Zen and the Art of the Maryland Crab Feast

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Video: Serious Eats Video]

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Some people want food that’s easy and immediate. Their breakfasts are bowls of cereal, their snacks energy bars, and their dinners tender, boneless steak. There's nothing wrong with being one of those people; we're all this kind of person at least some of the time. But there's another kind of person, one who's willing to work a little harder for their food, knowing that it will reward them in kind. Those people suck the meat off oxtail bones and scrape the cartilage with their teeth, meticulously shred hair-thin strands from a knot of nigella-flecked string cheese, and set to work picking nubbins of sweet crabmeat from a shell that evolved specifically to impede such efforts. We should all strive to be such painstaking eaters, at least some of the time.

It’s easier for some of us than others. If you’ve been raised exclusively on a diet of convenience foods, like mac and cheese, chicken fingers, and pizza, the idea of having to toil over your plate just to get a bite of food into your mouth can sound completely insane. But those of us who grew up in families, regions, and cultures where more assiduous eating was the norm see it differently. We enjoy the effort and savor the reward.

I was lucky. I grew up in Brooklyn, a place not particularly well known for lobster boils, crawfish boils, or crab feasts. But my mom was from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where crab feasts are a defining culinary event, and she made sure Maryland-style crab feasts were an important part of my life. I spent my summers visiting my grandmother in Maryland, and not a year went by when the family didn’t come together around a newspaper-covered table and pick apart a half or full bushel of crabs.

My training started early, with my mom inspecting the shells my sister and I left behind, looking for meat we’d missed. The message was clear: There’s no crab-eating that isn’t utterly thorough, pick-pick-pick crab-eating. It wasn’t long before my sister and I were good enough that there was no meat for her to find, but my mom continued to inspect anyway, maybe to ensure that we didn’t lose our edge, or maybe just out of habit.

Whole steamed crabs coated in Old Bay

What grows over time with this kind of tedious eating is a love of the process. It’s half meditative, cultivating a kind of zen focus as you work your way through each crab body (I think some people have branded this "mindfulness" now?). And then it’s largely social, setting the stage for everyone to gab and joke while their trained fingers pry and probe. Talk around my family’s crab-eating table usually started with everyone shaking their heads while remarking on how hard it had become to find true jumbos or colossals from Maryland—a complaint that reflected how much the local crab stocks had fallen compared with decades past—and gratitude that we knew the guy who knew the guy who could still find some. Then, as our piles of shells grew larger, it’d gradually shift to everyone talking about old family friends, relatives who weren’t there, and funny stories they all shared. Eventually, my uncle Shush, my grandmother’s fraternal twin brother, would laugh so hard he’d pee himself. There was no better sign of a good crab feast than Shush with a big wet spot on his pants.

The crabs created the space for that kind of meandering talk, which, in my experience, doesn’t happen as naturally over a plate of pork chops or spaghetti. And let's not forget that throughout all of this, you get to enjoy the sweetest, most delicious meat, bathed in a flavorful brown-green guck. (Some people call it the "mustard," but there’s really no nice way to describe the unsightly but utterly delicious stuff inside each crab.) By the end, your fingers are prune-y and cut up from the shells, and your hands and lips tingle and burn from all the chili powder and salt in the Old Bay seasoning that encrusts the crabs.

A lot of this may sound awful to anyone unfamiliar with the pleasures of a crab feast, but for those of us in the know, it just feels good, because it’s a sign that we've earned our keep. Here’s how to earn yours, too.

How to Cook a Maryland Crab Feast

A pile of steamed crabs in a pot, coated in Old Bay

To cook a Maryland crab feast, you first need some crabs. The crabs in question are blue crabs, code name Callinectes sapidus, which can be found on parts of the Eastern Seaboard and around the Gulf of Mexico. The ones from Maryland, and the Chesapeake Bay specifically, are the most renowned. They come in a variety of sizes, from small ones up to jumbos or colossals. For a crab feast, you want the largest ones you can get, since smaller crabs just mean more picking, for even smaller rewards. (I said I enjoyed picking, but I didn’t say I was a masochist.)

