Why It Works
- Starting with fresh, in-season crab meat ensures the final cakes are sweet, succulent, and smell of the sea.
- Using minimal binders results in crab cakes with the best texture and purest flavor.
- Dredging just one side of the cakes in panko bread crumbs adds crunch without overwhelming the crab.
- Shaping the crab mixture into a foil-lined log, freezing it, and then slicing into disks before cooking ensures the cakes hold their shape.
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 willpower. 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, it 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 absolutely incredible crab cakes. 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 it stick together. The classic choice is egg, which not only adds protein, but also moisture and some degree of leavening power.
But a simple egg and crab mixture is very loose, and 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 to create 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 bread crumbs in some form, whether they're regular or panko bread crumbs, or crushed up saltines or oyster crackers.
This method is preferable to me, as the bread crumbs 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 sautéing 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, 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 keeps 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 loose crab meat sautéed in butter along with an intact disk of fried bread crumbs. 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 browns 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. Much 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!
1 pound (455g) fresh lump or jumbo lump crab meat, picked over
2 tablespoons (25g) mayonnaise
2 tablespoons (6g) chopped chives, tarragon, parsley, or a mix (optional)
2 large eggs (100g), divided
1 1/2 cups (105g) panko-style bread crumbs
3 tablespoons (45ml) canola or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons (45g) unsalted butter
1 recipe extra tangy tartar sauce or lemon wedges for serving
In a large bowl, combine crab, mayonnaise, herbs (if using), and 1 egg. Using a flexible spatula, fold gently until combined, being careful not to break up any large lumps of crab.
On a work surface, place a 12- by 18-inch sheet of aluminum foil with the short end parallel to the edge of the surface. Transfer crab mixture to foil, about 4 inches from bottom of foil, and form into a rough log about 6 inches wide.
Carefully lift bottom edge of foil and lift it over the crab log. Roll the log away from you until it is completely wrapped in foil, then twist the ends to form a tight roll about 6- to 8-inches wide and 3- to 4-inches in diameter. Place log on a tray or plate and transfer to the freezer until lightly stiff, 20 to 25 minutes.
Remove the log from the freezer and using a sharp chef's knife, slice off one of the twisted ends. Remove crab mixture from inside twisted end and reserve. Slice log into 4 or 6 individual disks, about 1 1/2-inch thick each. Transfer disks (with their foil) to a rimmed baking sheet cut-side down. Combine any crab mixture removed from twisted ends and form into a free-form crab cake and place on tray along with foil-wrapped disks. Transfer to freezer until disks are relatively stiff, about 20 to 25 minutes.
In a small bowl, beat remaining egg until homogenous. In a second small bowl, place bread crumbs. Working one crab disk at a time, lift by grasping the foil-lined edges. Dip one cut surface in egg, then in bread crumbs, pressing down gently to adhere. Return to baking sheet, cut side down and repeat with remaining disks (including free-form disk).
Adjust oven rack to 6 inches below broiler element and preheat broiler to high. In a large cast iron skillet, heat oil and butter over medium heat until foaming subsides. Add crab cakes, breaded side down and cook, swirling occasionally, for 3 minutes. Carefully peel off foil from each cake using your fingertips, without lifting the cakes; discard foil. Continue cooking, swirling pan occasionally until underside of crab cakes is light golden brown, about 2 minutes longer (check underneath with a thin flexible metal spatula, but be careful not to break crab cakes, they will be fragile).
Grasp the handle of the pan and tilt it towards you so the fat collects in the bottom. Use a spoon to baste each cake with fat, making sure that it is completely coated, then transfer skillet to broiler. Broil until light golden brown on top and crab cakes are cooked through (an instant-read thermometer inserted into their center should register 145 to 160°F or 63 to 71°C), about 5 minutes. Remove from oven. Transfer crab cakes breaded-side-down to a paper towel-lined plate. Flip crab cakes and season with salt. Serve immediately with tartar sauce or lemon wedges.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 20g||26%|
|Saturated Fat 6g||28%|
|Total Carbohydrate 30g||11%|
|Dietary Fiber 4g||16%|
|Total Sugars 5g|
|Vitamin C 62mg||309%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|