How to Cook Soft Shell Crabs

Soft-shell crabs are like the gourmet potato chip of the seafood world: thin with a crunchy-tender bite, and bursting with more flavor than you’d expect from something so delicate and light. Their unique texture is the result of nature’s cycles: Soft shells are not a type of crab, but blue crabs at a special phase of their life, when they shed their exoskeletons to reveal a paper-thin layer beneath. This only happens for a brief period in the spring and early summer, so the rush to savor them is urgent. 

If you hesitate to cook shellfish because of the effort involved in cracking them open, preparing these crabs involves nothing of the sort. That’s because they’re meant to be eaten shell and all, and it’s the shell that gives them that potato-chip-like texture when made just right. The shell also holds in their juices, which are sweet and fresh, with a concentrated seafood flavor. 

What to know about soft-shell crabs

When is soft-shell crab season?

Soft shell crab season in the United States runs from roughly April to July. At FreshDirect, we source them from responsibly-run fisheries in Louisiana and Maryland that meet our rigorous sustainability standards, which are set according the guidelines created by the Marine Stewardship Council and the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch. The season starts further down south, with peak season traveling up the coast. After the crab sheds its old shell, fisheries have just a day or two to snatch them up while they’re still at their most tender. Some fans even claim there’s a difference between early and late season soft shells, and stress the importance of eating them as soon as possible after being caught (luckily, our direct sourcing means that your seafood goes from the water to your door in the shortest time possible. 

How to clean soft-shell crabs

These whole crabs have a few parts that you might not want in your final dish, so it’s a good idea to start by giving them a quick trim. First, rinse them briefly under cool running water and pat dry with a paper towel. Then, using some kitchen shears or a sharp, heavy kitchen knife, cut across the edge of the face to remove the eyes. Peek under the large shell to remove the set of frilly gills on each side. Flip them over and peel off the “apron,” which is the triangle-shaped part in the center of the belly. Now you’re ready to get cooking. 

Ways to cook soft-shell crabs

Our favorite way to prepare soft shell crabs is by dipping them in a shallow bowl of milk, then dredging them lightly in cornmeal—you could also swap this out for some regular flour. Add them to a pan with a thin layer of oil and sautée on each side until crusty and golden, then season them with salt and pepper. They can also be dipped in a batter and deep fried, although sometimes this can be overly bulky on their fragile bodies. If you have access to a grill, you can also try brushing them in butter or oil before grilling them for a few minutes on each side—this gives them a smokiness that pairs wonderfully with their buttery flavor. 

What to serve with soft-shell crabs

These crabs don’t need a lot of seasoning—the sweet meat has plenty of flavor and should be allowed to shine through. You could add a few shakes of Cajun spice, Old Bay, or an herby blend. A drizzle of aioli or tartar sauce and a few squeezes of lemon can be quite nice. Or maybe a squeeze of sriracha or chili sauce—something bright and lively, but not overwhelming.  

You can serve them whole with a light salad or some succotash on the side. Or, grab a thick brioche bun and some lettuce and tomato and plop them into a sandwich. If you’re drinking, a light lager or a crisp, lighter bodied white wine is perfect. As is enjoying this seasonal treat while relaxing by the seashore.

Sautéed soft-shell crabs recipe

What you’ll need:
Neutral cooking oil

Soft-shell crabs, cleaned
Salt and pepper
To serve: lemon wedges and chopped fresh herbs

What to do:
Add enough oil to a large frying pan to completely coat the surface in a thin layer. Heat over medium-high. Fill a shallow dish with some milk. Spread a small pile of cornmeal out on a plate. Season crabs all over with salt and pepper. One by one, dip crabs into milk, getting wet all over, then immediately dredge in the cornmeal, coating as much of the surface area as possible. 

Add the crabs to the pan with the top shell side facing down (do not overcrowd and work in batches if needed). Sautée until golden and crisp on bottom, 2–3 minutes. Flip and sautée on belly side, another 2-3 minutes. 

Transfer crabs to some paper towels briefly to drain excess oil, then season lightly with salt and pepper. Serve with lemon, herbs, and any other condiments. 

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