You also want crabs that are still very much alive. Yes, this means you will be killing the crabs, and while I know this can be an upsetting idea for some, it's the only way to do it—dead crabs begin to decompose and produce ammonia in their meat almost immediately.

A live blue crab in a metal bowl

A live and vigorous crab is what you want.

You also have the choice of male or female crabs. You can recognize the difference by looking at the apron, a flap of shell on the underside of the crab body. Male crabs have long and pointy aprons, while female crabs have broad ones.

At top, a female crab with a wide apron; on the bottom, a male crab with a long and narrow apron

At top, a female crab with a wide apron; on the bottom, a male crab with a long and narrow apron.

Some folks prefer female crabs (often called "sooks") for their reputedly sweeter meat and the coral-red roe they often contain, but if you're concerned about sustainability, consider forgoing them altogether, since that roe could become future crabs. (I'm showing both sexes in this post to illustrate the differences.) Plus, male crabs, called "jimmies," can grow larger than the females, giving you larger chunks of meat. For those who want to go even deeper into blue-crab terminology, this site has some good additional info on crab sizes and grades.

To cook the crabs, you’ll need to rig up a steamer. Start with a pot large enough to hold the crabs, though you may still need to work in batches if you have a lot. You can use any kind of liquid to steam the crabs, water included, but the traditional mixture of beer and vinegar gives better flavor. And though any beer can work, I’d recommend an inexpensive lager, and either white distilled vinegar or apple cider vinegar. There’s no real science to the ratio of beer to vinegar—you’re cooking the crabs in their steam, so it’s not like you’re going to taste it all that clearly anyway. Just dump a can or two of beer into the bottom of the pot, and slosh some vinegar in until the liquid is about one inch deep.

Preparing to steam crabs: pouring lager beer into the pot, pouring in vinegar, adding steamer basket, adding crabs

Next, add a steaming rack that’s high enough to sit above the level of the liquid. This is important because any crabs that sink into the liquid will flood, resulting in mushy, soggy meat. If you don’t have a steamer that works, you can always wad up some ropes of tinfoil to hold the crabs aloft.

After that, in go the crabs. Add them in layers, generously sprinkling Old Bay seasoning (that’s the most popular brand, but you can use another if you have a different brand preference) all over them as you go. This type of seasoning mixture is loaded with chili powder, paprika, celery salt, salt salt, and a long list of other secret spices and seasonings, and it's essential to creating the proper Maryland crab-boil flavor. Once the crabs steam, the Old Bay will stick to them in a thin crust, which will then get onto your fingers as you pick the crabs, and finally go into your mouth as you eat.

Pouring Old Bay seasoning into the crab pot; crabs in the steamer, coated in Old Bay

When the pot is fully loaded, put on the lid, set it over high heat, and let 'em cook for around 15 to 20 minutes. You’ll know the crabs are done when they've turned a deep red color, without any trace of blue remaining, and when the aprons on their undersides come up easily. (On some of the crabs, they may have already begun to lift off.)

Now, it’s time to eat. Spread newspaper or butcher’s paper over your table, making sure to cover it completely, and dump the crabs on top. It's good form to distribute the crabs around so that there are piles within easy reach of everyone.

Many people set out little containers of distilled white or cider vinegar for dipping the crabmeat, and I have a friend from Maryland who also swears by drawn butter. I’m usually too engrossed in my crab-picking and -eating to bother with dipping the meat, and I generally prefer to eat it unadorned anyway, but it’s nice to offer the option for those who do want it. For adults who drink, cold beers are a must. Though, in all honesty, my beer usually goes warm—I’m too distracted by the crabs to remember I have a beer. That, by the way, is proof of how good crabs are: I, a total beer lover, almost always forget to drink my beer.

(Oh, I should also mention that many people serve other things alongside the crabs, like corn or cornbread, coleslaw, and more. You should do this if the idea of eating things other than the crabs themselves appeals to you. As already established, however, I want only the crabs.)

