Friday, 17 May 2024

Foodie Freak: The many kinds, and flavors, of crab




The holiday season is here and that means holiday parties, and I want to let the hosts of these parties to think about: A) Serving crab; and B) inviting me to have some.

Crab in the American culture is considered a luxury item while most Asian cultures consider it a staple. That is why crab purchased in grocery stores is sold at a premium price, but crab sold in Asian markets is much more economically priced, many times as a loss leader.

The flavors, textures, sizes and intimidation factor of crabs vary greatly so there are many choices to consider when thinking about what kind of crab to serve. I hope the information I give here will help you in your selection. The important thing to remember about any type of crab is to thaw your crab as slowly as possible, because quick thawing causes the meat to lose liquid.

King crab

Harvested in the Arctic waters of the Bering Sea, the king crab can grow to be 6 feet from end to end. SCUBA diving clubs in Alaska have “King Crab Rodeos” where a diver will try to grab a king crab and wrestle with it to the surface; the loser naturally gets eaten by the winner.

There are several subspecies that get sold under the king crab name, but it’s like comparing Cornish game hens to capon, they all taste like chicken. The large legs are sold at a higher price than the smaller legs so it can be more economical to by smaller ones and shell them ahead of time so no one knows.

The “merus” section of the leg, the leg closest to the body, is the most prized among seafood connoisseurs. The merus can best be compared to or thought of as the thigh portion of each leg. Personally I agree that the closer to the body the better the meat, with the meat out of the “toe” having a definite waxy texture and taste.

The commercial king crab fishing season is only three months long (mid-October to mid-January), so if you want the freshest crab possible ask to see the shipping tag. Grocery stores are required by law to keep these tags on hand a full 90 days after all of the crab is sold. The tag will tell you when the crab was caught and shipped. They are caught at sea, taken to processors where they are immediately cooked, cut into manageable sizes and then frozen for shipping.

The flavor of king crab is very rich, sweet and salty, with a nice firm texture. The flavor holds up in a variety of recipes, but bear in mind that the crab is already cooked so you don’t want to overdo it.

Prices vary from season to season but you can expect to pay between $10 and $20 dollars a pound at the grocery store, and more if you buy online. But be reassured that the meat to shell ratio is about 40/60 depending on the size of the legs.

This is my favorite type of crab.

Dungeness crab

The favorite and local crab of the West Coast, Dungeness crabs are a staple at Thanksgiving to many California families (my in-laws included). Caught in the cold waters of Northern California all of the way up to Alaska, the Dungeness season starts in November and continues on to June, so crab being sold in October on special has been frozen for a considerable time and is being “dumped” to make way for the new season. It is usually cooked at the seafood processors before being sent to market, although live crabs are available on occasion at some stores.

Only the males are harvested, while the females are returned to the water so they can continue to breed. The meat is moderately flavored, unique and there is plenty of it. Most grocery stores will clean the major parts of the crab at your request, which essentially entails taking apart the crab and presenting you with the leg clusters.

The yellow liquid inside the body is referred to as crab brains, but if the crab had that much brains it wouldn’t have wound up in the grocery store. It actually is made up mostly of the crab’s liver and other organs. This chunky fluid is considered a delicacy in many cultures throughout the world. Some like to spread it on bread like butter, while others stir it into sauces or seafood stews.

When purchasing Dungeness crabs I look for ones with barnacles on them. The presence of barnacles lets you know that crab hasn’t shed for some time ensuring plenty of “filling.” Crabs sold upside down will be moister since the back of the crab acts like a bowl holding moisture inside the crab instead of allowing it to leak out.

When “picking” or cleaning the meat out of a whole Dungeness crab, look forward to getting about 25 percent of the crab’s weight in meat. You can expect to pay between $3 and $8 per pound.

This is my favorite type of crab.

Blue crab

This is the East Coast’s favorite crab. They are an aggressive crab that will actually lunge at anything it thinks is a threat (maybe that’s an East Coast thing). The population of Blue crabs on the American East Coast can no longer meet the demand, and so the majority of Blue crabs are now from Asian fisheries.

