Sautéed Soft-shell Crab with Garlic and Butter

When my family used to live in Houston, we’d go crabbing down by the shore several times a year and come home each time with a bucket of fresh crab. Apparently, the shellfish was so plentiful back then that we never bothered to eat the legs, just the bodies. I retell all of this based on hearsay, of course, because I was a toddler back then and probably couldn’t have told you the difference between a crab and a seagull. My parents still reminisce fondly, though, so I’ve heard all about it in glorious detail over the years.

Even without knowing that I’d been an avid crabivore from an early age, I’d probably have figured it out pretty fast. After moving to California, we’d still always order them at restaurants when they were available and my mother had brought home bagfuls of squirming crustaceans from the supermarket on several occasions. As much as I love crab, though, there is a huge mess associated with cleaning and cooking the darn things. Well, there is most of the year, anyway. Except during a certain magical season starting around the first full moon of May and going into the warmer days of summer. That’s when the little buggers start molting and soft-shells start appearing at the market.

Last weekend, the boy and I went to visit a specialty fishmonger that was across the street from our favorite breakfast place. I’d gone in there just to get a pound of prawns, but when I saw a row of fat soft-shells staring at me from behind the counter, a lightbulb went on over my head and I couldn’t help but grab a couple of them as well. Later that night, I made this:

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Breaded and sautéed soft-shells in a wine and butter sauce over rice, with steamed asparagus. Recipe courtesy of the fabulous Emeril Lagasse from the Food Network site. It turned out fantastic, but how could anybody go wrong with soft-shells and Emeril?

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Ingredients for preparation of the crab and sauce: salt, ground black pepper, flour, extra-virgin olive oil, minced (or sliced) garlic, capers, mirin (or white wine), butter, fresh chives.

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Ingredients for the “Essence” garnish (Emeril’s Creole Seasoning): paprika, salt, garlic powder, ground black pepper, onion powder, cayenne pepper, dried oregano, dried thyme.

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And the stars of the show: 2 soft-shell crabs, cleaned and patted dry. Now, I bought “jumbo” sized ones, which are the second to largest grade available for soft-shells. They measure between 5 to 5.5 inches across and are a good single-serving dinner plate size. The largest crabs can get a bit leathery, though, and crabs that haven’t been stored right will develop “papery” shells, so you do have to feel them up before buying them if you want to get the best specimens. This probably is not the best food for the squeamish, I’ll tell you this now. So yes, give your crabs a gentle but testing touch — the top should have the springy give of moisturized skin and the underside should feel like a firm membrane. They should be alive and able to give you a dirty look. You probably deserve it for what you’re about to do to them.

You now have the option of either having your crabs cleaned for you by the fishmonger, or taking them home alive and cleaning them yourself. If you plan on cooking them pretty soon after you buy them, do yourself a favor and have them clean it for you. It’ll save you a bit of mental trauma. If you have to wait half a day or more before cooking them, you probably want to take them home live because the meat is very delicate and doesn’t stand up to prolonged storage. In this case, you’ll have to cut off their faces, squeeze out their guts, and pull out their lungs by hand. Now, coming from a background in biology and veterinary studies, and having grown up with a mother who can kill and dress a chicken with her bare hands, I am quite capable of doing this. Between having them staring and squirming at you, feeling their soft almost-mammalian-textured skin under your fingers, and knowing that we caught them at the most vulnerable point of their young and tasty lives, I in no way enjoy or prefer doing this if I can avoid it. So the choice is up to you, my crab-eating friends. Just get those darned things cleaned and move along. Store your cleaned crabs wrapped in plastic in the coldest part of the fridge until you’re ready to work with them.

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Sprinkle salt and pepper on your crabs to your desired seasoning amount. Go sparingly, since the meat has a bit of a briny taste already and you’ll be garnishing the final dish with a seasoning blend anyway. Then dredge them in 1 cup of flour so they’re covered in a thin layer. Turn them over with some tongs if you have them, so you’re not leaving big unaesthetic fingerprints on their shells. Be careful when turning them over that you’re not flinging flour outside the bowl, since those little legs to flop around a bit. Shake off the excess flour and set your breaded crabs aside.

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Turn the heat to medium high and add 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil to a large skillet. When the oil is heated, gently place the crabs on the skillet, belly up. This will let their backs get a nice, even browning that looks better for presentation. Sauté the crabs for about 2 minutes on each side, until they are soft and orange. In my case, after I flipped the crabs over to cook the other side, I put the lid over my pan for the second 2 minutes to give the heat a chance to bake through all the extremities. You don’t want to steam or boil softshells as a general rule because they are so delicate that they would just become soggy lumps. We had a 4.7ish earthquake that Sunday evening while these critters were on the pan, but luckily I use an electric stove so we just puttered right along.

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Remove your cooked crabs and set them aside.

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Your pan should now contained only crab-flavored oil and bits of browned leftover flour. To this, add three cloves of garlic — I used reconstituted minced garlic to great effect, but you’ll want to used sliced fresh garlic cloves if you have the time and don’t mind getting your hands dirty. Cook the garlic for a minute.

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Add 2 tablespoons of drained capers and 1/2 a cup of white wine. I usually substitute sake or mirin for white wine in recipes because that is typically what I have on hand. Whether this works for you depends on how much you like the taste of a sweeter rice-based beverage over more tradition white wine. We thought it made the sauce doubly yummy over rice. Anyway, cook this mixture until the wine has been reduced to about half of what it was. Swirl in 1 tablespoon of butter and a few chopped blades of chives. Add in a sprinkle of salt and pepper if you like, but I’d once again advise you to go sparingly. I don’t like the idea of overseasoning seafood to the point where you can’t taste it anymore.

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In a separate bowl, mix up some of Emeril’s lovely Creole seasoning, which is much lighter on the salt and heavier on the kick. The proportions are 2.5 tablespoons paprika, 2 tablespoons salt, 2 tablespoons garlic powder, 1 tablespoon black pepper, 1 tablespoon onion powder, 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper, 1 tablespoon dried leaf oregano, and 1 tablespoon dried thyme.

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Combine all ingredients thoroughly and store in an airtight jar or container. Or you can do what I did and just make a quarter of it so you don’t have a cup of random seasoning lying around.

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Plating time! I started with a base of steamed long-grain Indian rice, on top of which rested the crab. Drizzle your wine sauce over everything generously — it’s good stuff and goes great with the rice. I steamed some baby asparagus in another pan while making the garnish, so that went on next. Finally, sprinkle some of the creole seasoning over the entire plate and put the extra in a little bowl for anybody that wants to add more to their own portion. This was probably the most restaurant-like dinner I’ve made yet, as even the boy commented, yet it was so very easy, fast and flavorful.

Just trust me about the crab-cleaning/face-cutting. That part sucks.

12 Comments:

  1. I’m trying to figure out if my fishmonger cleaned my soft shelled crabs correctly. When I cut into them after I had cooked them a lot of yellow oozed out of them. Did he forget to take out the gills or the guts or something? Is this something he should have done or I should do? He told me he was going to dress them for me.

    • Hi there! The only important parts to cleaning a softshell are to cut off its “head” and tear out the lungs. Snapping off the apron is also common when you get it dressed. Some fishmongers take out the intestines and guts, some leave them intact. That’s because some people prefer eating everything inside — I’m actually one of them.

      Once crabs are cooked, the only inedible soft parts are the gills, after all. You’d be able to tell those right away — they’re grey and feathery looking. Here’s an example of crab gills (my thumb is pointing at one) from a post on crab shucking I haven’t put up yet:

      So chances are pretty good that your fishmonger had already cut off the gills if you weren’t chewing on something funny and tough when you ate the crab. The yellow stuff is just the cooked juices, fat, and crab mustard (guts) spilling out, and lots of people consider that the best part! 🙂

  2. Thanks so much for that reply! Yes, the gills had been removed and the crabs were very tasty. I didn’t mind the yellow stuff — I just didn’t remember that from times I’ve ordered it at a restaurant.

    Thanks again for this wonderful article and your help.

