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Recipes and Stories

15 June 2015: Soft Shell Crabs

Fried Soft-Shell Crabs, with lemon and Herb Mayonnaise, from The Savannah Cookbook (2008). Photography by the talented John Carrington

One of the lovely things about early summer on the coast in the South is the brief window when soft-shell crabs are in season.

Like most crustaceans, as blue crabs outgrow their hard outer shells, they shed them and begin growing a new one. For a few fleeting hours before it hardens, the new shell is soft, delicate, and completely edible. They’re a much-anticipated seasonal delicacy here in the Lowcountry. That season is already waning here, but we still have a little bit longer to enjoy them.

Nowadays frozen soft-shell crabs are available at other times of the year, but they have only a ghost of the rich, sweet flavor and texture of freshly caught ones. If frozen ones are all that you can find, thaw them in salted water and then drain and cover them for a few minutes with whole milk. This helps restore some of the texture and flavor, and keeps the shells from being leathery.

Here in Savannah, professional chefs are always experimenting with these delicacies, and have devised many ingenious ways of serving them, but traditional home cooks know that the simpler and more reverent the treatment, the better. Below are two deeply traditional recipes that have been enjoyed in Savannah homes for generations.

If you plan to catch your own softshell crabs, be aware that even recreational fishing (including shellfish) requires a permit in most of the areas where eastern blue crabs—or, for that matter, any other kind of crabs—flourish. And while the entire shell of soft-shell crabs is edible, the whole critter is not: you’ll need to dress or clean it before it’s ready for the pan.

To Clean Soft Shell Crabs: most fish mongers who sell soft-shell crabs will have already killed and cleaned them, but if they haven’t already been cleaned, cut out the eyes, mouth, and sand sack; flip each crab onto its back, lift the apron, and remove the gills and internal organs. Rinse them well under cold running water.

Sautéed Soft Shell Crab with Shallot Butter

This is my favorite way of cooking soft shell crabs. When they’re very fresh and sweet, no sensible cook will go beyond step 2, but will omit the shallot and wine and serve the crabs sauced only with the butter in which they have cooked.

Serves 4 as a first course or light main course, 2 as a main course in a simple meal

4 medium soft-shell crabs
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large cloves garlic, crushed and peeled but left whole
¼ cup finely minced shallots
Ground cayenne pepper
½ cup sherry
2 lemons, cut into wedges

1. If they’re not already cleaned, clean the crabs as directed above and pat them dry. Melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat and put in the garlic. Sauté, tossing occasionally, until the garlic is golden. Remove and discard it.

2. Put in the crabs and sauté, turning once, until they turn orange-pink and are cooked through, about 4 minutes per side. Season generously with salt and lightly with cayenne and remove them to a warm platter or individual serving plates.

3. Add the shallots to the pan and sauté, tossing frequently, until they are golden and softened, about 3 minutes. Add the wine and bring it to a boil, stirring and scraping to loosen any cooking residue. Simmer until it is slightly reduced, about 2 minutes longer. Pour the sauce over the crabs. Garnish with lemon wedges and serve at once.

Deep Fried Soft Shell Crabs

With its delicate, golden crust encasing a sweet, succulent interior, this is a deeply satisfying to cook soft shell crabs, and the only way to cook them once they’ve been frozen. Many local cooks use a crumb breading and some mix both crumbs and batter, but I like the delicacy of this thin, elegant fritter batter best.

A favorite way to eat fried soft-shells is in a sandwich. They’re simply served on a buttered and grilled bun with herbed mayonnaise, aioli, or tartar sauce. If you want to try it, follow the optional directions in step 4.

Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a first course or as a sandwich

8 medium soft-shell crabs
2 large eggs
1½ cups whole milk
Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill
Ground cayenne pepper
About ¾ cup all-purpose flour, divided
Lard or vegetable oil, for frying
2 lemons, cut into wedges
Herb Mayonnaise, homemade mayonnaise, of homemade tartar sauce, optional
8 firm, home-style sandwich buns, split, buttered, and grill-toasted, optional

1. Clean the crabs as directed above and pat them dry. Beat the eggs together n a large mixing bowl until smooth. Beat in the milk and Gradually whisk in about ½ cup of flour, sifting it over the top a little at a time, until it forms a thin batter. Season well with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 170-180° F. (the warm setting). Fit a cooling rack over a rimmed baking sheet and have it close to your pan. Put enough oil in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, deep skillet, or deep fryer to come no more than halfway up the sides. Heat it over medium heat until it is hot but not smoking and the top “shimmers”, 365° F. Spread ¼ cup of flour in a wide, shallow bowl.

3. Stir the batter, then lightly roll a crab in flour, shake off the excess, and dip it into the batter until it is coated. Lift it out, allowing the excess batter to flow back into the bowl, and slip it into the fat. Repeat with more crab until the pan is full but not crowded. Fry, turning once, until golden and cooked through (they will float when done), about 3 minutes per side. Lift them out with tongs or a frying skimmer, drain well, and put them on the prepared rack. Keep them in the warm oven while you fry the remaining crabs.

4. To serve the crabs as a main or first course, garnish them with lemon and serve. I you like, you may also include offer small ramekins of the sauce of your choice. To serve them as a main dish, keep the side dishes simple, since they’re quite rich on their own. To serve them as a sandwich, generously spread the toasted buns with the mayonnaise and allow 1 crab per sandwich.

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