It’s not hard to imagine why we humans eat certain foods. Fragrant fruits with sweet aromas hang, tempting us from the vine. Who could resist the prehistoric version of a ripe strawberry? Maybe the inspiration came from watching other animals. We know sea otters eat oysters. Bears forage for honey and pull live salmon out of the river.
But who (or what) ate the first king crab pulled from the depths of the sea, all sharp claws, pincers, and hard defensive shell?
Who said, “Yes, let’s tackle that sea monster, throw it in a pot of boiling water and crack it open” to then discover the delicious rich meat inside? Some brave soul, that’s who.
Crabs are a member of the crustacean family, meaning they have jointed, crust-like, shells. There are over 4000 different varieties of crab, most of which never see the light of day, dry ground, or your dinner plate. Only a couple dozen kinds of crabs are commonly consumed by people. In the US, crabs are abundant on all coasts; Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf. While most crabs live in salt water, there are varieties that live only in fresh water and some which live full time on land.
All crabs have 10 legs, the front two of which are claws/pincers which they use for defense, crushing their prey, and feeding. Crabs are omnivores and eat everything from algae to other crustaceans, mollusks, worms, and even fish. Male crabs often have larger claws than females and a narrower, more triangular abdomen. The female crab’s abdomen is broader and rounder and used for brooding fertilized eggs.
As a source of food, crab meat is healthy; low in fat and calories (only about 90 calories per 3 oz portion). Crab is also a good source of Omega-3, Vitamins (A, B-12, C) and Minerals (zinc and selenium).
Buying Tips: Because crab (like most seafood) is highly perishable, make sure any crab you eat is fresh and sweet-smelling and does not have any strong odor. Never buy crabs that are dead and uncooked (soft shells are the exception, often sold raw and cleaned, but eat within 24 hours) because the meat will start to break down as soon as they die. If possible, buy crabs live or freshly cooked.
Dungeness Crabs: Found on the Pacific Coast from Alaska to Mexico, Dungeness are plentiful in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. The harvest season is September to June. Dungeness range in weight from one pound to four pounds. The flesh is pink tinged and creamy white with a sweet and briny flavor. There is edible meat in the claws, legs and body. Dungeness are often sold in stores live (in tanks), or cooked, either fresh or frozen.
King Crab: Known as the Monsters of the Pacific from Alaska to Japan, these crabs (along with Snow Crabs) are part of “the deadliest catch” made famous on reality TV. They can weigh up to 15 pounds and can span 10 feet, claw tip to claw tip. King Crab fishing is a highly regulated catch because the supply is shrinking. The season is typically in October and November but can be as short as a few weeks with quotas given to each boat. The flesh is white with red edging and the edible meat is in mostly in the long legs and some in the body. Most often just the legs are sold frozen, but they can also be found live in tanks (usually in restaurants).
Snow Crab (also known as Spider Crab)-From the extremely cold waters of the North Pacific and North Atlantic, snow crabs have white flesh with pink edges and can grow to 3 feet across. Their meat has a slightly salty flavor and is commonly used in sushi. Snow crab season is January through April.
Stone Crabs are mostly from Florida and the other Gulf Coast states from Texas to North Carolina. Only the black-tipped claws are edible and only one at a time is removed from live crabs that are then placed back into the water and will regenerate a new claw in 12-24 months. The meat is firm and sweet. Stone crab claws are sold in sizes ranging from Medium to Jumbo to Colossal. Stone crab season runs October to May.
Blue Crabs have blue tinged claws and are eaten in both their hard shell and soft shell phase. They are found on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and are very popular in Maryland.
Soft Shell Crabs-These are Blue Crabs which have molted their hard shell to grow a larger one. This phase only lasts a few days until the new shell hardens. During the “soft shell” phase the entire crab can be eaten, “shell” and all. Commonly fried, sautéed or tempura battered. Season is April-September.
Hard Shell Crabs- Eaten in the hard shell phase in Crab Boils. Crab sold as “lump meat” typically comes from hard shell Blue Crabs and is from the body of the crab. The flesh is white and sweet and perfect for crab cakes (see recipe below).
Coconut Crab- If you’re ever in Australia or the South Pacific look out for largest land crab in the world, the Coconut Crab. This crab has evolved lungs and only goes into the water to lay its eggs. It’s called the coconut crab because its claws are so large and powerful that this crab can crack a coconut with them. They are known to climb trees to pick their coconuts for food. Oddly enough, the closest relative is the teeny tiny hermit crab, and thus is not considered a “true” crab. Coconut crabs can weigh up to 9 pounds and grow up to 3 feet across.
Do you have a favorite kind of crab? Do you like to cook them, or do you prefer the work to be done for you?
This is part 2 in an ongoing series about crab. Part 1 was about Stone Crabs. Subsequent posts will cover Dungeness Crabs (including my family’s marinated cracked crab), soft shell crabs and crab cake recipes. Stay tuned!
Coming up next…how to cook and clean a Dungeness crab