The meat is milder flavored than most other crabs and the claw meat has a mild bitterness to it while the body meat is much sweeter. Claims of males being meatier than females aren’t very impressive since only 15 percent of the body is edible meat. But when the crabs shed their old shell and before their new shell hardens, they are caught and sold as soft-shelled crab and are almost 100 percent edible, after only a couple of adjustments.

The soft-shelled crab is what is used in sushi bars “Spider rolls.” The internal organs of these crabs are also considered a delicacy and are called “mustard” on the East Coast.

Blue crabs are available on the East Coast live, and to the rest of the nation are sold frozen or as shelled “picked meat” in buckets/plastic containers. They are usually cooked whole and shelled at the table, or the picked meat is made into crab cakes. Southeastern U.S. has a fondness for “She-crab soup,” which, as the name implies, is made from female crabs.

The price for whole blue crabs varies by size, and the picked crabmeat varies in price based on where on the crab the meat came from (backfin, lump and claw are the three main areas). For whole crabs expect to pay $5 to $10 each, and $7 to $20 per pound of picked meat.

This is my favorite type of crab.

Snow crab

Snow crab is just a marketing term for several species of similar-looking crabs. Like the several species of King crabs, they look and taste alike. They are found in the icy waters of the Arctic region of both the Atlantic and Pacific, are caught and then immediately cooked at the processors.

At the height of their popularity they were caught almost to the point of irreversible damage to their survival, but quick regulations and harvest limits saved the species. Only males are harvested while the caught females are released.

Snow crab season runs from mid-October through the end of May. The crab being alive at the time of cooking is a vital factor in the processing; if a crab is dead when it is cooked the meat will stick to the shell and make extraction difficult. They are then cut into sections, frozen, and shipped to buyers.

The meat is sweet, full-flavored and easy to extract and eat. The usable meat per cluster is typically around 30 to 40 percent.

This is my favorite type of crab.

Stone crabs

These are the only “renewable” resource of crabs. Only one claw of each stone crab is allowed to be harvested. The crab is trapped, retrieved and, making sure that it still has another claw to defend itself, one claw is removed. In about 18 months the removed claw grows back and the other claw can be removed. This can be done numerous times over the lifetime of the crab.

The claw shell is so hard that ordinary shell crackers won’t work easily on them, so processors now saw several slices into the claw after cooking to make it easier to consume. They are caught in the waters from the Carolinas down to Mexico, with the primary catch coming from Florida.

Stone crab season is from mid-October to mid-May. They have firm, sweet flesh that can sometimes have a bitter or iodine-like hint to them. You’ll need about a pound and a half per person.

Avoid purchasing any Stone crab claws called “lights” as they have less meat in them. I have not seen them in the stores locally, but online you should expect to pay $12 to $50 per pound, depending on size.

This is my favorite type of crab.

The bad news

All of the world’s crab fisheries are dangerously overfished. Agencies around the world are enacting self-imposed limitations in order to save the species. The most recent statistics show that demand for crab is so great that they are hovering just above the endangered species list, but hopefully not crossing onto it.

Since king, snow, and Dungeness crabs live several hundred to several thousand feet down on the ocean floor we really have no way of actually taking an accurate population count. We can only guess at their numbers by gaging how many we catch.

There’s also the added factor that though they release females and undersized crabs back into the ocean, there is no proof that they make it back to the safety of the bottom alive. They may very well die of decompression or be eaten by predators on the way down.

The world’s record king crab was/is 25 pounds ‒ currently 18 pounds is considered giant and average size is 10 pounds showing that we are harvesting younger and younger ones all the time just to meet the demand.

I haven’t included the nutritional information today like I usually do, because with crab that can be pretty depressing. It’s true that crab is high in sodium and has more cholesterol than my doctor would like, but I’m not advocating crab as a daily meal.

But I am recommending it as a party and holiday treat, like eggnog! Speaking of eggnog, I love that too, and since you now know my favorite type of crab I’ll be expecting those invitations to start pouring in.

Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.


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