Perfect Maryland Crab Cakes: Taste Great, Less Filler!

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

The world is full of fish cakes. But when it comes to crab cakes, there's only one that matters, and it's the one from Maryland.

Unfortunately, people do all sorts of things to modify what is already a perfect crab cake. In some cases, they do it to save money, working in an excessive amount of breading and filler to stretch the pricey crabmeat. In others, they do it to make their version of the dish unique, or to make it seem fancier, by adding diced fresh vegetables or minced herbs to the mixture or serving it with some kind of gussied-up mayo. The Maryland crab cake needs none of that, and it suffers at the hands of those who think it does.

Eating a good Maryland crab cake should feel like unfettered indulgence: a generous puck of almost pure crabmeat that's seasoned just enough and bound with the absolute minimum of filler, so little that you can't even be sure it's there. The exterior—and this is important—should be nothing more than the crabmeat mixture itself, browned until lacy and crisp, a texture that's an integral part of the Maryland crab cake experience. Unlike fish cakes, which can be toughened and dried out by searing, crab cakes handle heat beautifully, the crab remaining tender just below the paper-thin browned surface. In my salmon burger recipe, I coat the patties in bread crumbs to insulate the fish from the heat. With Maryland crab cakes, I don't.*

* That said, if you're not a purist seeking Maryland-style crab cakes, Kenji has an awesome recipe with a slightly more upscale presentation that's worth checking out. (He makes sure to leave the crab front-and-center too.)

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Even with such a simple recipe, though, some questions still needed answering. I surveyed many Maryland crab cake recipes, both online and in cookbooks; I even searched through a cherished 1967 community cookbook from the Galena, Maryland, volunteer fire company, which boasts more than one home cook's recipe. My research revealed a variety of approaches. Recipes called for a range of fillers, in equally varied amounts, and different methods for handling the egg. Some cakes were made with mayo and some without. Et cetera.

I tested all those out and came up with what I think is the ideal version. I encourage you to make it and judge for yourself.

Get Your Lumps

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A can of pasteurized crabmeat. Always pick through the meat for shell fragments, since even shelled meat will contain some.

The first thing to know about a Maryland crab cake concerns the meat itself. It should come from a blue crab, Callinectes sapidus.

The second thing to know—what kind of blue crabmeat to use—is a little more complicated. Crabmeat is sold in three forms: as live crabs (which you have to cook and shell yourself), fresh, and pasteurized.

Cooking your own live crabs and picking out the meat is certainly an option, but it's time-consuming and messy. Plus, you have to be somewhat expert at picking, lest you leave a lot of meat behind in the shells and accidentally break the nice large pieces that you do get out into smaller shreds. If you're comfortable with this option, it's among the best for maximum freshness, but for most folks, it doesn't make a ton of sense.

Next is fresh picked meat, which has been cooked and picked by someone else, then packaged and refrigerated. If you get the meat while it's still fresh, this is your second-best option, since the meat will still have lots of great crab flavor and a more tender texture (assuming it wasn't overcooked during preparation). You need to use fresh meat quickly, as it will spoil if left too long in the fridge. It also tends to be more expensive than your next option: pasteurized crab.

Pasteurized crab has been canned using a high-heat process to kill microorganisms, which provides an extended shelf life in the refrigerator for as long as the can remains unopened. The downside is that the meat has been cooked more aggressively, resulting in a loss in flavor and texture quality. Still, this is the blue crabmeat most of us are likely to find, and its longer shelf life guarantees that you won't be dealing with stinky old meat. This is what I used in my recipe testing, and it ultimately works just fine for crab cakes.

Next is the grade of the crabmeat. There's some inconsistency here, but you'll usually see four main categories: claw, special, lump (or backfin), and jumbo lump. You can technically use any of these for crab cakes, but lump is generally your best bet.

Claw meat comes from the claws and legs of the crab, and it's considered the "dark" meat. It has an assertive crab flavor, but a stringier, less tender, and less plump texture, making it less than ideal.

Special is made up of all the little shreddy bits of "white" meat in the crab's body. It can work in a crab cake, but you won't get any of the nice big pieces of crabmeat that make the cakes such a luxury.

Going out of order here, jumbo lump crabmeat is on the upper end of the price spectrum, and is made up exclusively of the whole chunks of meat that come from the part of the crab's body where the swimming flippers connect to it. Each crab has only two pieces of jumbo lump meat, and they're prized for being the biggest in the crab's body. They're also much more expensive. But, since jumbo lump meat is so delicate, and crab cakes require mixing the meat to form cohesive patties, you'll end up breaking them into smaller pieces anyway, rendering the extra expense hard to justify.

