolling out of the cooler, is.
This might be an inconvenient truth for someone headed down for a weekend in Annapolis or Baltimore or Ocean City, looking for a ready-made shell-cracking experience. But true crab lovers are homebodies, and summer is their season. There’s nothing that quite compares to the experience, especially if you’ve got your technique and timing down. If you don’t, it’s easy to grasp — just shop smart, arm yourself with the right equipment and invite the right people over to hang, and we’ll drop your Honorary Marylander Card in the mail.
HOW TO BUY
Let’s start by clarifying that which type of crab we’re talking about here: Callinectes sapidus, or blue crabs. They’re called this due to their distinct cerulean markings, unfamiliar to those who know them only by their reddish-orange post-steam glow. Marylander of distinction Kevin Durant has a sneaker inspired by these colors, which coordinate conveniently with his Oklahoma City Thunder kits.
Though closely associated with Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, blues can be found all over the world, including up and down the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. Jimmies, or males, have blue-tipped claws and a phallic T-shaped abdominal hinge, while more petite Sooks, or mature females, have red-tipped claws and a belly apron that looks like the top half of a lemon. People who steam their own crabs usually go for males — more expensive, but bigger, meatier and more ecologically friendly to eat than the ladies.
Seafood restaurants carrying crabs often attach the dreaded “M.P.” to their menus when it comes to pricing, but there’s simply no way around it — crabbing is a challenging and tempestuous art, with the fortunes of crabbers fluctuating by the season, day and hour. (To those who complain about the difficulty of eating them — try catching them.) You’ll pay what the market demands (this year, it’s high), whether securing a simple dozen or springing for a bushel, which can set you back several hundred bucks. That’s usually no big deal, as long as your buddies aren’t deadbeats and chip in a couple bills.
Pros use their own categorical measuring systems, but retailers tend to simplify the process. “Number Ones” will be the largest, and priciest, crabs on hand that day — 6 or more inches across the shell, ideally, and roughly four to five dozen a bushel. (That’s ballpark; bushel sizes vary by seller and state.) “Number Twos” will be smaller and cheaper, in the six- to seven-dozen per bushel neighborhood. Don’t go for anything under number twos, even if the prices are enticing.
You can buy your crabs pre-seasoned and pre-steamed, but that’s no fun. Channel your inner angry O’Reilly and do it live, saving money, maximizing flavor, controlling seasoning and paying homage to the serious fight these hard-pinching suckers put up till the very end. Here’s what you need.
If you’re not taking the crabs directly from the store to your kitchen, it’s important to keep them as chilled as possible. Use a cooler stocked with ice or cold packs if needed. Keep them as cold as you can right up to the second they enter the pot. Never steam a dead crab.
First: a tall, high-walled steamer or sturdy pot is imperative. Don’t bother with a shallow pasta pot or saucepan, because it’s always a mess. You’ll also need a snug-fitting rack or separator of some sort to prevent the crabs from touching your steaming liquid, which can cause unappealing sogginess. Either purchase a steam rack, or do like my friend Nico and construct an elaborate pie crust-like lattice made of tin foil. Really, anything that allows the steam to rise and prevents the crabs from dropping into the water will work.
As far as steaming liquid goes — water is fine if you are in a bind, but Marylanders prefer a combination of beer and vinegar. Two-ish cans of a cheap, easy-drinking brew like Miller Lite, Natural Light or our very own National Bohemian, plus an equal pour of apple cider or distilled white vinegar, will do you nicely. I’ve seen people get fancy and throw in bay leaves, though I’ve never felt it makes much difference. You don’t need as much liquid as you think — think about two inches from the bottom of the pot. Make sure it doesn’t rise above the steam rack.
On the very fun, very divisive topic of seasoning — the dominant presence in this category is Old Bay, the versatile utility seasoning Marylanders worship with reverence traditionally reserved for people with the last names Unitas and Ripken. A shake of the celery salt heavy spice mixture alone, which has inspired so-flavored beers and vodkas, will definitely do the trick. But more experimental steamers tend to riff. Blend your Old Bay with rock salt, and/or hit it with additional dry mustard, cumin, black pepper or nutmeg. Less famous, but revered by connoisseurs, is J.O. Spice Company seasonings, available online to non-locals. It’ll take a few run-thrus to nail your ideal spice combination.
Crank your burner up high to get your steaming liquid rolling. Using tongs (be careful, they’ll want to fight), place your first layer of three to four crabs, belly side down, on the steam rack, covering them generously (don’t be stingy) with your spice blend. Follow suit with your next layer and repeat the seasoning process, making sure not to overpopulate each layer or overcrowd the pot in general. Once you’ve got all your guys in position, cover the lid tightly and you’re on your way.
Keep in mind that this isn’t wander-off-for-a-few-hours cook job. You are not smoking a huge hunk of meat. Your attention is vital. Cooking times will vary based on the size of the pot, the size of the crabs and how many crabs you’re knocking out per batch, but a good rule of thumb is to check your results after 15 minutes. If the steam clears to reveal that gorgeous bright reddish-orange shell color throughout, they’re ready. Return the steaming liquid to a boil, replenishing as needed, before starting the process over.
Picking crabs is something of a choose-your-own-adventure endeavor, but there are universal techniques to familiarize yourself with. There are also several things to keep in mind once you’re ready to eat. Cover every inch of your table with brown butcher’s paper or newspaper for painless cleanup. On the table, set out a few bowls of white vinegar — I like to throw in a crushed clove of raw garlic and a sliced jalapeno or bird chili for flavor — for meat dipping. Common crab-feast accompaniments include corn on the cob, cole slaw, fried chicken, Smith Island cake for dessert and copious amounts of beer. And though shell-smashing weapons like wooden mallets and butter knives may be a mise en place fixture in restaurants, I’ve never found them necessary. If you want to eat a blue crab like a true Marylander, your hands — plus a little patience and a lot of like-minded friends — are all you need.
Try out these crab recipes on Food Republic: