A Beginner's Guide to Soft Shell Crabs

Fried soft shell crab with two slices of bread.
A pile of soft shell crabs.
Photograph from ZakVTA on Flickr.

It may seem a little early for soft shell crabs, an iconic summer food right up there with snow cones and grilled tube meats, but the first 2009 batch has already arrived at Grand Central Oyster Bar and a few other spots in Manhattan.

Our soft shell crab expert is Jim Gossen, president of the seafood sourcing company Louisiana Foods, who came highly recommended by crustacean expert and Houston Press food writer Robb Walsh. Gossen was in Atchafalaya Basin with some crawfishermen when we chatted (always a good sign).

When is soft shell crab season? We are in soft shell crab season along the Gulf Coast of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. It usually starts in early April and runs through October or early November. The season runs longer than the Chesapeake or East Coast. We see very few crabs after the water temperature drops below 50°F.

What should we look out for when buying them at a fish market? Make sure they are not wrapped in cellophane, they probably were previously frozen. They should not be cleaned—you should clean them right before cooking. Today with health regulations, it is hard to keep soft shell crabs alive because the health department requires us to keep our coolers at 40°F or below and soft shell crabs will die at those temperatures. They are still good for a few days in the cooler though.

And at a restaurant? Try to order soft shell crabs during the months they are harvested. A good indicator for a restaurant is if they are running them off the menu or as a special, you can figure they are fresh. Properly frozen crabs are not bad, but none are better than fresh.

"Their shells should be very soft—don't buy paper shells"

Are there any red flags that say, do NOT buy me? Yes, as I said before they should not be wrapped in cellophane. Their shells should be very soft—don't buy paper shells, which are crabs that have been left in the water too long after the molted. Also they should have all of their legs and claws.

How much should they cost? Jumbo and Whalers should run from $48 to $75 a dozen depending on size and where you are buying them.

What exactly are soft shell crabs, relative to "normal" (hard shell?) crabs? Soft shell crabs are crabs that are molting, which is when the hard shell of the crab grows about 30 percent. They have to shed their old shell and when they exit that shell, they are soft for about 2 to 3 hours. Then their shell starts to turn hard again.

A soft shell crab sandwich with a slice of tomato and mayonnaise.
Jim shows us his ideal soft shell sandwich: on white bread with tomatoes.

Where restaurants are doing the best soft shell crabs? I think that Sandy has great ones at Grand Central Oyster Bar. Any restaurant serving them fresh, never frozen, will be good. I love to eat them at Galatoire's in New Orleans. Their sautéed soft shell Crabs Meuniere are some of my favorites.

At home, how do you like yours? I haven't found a better way to cook a soft shell crab than by frying it. I have tried many ways but they just taste the best fried. Every year when we get our first deliveries of soft shells, I make a fried soft shell sandwich on white bread with over-ripe tomatoes. I pick a great big crab out for this first crab sandwich of the season.