Sunday, January 20, 2013

How to Cook Live Dungeness Crab

Live Crab on ice
Object of our (Culinary) Affection

Recipe by Robin

As promised in last year’s post about selecting and reheating precooked Dungeness crab, today we’ll tackle cooking a live crab. Dungeness, a west coast (US) winter delicacy, is low in calories and high in protein. It’s also sustainably fished. Crab traps sit on the bottom of the ocean with very little impact on the local environment. Only mature crabs of legal size can enter the trap, and traps are designed to allow very little bycatch of other species. Of course, if you’ve ever observed crabs in an amateur’s aquarium, you’ll notice that given some time they eat every other species that comes near them, even fish and snails. They respond quickly to changes in their environment, typically with their claws. This fast response time and unrelenting claw action are the two main factors to heed when handling live crabs of any variety.

Half crab on plate, ready to eat
Our Motivation for Cleaning Crab
The third thing to know about cooking live crabs is that you’ll have to deal with guts in addition to the muscular flesh, or “meat.” Be prepared for pinkish stuff to squish out from under the shell during steaming. This is protein-based body fluid that has been denatured by cooking, much like egg white. I’ve read at least one account of stirring it up and eating it with rice, like a fine, fresh fish sauce. Personally, I’m not ready for that, so I add it to the bag of parts for disposal.

After the crab is out of the pot and carapace is removed, there are more guts. First you’ll see the green stuff, the crab’s hepato-pancreas, smooshed all over. In female crabs, you might also see red eggs (coral). These are both technically edible, and some hearty folks gather this stuff to make crab butter, which is reputedly delicious. Frankly, I’m a bit squeamish, so I rinse the leg portion off with the sink sprayer and discard the carapace as is with any residual guts. Finally, there are the gills, the truly inedible part of the crab. These are sacs on either side of the body. Pinch them off and dispose of them.

Crab Being Lifted off ice and into pot
Highly Recommended: Use Short, Wide Tongs
See my earlier post on preparing precooked crab if you’d like tips on how to crack the shells and remove the crab meat.

Buying precooked, cleaned crabs saves some time and effort, but if you have a source for fresh crab and 30 minutes or less, you’re on your way to enjoying the freshest, most exquisite crab on the planet. With a little planning and practice, you’ll be preparing these crustaceans like a pro.

hand holding Whole cleaned crab over sink
DIY Crab Ready to Eat!
Selecting Crab

Before buying your crab, assemble everything you’ll need at home. Put some water in a large pot with a steamer basket in the bottom. A veggie steamer works fine, just unscrew and remove the center pole. Find the tongs and clear the sink, which you’ll need for cleaning.

Solicit a store where they let you pick your crab, if possible. Pick a lively looking crab, one who is moving its mandibles (mouthparts,) or watching/responding to you as you approach the tank. I like the larger, more aggressive males that tend to be on top of any pile-up. Allow ½  (1½ - 2 lb.) crab per person, unless you have some hearty eaters or want to have leftover crab for crabcakes, etc.

Have the grocer put your crab on ice. For some reason they don’t last as long packed in sea water, the way some fish markets prefer. Also, the cold immobilizes them somewhat, so you’ll have an easier time handling the crab. Give the crab about 30 minutes (or more) on ice. The crab should be completely surrounded by ice.

First Cleaning Step: Remove Apron
Cooking Crab

Keep the crab on ice while bringing the water in the steaming pot to boiling.

Pick up the crab from the back. I use short, controllable tongs, since the crab is surprisingly heavy. Some brave souls use their bare hands. Crabs can reach quite far under their bodies, so keep fingers well to the back of the crab if you lift them this way. Often fishmongers lift them by their two back legs, but it is possible for amateurs to break the legs off and have the crab careen to an inconvenient spot with this method. Once they grab something with their claws, they are reluctant to let go.

Try to tilt, shake, or brush off as much of the ice as possible, minding the claws.

hand preparing to remove carapace
Second Cleaning Step: Remove Carapace
Pop the crab into the pot, bearing in mind that if not completely immobilized, the crab might try to grab the top of the pot. Endeavor to keep the claws clear of the pot. Add more crabs, piling them up if necessary. Place the lid on the steamer, and bring to boil again.

Steam for 7 – 8 minutes per pound. If you’re steaming more than one crab, calculate your timing based upon average weight, and calculate at 8 minutes per pound. This amounts to about 12 – 16 minutes steaming time for average (1½ - 2 lb.) crabs.

Remove crab from pot, and place in colander. Bring to sink immediately for cleaning.

Fingers preparing to pinch off gills
Removing the Gills
Cleaning Crab

Rinse the crab immediately to cool it down. A sink sprayer is best. This stops the cooking process as well as cooling the crab enough to handle. Some people dunk the crab in ice water, and this works fine if you like eating chilled crab. If you like it hot, use the cool water spray instead.

Remove the apron (the flap on the belly) by grasping the front and pulling it towards the back. This will leave a hole in the back where you can grab the carapace (body shell). Put your thumb in this hole and gently but firmly, pull up and towards the front, dislodging the carapace.

Hand removing mandible
Final Cleaning Step: Removing the Mandibles
You will notice the green guts and possibly some red eggs, as detailed above. Unless you’re making crab butter, rinse all of that off the leg portion. Carapace can be discarded as is, or rinsed clean of the guts for display on the serving platter. I typically discard it.

Pinch off gills, which are spongy projections on both sides of the body. Lastly, remove the mandibles, the projecting mouthparts on the underside of the body.

Break each crab in half and put on individual plates, or pile up on a platter. Call the family or guests to the table and enjoy!


  1. I wonder how much these cost here in New England. I would love to try them!

    1. Jodi, I'm also curious whether Dungeness is available in New England. Prices are running $6.95 - $9.95/lb. here so far this year. Last year they were a couple bucks cheaper, because of a larger harvest.

  2. Pop the crab into the pot, bearing in mind that if not completely immobilized, the crab might try to grab the top of the pot. Endeavor to keep the claws clear of the pot.

    How can any human with any heart, throw a live animal into
    a pot of boiling water?

    1. Interesting ethical question. Here's another: is it any more humane to buy the crab pre-cooked? Let someone else pop it into the pot and not think about it? Perhaps a better question to ask ourselves is "Do I choose to eat crab at all, acknowledging how it is prepared?" Every individual must decide this for him/herself.

  3. Yes, and what about all the Wheat in the field screaming, "It's coming, it's coming, the harvestor is coming!"

    1. Interesting, I've never heard anyone use wheat as the example of veggie-cide before. Usually it's carrots! :)