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How To Pick Crabs

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If you're unfamiliar with the Baltimore crab-picking tradition, steamed crabs can be pretty intimidating. This guide will teach you how to eat a steamed crab like a pro. Once you're schooled in this fine art you can plan your own crab feast at home or head to one of these crab houses.

Difficulty: Easy
Time Required: 5-10 minutes per crab

Here's How:

  1. Plan your crab feast.

    Crab season in Maryland runs approximately May to October. Many of the larger crab houses offer blue crabs all year long, but they are shipped in from Texas, Louisiana and other places. Availability is always a question, so it never hurts to call crab houses in advance and inquire about expected availability.

    What's your favorite crab house? Vote
  2. Order steamed crabs.

    (You could steam them yourself, but that's a subject for another article that I've yet to write.) Crabs are priced by the dozen and rated for size. Your server may quote you numbers like "We got 35s, 47s and 90s." The numbers are dollars per dozen.

    The dollar figures correspond to crab sizes, usually measured from point to point across the back. (See Tip 1 below.) The crabs are males unless otherwise stated. Females are smaller and often the last to sell out. While a dozen small crabs might sound like a deal, it takes more work to pick a small crab and the payoff is less.

  3. Set the table.

    Heavy brown paper is the table dressing of choice at most crab houses. But for my money, covering the table with several layers of newspaper works just fine. A roll of paper towels in close reach is key. Plus, lay out mallets, knives and nutcrackers (I know nutcrackers aren't a Baltimore tradition but, really, they make it a lot easier!). A trash can, extra Old Bay and plenty of beer should be nearby.

  4. Grab a crab and remove claws and legs.

    Twist and pull to dislodge these. Either set aside the claws for later or crack into them now (see Step 8). If a bit of meat comes out with the legs bite it off. I like to snap open the legs just to see if an easy piece of meat reveals itself. If not, discard these. The miniscule amount of meat they yield is not worth the effort to dig it out.

  5. Pull up apron and remove shell.

    Flip crab to reveal underside. Either using a knife or your finger, pull up the apron of crab. This should break the shell from the body a bit. Pull shell all the way off and discard.

  6. Remove gills.

    Do not eat this part. You will also see the greenish yellow "mustard." Of course, it's not really mustard (it is the crustacean's equivalent of a liver). Many people in Baltimore do eat it, but probably as many just toss it.

  7. Snap crab body in half and scoop out crabmeat.

    The edges where the two halves have broken open are where you'll find the best and biggest chunks of crabmeat. Pull it out with your fingers. As you did deeper into the body closer to the leg openings, a knife comes in handy. There are smaller cavities here, which should not be overlooked.

  8. Crack claws.

    This is where I part company with most Marylanders showing my distance New Jersey heritage. Baltimore crab pickers either use a mallet or a knife to crack the claw, while I have always preferred the simplicity of a nutcracker. A mallet is fairly self-explanatory but look out for flying bits of shell and juice. To use a knife place the sharp side of the blade on the claw and smack the back side with the heel of your hand.

  9. Clean up.

    Before you roll up the mess in the paper, carefully check that no utensils or, even worse, a stray claw gets thrown away by accident. Be sure to put the garbage bags in tightly sealed cans to keep animals out. Even if you wash your hands thoroughly with soap the smell of crabs and Old Bay may linger for a day. Rubbing lemon juice on your hands will remove this odor.

  10. For more on crab cakes, crab soup and other crab recipes, check out these Maryland and Chesapeake Bay cookbooks.

Tips:

  1. Every crab house determines size a little differently, but here's a general guide:
    • Small – 5 to 5 ½ inches
    • Medium – 5 ½ to 6 inches
    • Large 6 to 6 ½ inches
    • Extra Large or Jumbo – 6 ½ inches or more
  2. Don't rub your eyes or touch anything you don't want crab guts on until you've thoroughly washed up. That includes babies and young children!
  3. Have everything you need close at hand, including a trash can.
  4. Dress down, this is a messy affair. Unlike the crab's more upscale cousin the lobster, there's no such thing as a crab bib. Or if there is, it's just for tourists.

What You Need:

  • Mallets
  • Dull/butter knives
  • Newspaper/brown paper
  • Paper towels
  • Trash can
  • Old Bay (optional)
  • Nutcracker (optional)
  • Beer
  • Crabs!
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