Food That Moves: California Red Rock Crabs

We have a few different options for crabs in Southern California. The most well known is the dungeness, which is actually brought down from the northern part of the state most of the time because they’re more abundant there. Local fisherman are more likely to find rock crabs, red crabs, yellow crabs and the occasional spider crab. When we were in Orange County, I usually preferred to shop from our local fisherman and family at Pearson’s Port. Besides being super friendly and always having the freshest stuff around, they’d always have a few tanks of whatever crabs were in season.

One particular weekend, though, I happened to be driving back home from LA and stopped by the Redondo Beach Pier to visit Quality Seafood, a pretty well known fixture along the boardwalk for many a SoCal native. I remembered going there as a kid with my parents, sitting on splintery wooden benches in the bright summer sun, pounding open crabs on the table and making a huge mess while seagulls circled closeby. Well, the boardwalk has been seriously renovated and fancified since I was last there, but it’s good to know that the same shabby benches and bubbling tanks are still there. They didn’t have any live sea urchins left that day, so I went home with three very feisty large red rock crabs for dinner. Here’s one of them right here:

And here’s what they looked like when they finally got to the dinner table:


Fresh crab is really amazing, no matter what species. Nothing else even comes close to that oceany-sweet taste. See how I went about preparing them, along with a side of crab butter flavored rice, below the cut.


Here are the stars of the evening, Manny, Moe and Jack. How do I know they’re boy crabs? I’ll show you later. All you need to know when selecting crabs is the meaner, the better. And red crabs are pretty, well, crabby — as crabs go. Watch your fingers, they’ll get ya if they can. It means they’re alive, energetic and fresh, though, which translates into a better dinner for you. Hey, if they’re threatening you, at least you won’t feel as bad about fighting back, right? It was just self defense… tasty self defense. Rock crabs over 6 inches wide across the shell, like these guys, can pretty much be eaten the same as a fat dungeness — picking out the meat from both the claws and body. Smaller ones tend to be treated like stone crabs, where only the claws are eaten and the rest are used for stock.


Here I start preparing the stock pot for steaming. A few inches of water, a healthy dash of sea salt, and a bay leaf or two. Set the steaming rack in there and leave it to start simmering.


When the steam starts rolling, throw in the crabs belly up, so that the juices don’t leak out as they cook. You’ll want to handle them this way, belly-up, after cooking as well. I’ll tell you what to do with those juices later on.


This cell block is officially on lockdown. Steaming is a lot more forgiving than boiling, so the times vary a little. If you have only one crab, check on it after 10 minutes. If you have a few, give them 20-30. They’re ready when they turn bright red (yes, even redder than they are already) and are piping hot.


See the difference between the dark red of a live red crab a few pictures back and the bright orange-red of a cooked red crab here? That’s what we’re aiming for.


Run them under some cold water to stop them from cooking, continuing to keep them belly upwards. Then we’re ready to start breaking them down. This is also where my camera ran out of batteries, so please pardon the camera phone pictures that follow. Below, I’ll demonstrate the way to pretty much shuck any crab of this approximate size and shape.


So you see this little v-shaped belly flap I’m lifting with my finger? This is the starting point. It is also, incidentally, how you tell if a crab is a boy or a girl. The male crabs have ones that are v-shaped, like here. The female ones (full of yummy orange eggs) are u-shaped and not as common. After you’ve examined it, give it a tug at the base until it comes off. Put it into your shell bucket.


Stick a thumb into the hole left where that piece of shell was removed. What, you didn’t think you could do this without getting your hands dirty, did you? Take hold of the carapace (the big flat piece that covers the top of the crab) and then pry the belly piece upwards away from it. You might have to put some force into it but use a steady hand or there will be splattering involved.


Here are the two pieces that you will end up with. The belly portion of the crab, with the legs attached, and the carapace with all kinds of gooey bits floating inside. Don’t throw out that stuff! The yellowish creamy stuff is sweet crab fat (mmmm) and the greenish stuff is crab mustard (innards). Well, I guess if you’re a sissy you can throw it out. If you want to take advantage of a delicious ingredient chock full of crab flavor, however, pour it into a bowl and set it aside. Toss the emptied carapace into your shell bucket.


Now, go back to the other half that has the legs attached. See this feathery, spongey grey things I’m pointing to? There’ll be some on each side. Pull those off and throw them away. Those are its gills (“dead-man’s fingers”) and just about the only non-edible soft part in a crab.


Give the rest of the piece a good rinse and you’ll be able to see into the hollows packed with meat. You’ll want to pick those out with fingers or a small fork as you’re eating.


Lastly, put the piece belly-side up on a hard surface, give it a good whack in the middle, and separate it into portion-sized pieces for serving.


A plate of broken down crab legs ready for cracking and dipping in butter. Don’t forget to save those shells in a separate bucket and stick them in the freezer to use for making stock!


And now, we move on to that bowl of crab drippings that you’ve hopefully collected. People do many different things with this stuff, but it all comes down to the fact that it is mostly pure crab-flavored fat. You can make a tasty dipping sauce by adding salt, lemon, olive oil and green onions. You can also cream it with seasoning and real butter to make a nice spread. Or you can do what I did and mix it into steamed rice for a crab-themed side dish.


Whisk the crab liquids until they are looking smooth and toss in a dash of soy sauce. Green onions, sesame oil and garlic might have been good with this as well, but I was feeling lazy that night.


Pour into rice cooker along with enough water to cover the rice, and steam. Side dish done!


  1. You need to start doing cooking lessons with fish, not shellfish, so I can benefit from your expertise. (I’m allergic to shellfish. And I had a bad experience with not-tasty fish and don’t like the taste of salmon so I haven’t eaten or cooked much fish and I’d like to know how.) (Although I dunno how much I’d actually consume given that so many fish are served with skin on or bones in and that kind of squicks me.)

    • Huh. As luck would have it, I am currently in a location where fish is plentiful, but shellfish not so much. So I will probably be turning my attentions that way in the near future. I’d love to do one starting from a live fish, but haven’t yet found anywhere that sells them out of the tank. I’ll at least get one head-on and go through the proper de-boning procedure and everything. As for the squick factor… eh, I guess I was desensitized from an early age. I associate skin and bones with the fish actually being fresh and not overly processed.

      • It is, weirdly enough, only an issue when actually sitting down to eat. I can handle turning a whole chicken into the various parts and that sort of thing as part of the cooking process, no problem. But having a whole chicken quarter, cooked, plopped onto my plate? Ick.

        At the same time, I do prefer being able to identify where something came from to, like, dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. I am Deeply Suspicious of the added ingredients necessary to get something like a dinosaur shaped nugget to remain dinosaur shaped through being processed in a factory, shipped, put on a store shelf, etc.

        • Slightly bizarre, but if it’s just aesthetics, I can understand that. I know the thinking behind why some people like to see the whole animal on their plate is because they want to be able to verify that it is the one that they actually selected and not some substitution — at least in the case of pick-your-own type restaurants. For home cooking, though, due to the boy’s extreme laziness when it comes to picking out bones and the like, I tend to do all the prep work before it gets to the plate anyway. And if you’re comfortable with sticking your hands up dead raw animals, we’re all good 🙂

          And ditto about the dino-nuggets. Thought they are strangely satisfying to munch on if I’m in a certain mood, I try not to think too hard about them whilst they’re being consumed 😉

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