How to Clean Soft-Shell Crabs
Pity the feisty blue crab. Even its binomial name, callinectes sapidus (savory beautiful swimmer), spells its fate. Hard shells and skin-splitting pincers aren't enough to stop us humans from throwing a bunch of them in a pot with Old Bay, then messily picking them to shreds in search of morsels of sweet, tasty meat.
Pity even more the soft-shell blue crab, which has shed its protective shell during the growing months of roughly May through September, so that it can form a new, larger one. Not only is the soft-shell defenseless, with its limp claws and squishy carapace, but it's also irresistibly easy to eat, requiring nothing more than a quick cleaning of a few inedible parts to prepare it for cooking and eating whole.
Pity, also, the cook, who has to slaughter the soft-shell crab in what feels like the most brutal way possible: by cutting off its face, ripping free its abdomen, and tearing out its lungs (technically, gills, but I'm anthropomorphizing here). Some will object to this on ethical grounds, others will choose to have their fishmonger do it for them, but for those of us who like our shellfish alive until the last moment—which should be all of us—here are the basic steps to get them ready for the frying pan.
(What's sad, by the way, is how almost-heroic the crab's molting starts out: In an Incredible Hulk-like shirt-shredding maneuver, it takes in enough water to swell its body up and crack the hard shell, but then, instead of a fearsome monster emerging, out slithers a flaccid creature that then tries to hide long enough to absorb calcium from the water to harden its new shell—plucked from the water before that happens and the shell won't harden.)
Like most shellfish, dead crabs decompose rapidly as marine bacteria break down the flesh, eventually producing an unpleasant ammonia odor. Be sure to buy live ones that still have a bit of vigor (not rigor!) in them, though it's important to note that refrigerated live crabs are often less animated yet no less alive. It's fine to have your fishmonger clean them for you, but again, your best bet is to keep them alive as long as possible. Store them in your refrigerator until ready to cook, but don't hold on to them too long—the crabs will weaken and expire on their own without food, water, and all the other things they need to survive. It's therefore best to buy them the day you plan on cooking them. Storing lively ones overnight in the fridge should be fine as long as they're in a moist environment and are able to breathe, but I wouldn't recommend trying to keep them any longer than that.
A quick rinse under cold running water can help remove any dirt or debris clinging to the crabs.
For more basic info and buying tips on soft-shells, check out our beginner's guide here.
Cut off the Face
The first step is to, shall we say, deface the crab. I like to use a good pair of kitchen shears for this, but a sharp knife will work in a pinch; just not a soft-shell pinch because those floppy claws are good for nothin'. Using the shears or knife, cut across the front of the crab, just behind the eyes and mouth-parts to remove them—it should all come off in a single, approximately 1/4-inch-wide strip.
Remove the Gills
Now lift one of the corners of the top shell to expose the nasty-tasting gills, which look like frilly little beige pointy tongues. Grab the gills and rip them all out at the base. Repeat on the other side of the top shell.
Pull off the Apron
Finally, turn the crab over to expose its underside. There you will find a flap known as the apron; for male crabs it will be long and thin, for females (as shown here) it will be wider. Lift the apron with your fingers and pull it off the body. It should come free fairly easily.
Now your crabs are ready to be cooked and eaten in (what remains of) their entirety. If you're looking for a recipe, try one of the two great ones below, and stay tuned for new ones coming soon.
At this point, please dispense with the pity party and enjoy!