  3. I bought more soft-shelled crabs today and asked my fishmonger to also take out the “guts.” I hope he didn’t take out too much because he didn’t seem to understand what I was asking him to do. Communication problems seem to be common these days. Anyway, I’ll cook them tonight and see if I prefer them this way or the way I had them last week.

    • He probably went in there and got the intestines, then — that’s the first thing I’d think of if somebody asked me to do that. You could always check on it yourself, too — if I’m cleaning one very thoroughly, I just cut open the belly with a pair of kitchen shears so I can see what’s going on inside. After you bread and fry it, you can’t really tell you opened it up anymore.

      You got me thinking about restaurant crabs the other day and you’re right — they usually don’t have stuff in them. But the vast majority of home-prepared crabs that I’ve had *do*. I’m thinking this is because health regulations don’t allow restaurants to serve innards because there’s unknown quantities of chemicals involved, depending on where the crab originates from. Those are the organs (liver, etc) where the crab filters toxins from the water, after all. So they have to be on the safe side and just serve the meaty bits. There’s more leeway to be adventurous when you’re doing the prep at home.

      Let me know what your vote is, either way. I’m curious! 🙂

  4. Thanks so much for your responses. I’d have to say I prefer them with the guts removed, just because that’s what I’m the most used to when I have them at a restaurant. But next time I think I’ll try removing that part myself just to learn more about doing it. However I believe the season may be over as my fishmonger told me they’d only be carrying them for a few weeks.

    Thanks again and I’ve found this site very helpful.

  5. Hi. I wanted to add something here. A couple of nights ago I went to the restaurant in Los Angeles called “Bouchon” which is Thomas Keller’s new restaurant. They had a soft shell crab entrée so I eagerly ordered it to compare with my attempts. Of course I can’t compete with Keller’s take on the dish which was incredible. The best soft shell crab I’d ever had. But the main reason I wanted to order it was to verify my memory that when I’ve had soft shell crab at a restaurant usually there’s no “yellow sauce” or guts coming out, and this was the case. The Keller version of this just has the crab meat. What really seemed to make it shine was whatever little things he had accompanying it. I can’t ever remember but it was excellent!

    • Ooh! I am somewhat jealous — we didn’t get a chance to go there before we moved away from SoCal. So many restaurants, so little time 🙁

      I’m willing to bet that there are health regulations that probably keep most restaurants from serving innards in their shellfish. Especially since those are the organs that are meant to absorb any chemicals and toxins that the crab might digest. And it’s definitely not something you want to consume in any large quantity, if you’re a frequent crab eater. However, that not being the case for us, I do like to indulge and eat what’s inside the crab as well because it does have such a strong shellfish taste to it. I’m also of the camp that will happily suck out the heads of shrimps and crawfish, mind you, and doing that poses the same issues.

  6. I was in the mood for more soft-shell crab last night and finally was able to use your recipe here. It was excellent! May be my favorite. Thanks so much for sharing it. I’m also from the Gulf Coast area so I love anything Cajun-influenced.

    Great dish! Your photos are descriptions were particularly helpful.

    • LOL. It’s Emeril’s recipe, I’m just an enthusiastic fangirl 🙂 Glad your crabs turned out well, though! Don’t you love the sauce?

      Yay for Cajun-influenced cuisine! I’ve got my eye on some crawfish that I saw at the market the other day… it’s a good time of year for a pot of those 😀

  7. Judy Weisberg

    Our gourmet grocery store had a nice sale on soft shells for a few days, and our four small crabs looked alive when I selected them. The fishmonger cleaned them, I took them home on ice, and I cooked them four or five hours later. We dredged and seasoned them and sauteed them in butter with a little cooking oil and served them with toasted almond slices, parsley, and butter from the pan. Can you tell me why, oh, why, they came out with a frankly papery shell? And though the meat looked ample, it was tasteless with some watery texture when we bit into the the pieces that we cut?

    Thank you so much. We love to eat these critters, and I’ll try cooking them again and again to get them right!

  8. It was fun to revisit this recipe now that it’s soft shell crab season again. I think I did even better at this this time, even though I have been cooking so little lately. The white rice I made sure to make this time and it really goes well with these crabs. I’m so happy! Thanks to you and Emeril.

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