The Food Lab: The Crabbiest Crab Cakes
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After only two months on the wagon, my wife has renounced her once purely vegetarian ways. The food that made her come back to the sentient side of the food chain? Crab cakes.
Now before I go on, I trust that you Serious Eaters will not be giving my wife any lip about a lack of will power. I don't want anyone asking her how the desire for tasty crustacean comestibles somehow trumped her health and ethics, or asking her if there are any other promises she's made that she plans on breaking in the future. We'll have none of that, ok?
Thing is, I don't blame her. I love crab with an undying passion. Sweet and tender, with the aroma of the ocean and a tenderness that lobster only aspires to. And in cake form—warm and tender with a buttery aroma and just a touch of tartar sauce, it's even better. At least, is should be better.
The sad truth is that most crab cakes stink. Literally. The vast majority out there are made with canned, pasteurized crab meat which instantly takes them out of "sweet and succulent" territory and into "fishy and please god take that smell away from me" land.
Then we've got those crab cakes that are more cake than crab, packed with pasty binders and bland fillers. Or you may run into the kind that's so heavily coated in bread crumbs that they may as well be called vaguely-crab-scented-croquettes.
If my wife is going to break her vows, it had damn well better be for the best possible crab cakes out there. I made it my mission to make them.
Getting Good Crab
The first problem with most crab cakes is the crab itself. It's easy to find picked blue crab meat (the only crab variety for crab cakes!) in pasteurized tubs, but the stuff is fishy smelling, wet, and already overcooked. Without good crab to start with, you can't make good crab cakes.
What you want to look for is fresh-picked lump or jumbo lump crab meat. Crab season on the eastern seaboard runs from spring through late fall, and on-season, it's relatively easy to find crab at a good seafood retailer, or to order it online from a number of sources. Off season, it's not quite so easy, but a good retailer should be able to order you some from South American sources.
Your best bet? Just hope that you don't get a hankering for crab cakes in the off season.
Tackling the issue of binders in crab cakes is not easy. Unlike, say, ground beef, fresh-picked crab meat does not want to bind with itself. You can rub it and knead it and press it together all you want and all you've succeeded in doing is turning it into pasty mush that still doesn't want to stick together. What you need is some form of un-coagulated protein to make every stick together. The classic choice is egg, which not only adds protein, but also adds moisture and some degree of leavening power.
But a simple egg and crab mixture is impossible loose, nearly impossible to form into cakes that stay in shape—they simply sag and spread out like a deflated jellyfish.
In order to solve this problem you generally add some sort of starch binder. The more of these binders you add, the easier it is to form cakes and maneuver them in a pan, but the worse the finished texture of the dish.
Binders are usually applied in one of two methods. The first is to add eggs and flour along with some mayonnaise creating an almost batter-like consistency. The mayonnaise adds fat to the lean crab meat, as well as a bit of acidic tang.
As the cakes cook, the batter sets up, while the eggs help leaven it slightly. You end up with a crab cake that is vaguely pancake or fritter-like in texture. Not terrible, but not what I'm going for.
Alternatively, you can add eggs and breadcrumbs in some form, whether they're regular or panko breadcrumbs, or crushed up saltines or oyster crackers.
This method is preferable to me, as the breadcrumbs create a more irregular texture in the cake, as well as adding some level of flavor on their own, but even better would be to be able to go with no extra starchy binders at all.
Eliminating starchy binders and instead going with a strict egg-and-mayo base can work if you're willing to have your cakes look more like lumps and if you're ok with only broiling them as opposed to sauteeing in butter. It's better than no solution, but still I think we can do better than compromise.
The Freezer Aisle
Back when I worked at Toro, a Spanish tapas restaurant in Boston (and soon to be New York), I learned a neat little trick for making cod croquettes with impossibly tender innards: Make a very soft, barely-bound filling, then partially freeze it before coating in bread crumbs and frying. The crumbs form a seal that keep the filling from falling apart as they fry, resulting in a croquette with a crisp exterior and interior that literally melts in your mouth.
Would a similar technique work for my crab cakes?
I tried it, forming patties bound with just a touch of mayo and an egg, freezing them, then breading them and shallow frying in some butter and oil in a cast iron skillet.
The crab cakes were great—the best yet—but the thick coating of bread crumbs was distracting. For my next attempt, I made a new set of patties, this time shaping them into neater, tighter cakes by forming them inside ring molds (I also tried forming them in rings made of aluminum foil, which worked just as well) before freezing them.
After frozen, I popped them out and breaded just one side in bread crumbs. That way, I figured, I'd get the best of both worlds: the bread crumbs will add some crunch and keep the cake from completely falling apart as it cooks, while the rest of the cake will be naked crab.
Everything seemed to be going fine as I slipped the breaded cakes into the skillet bread-side-down, but as they slowly thawed, they gradually fell apart. I was left with lose crab meat sauteed in butter along with an intact disk of fried breadcrumbs. I tossed it with pasta and called it dinner, then got back to work.
My final plan: Why bother removing the aluminum foil rings from the cakes after freezing them? I made a new batch of crab mixture, froze it in foil rings, then breaded one side of the cakes without removing the foil before slipping it into the hot butter in the skillet.
Only after the crab cakes cooked long enough to hold themselves together did I then carefully peel off the foil. I held my breath as I watched them cook, then mentally* high-fived myself when they did.
That is, they did until I tried to flip them. Even with a gentle metal fish spatula, turning them without breaking them apart turned out to be a tough task. Not impossible, but tough.
The solution turned out to be using a hybrid cooking method: Starting the crab cakes in a hot skillet with butter to crisp up the bread crumb layer, carefully peeling off the foil, then spooning some of the browned butter over the top of the crab cakes to lubricate them and baste them before popping the whole thing under the broiler.
With the aid of the browned butter, the broiled side of the crab cakes brown beautifully, while the bread crumb layer gets ultra-crisp as it continues to cook as the tops brown.
The cakes that emerge from the oven are everything I want in a crab cake. A crisp, golden layer of crunch that doesn't overwhelm the crab underneath, and a crab filling that is really made of crab—absolutely no starchy fillers at all. All of this with the buttery, golden crust you get from the best naked-pan-fried crab cakes.
One Last Trick
The only issue with the recipe is that if you plan on making more than a few cakes, it can be a bit tedious to for all of the little foil rings and stuff them with crab. Mush more efficient is to use the method that Heston Blumenthal uses to form his hamburger patties: Form the crab mixture into a large log wrapped in aluminum foil, partially freeze the whole thing, then slice it into disks with a knife.
After slicing, the disks stay nicely intact with perfectly fitted foil liners, ready to bread and fry.
Crab cakes good enough to at least tempt the staunchest of vegetarians and meatatarians alike.
And what's that you say? You've never had Eggs Chesapeake?
In that case, may I suggest that you get your butt into the kitchen immediately and find a solution for that problem? Here's a foolproof way to poach eggs to get you started.
What are you waiting for? I said go!
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.
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