How to Eat a Maryland Crab

Pulling off the legs of a cooked crab

For an untrained crab eater, one of the most daunting parts is actually picking the crustacean apart. But if you're methodical and thorough with the first couple, you'll have it down in no time at all. These are the basic steps to get all the meat and good stuff out.

Step 1: Pull Off Appendages, Remove Apron, Lift Off Top Shell

Pulling off the appendages of a crab and removing the top shell

Grab your crab and pull off all the legs, fins, and claws. You can reserve all of these on the side. I usually make a big pile of claws and then eat them at the very end, because, contrary to what many people think, the crab claws are not the best part of the crab—the meat is stringier and less sweet, and not nearly as tender. I always eat them, but they're more of an afterthought.

Now, turn the crab over so you're looking at its underside. You'll see the apron on the bottom, that flap of shell that's long and pointy on the male crabs and very broad on the female crabs. Lift it up and tear it off where it meets the shell.

Pulling the body of a cooked crab in half to expose the innards

Hold on to the top and bottom shells right where you just tore off the apron, and pull the crab open.

Step 2: Eat the Good Stuff in the Top Shell

Removing sac from the top shell of a crab and picking out the meat

Don't just toss that top shell away; it's loaded with delicious stuff. First, you'll want to remove the little sac right behind the eyes of the crab, which you can see me holding above, in the bottom panel of the collage. Once that's tossed, you can go to town. All the soft yellow, brown, and green guck (the "mustard") is to die for, and there are little squiggly bits in there, too, that you can eat. Make sure to scrape out the corners, leaving no part of the top shell unexplored.

Step 3: Eat the Good Stuff in the Middle of the Bottom Shell, But Not the Gills

Opening up the bottom shell of a crab and removing the gills

The bottom shell has a valley in the middle that is also filled with delicious stuff (more of the same stuff that's in the top shell). Pull and scrape it all out and eat it. Yes, eat it! It's the best part!

The one thing you don't want to eat is the frilly, pointy gills that rim the outer walls of the bottom shell. Tear them off and discard them.

Step 4: Snap the Bottom Shell in Half

Opening up half of the bottom shell of a crab and exposing the meat

Now we want to go deeper into the crab to get at the meat. The first step is to crack the bottom shell laterally, into two halves. I find it easiest to fold the shell in toward itself to crack it, then pull the halves apart the opposite way, as if holding a book by its front and back covers, first closing the book and then opening it wide to break its spine. The shell should easily split into two this way.

Step 5: Divide Each Bottom Shell Half in Two and Eat

Snapping half the bottom shell of a crab in half, then digging out the meat

The bottom shell may be split, but each half is still hiding meat within a protective shell. To open them up, gently squeeze the top and bottom together; you should hear a faint crack. Then pull the top and bottom apart, exposing all the meaty cavities within.

At this point, you've gotten at the meat. Start picking. Pick, pick, pick. Get your fingers into every cavity, every crevice, and pull the white meat out. The sections at the back, where the crab's fins were connected, have the biggest morsels: the prized backfin lump crabmeat. Find it and enjoy it! You will still find some bits of meat encased in shell, but these inner shell walls are very weak and can be torn into using your fingers. Get everything, and leave nothing behind but shell.

Step 6: Eat the Claws and Legs

Breaking crab legs in half, cracking with a mallet, the detached crab claw

All that's left are the claws and legs. If you want to be very thorough, you can pull apart and chew on the legs, working the meat up through the pliable shell with your teeth. I won't judge you if you skip this, though some Marylanders may.

The claws, while not the best part of the crab, are still worth eating. Start by breaking them into sections, one being the claw, the other the section of arm that connected it to the body. Using a mallet, cracker, or just your bare hands, break open each section to expose the meat.

The claw has a central blade of cartilage inside that you can't eat, so just pull the meat off it.

If you do all this, you are officially a real-deal champion crab eater. With practice, you may actually get fast at it. But don't worry too much about that. It's not about speed—the slower you go, the more time you have to shoot the breeze.