That leaves lump crabmeat, sometimes called "backfin" on product packaging. The backfin label is confusing, since not all of the meat in a tub of lump crab comes from those treasured backfin portions. Instead, the grade tends to include pieces of the backfin lump meat that broke during processing (making it unfit for the jumbo lump grade), along with some portion of special meat from the rest of the crab's body. This is a good pick for crab cakes, since you get a mix of larger and smaller pieces, some more broken up and some less so, which combine to form a crab cake that holds together while still maintaining discernible chunks of crabmeat inside.

Fill 'Er Up

With your crabmeat ready, the next question is what kind of filler to use. The key here is to add just enough breading to give you a workable mixture that will hold together, but not so much that the cakes taste bready.

In my review of recipes, I found a couple different approaches to the breading. Many use standard bread crumbs, some use a panade made from fresh bread soaked in a liquid, and at least one popular recipe—the crab cake served at Faidley's in Baltimore—seems to call for crushed saltines.

I tried all of them, along with panko bread crumbs, which tend to be my favorite dried bread crumb in most applications. I had high hopes for the panade, since it works so well in meatball and meatloaf recipes, maintaining moisture and tenderness while acting as a binder. But with the crab cakes, it didn't work as well (not even when I'd soaked the white bread in melted butter!). It created crab cakes with a noticeably doughy texture.

Standard bread crumbs, as is often the case, were too dense and dry, doing no favors for the cakes.

That left saltines and panko. Interestingly, I couldn't tell a difference between the crab cakes made with these two, which, in retrospect, makes some sense: Both panko bread crumbs and crushed saltines have a similarly light and airy texture and mild flavor. Since using the saltines requires the extra step of crushing them up, I opted for panko in my recipe. Just scoop it in, and you're done.

As for the ratio, I settled on a mere half cup of panko per pound of crabmeat. The result is a crab cake that seems like it's almost pure seasoned crabmeat... probably because it is.

The Egg and the Mayo

Another interesting detail in crab cake recipes is the use of egg and mayo. Most recipes include both, but not all. One that I came across calls for separating the egg yolks and whites, beating the whites until stiff, then folding that into the crab mixture with the yolk. I tried the white-beating method, but found that once the whites had been folded into the crab, whatever airiness I had created was totally lost; it made no detectable difference. A whole egg stirred into the mixture is more than enough and requires far less effort.

As for the mayo, when I prepared versions of the crab cakes without it, they crisped up more in the pan but were too dry throughout. On the other end of the spectrum, too much mayo led to a wet crab cake that tasted too strongly of the condiment. With a little tweaking, I dialed into a ratio of one-third of a cup of mayo per pound of crabmeat, which turned out to be the sweet spot.

How to Flavor

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Here's what we don't want: a crab cake studded with diced onion, bell pepper, and celery. That stuff is just a distraction. What we do want is a crab cake that has plenty of flavor, but still keeps the spotlight strongly on the crab. There are a lot of different directions one can take here, and certainly there's plenty of variation from one recipe to the next, even among the most traditional versions.

I settled on some of the most common flavorings, which help to add a bit of zest and zing and spice to the crabmeat without obliterating it. That includes a little mustard, some Worcestershire, a dose of paprika, and a few dashes of hot sauce, plus salt and a generous grinding of fresh black pepper. It's tempting to grab the Old Bay and shake some of that into the mixture as well, and you sure can do it if you're feeling frisky, but I don't think the cakes really need it.

Assembling and Cooking

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The last detail to consider is how to bring it all together into a finished dish.

As you can imagine, mixing it all together can break up some of the larger pieces of crabmeat more than you might want, so I settled on a two-step approach: Mix half the crabmeat with all of the seasonings and other ingredients until thoroughly combined, then gently fold in the rest to preserve some of those nicer lumps in the final cakes.

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Then just form them into patties, and fry them in a skillet with some butter and/or oil until they're browned and crisp on both sides and warmed throughout.

It's nice to serve them with a lemon wedge and maybe—maaaaaaaaaybe—some tartar sauce, but try them first before adding anything. Truth is, they're excellent on their own, without any garnishes or condiments. I mean, you can do it, but you'll be messing with perfection.

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