How To: Cook, Clean and Crack a Dungeness Crab

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I’ve been eating Dungeness crab since I was very young – growing up in the Pacific Northwest, it’s almost a requirement. Even as a kid, I refused most vegetables unless they were covered in cheese sauce, and I didn’t much care for meats. I ate a lot of potatoes and potato products, and I ate seafood like it was goin’ outta style. Put a bucket of steamed clams, or a pile of crab with a small dish of butter, and watch it all disappear within minutes. I think that’s where I got comfortable with the phenomenon of working for your food. These days, the harder I work, the more I enjoy it. Chestnuts, oysters, foraged mushrooms, cracked crab – and that’s why at least once every winter I buy crab from Pillar Point Harbor down in Half Moon Bay, still squirming as I carry it off the docks, and cook it, clean it, and eat it at home over some newspaper and great conversation.

Cooking and cleaning crab is NOT a pretty job, but it doesn’t take that long and it’s not that hard. There’s nothing too precise about it at all, really. It requires a bit of muscle and a somewhat strong stomach, a stock pot, and about 20 minutes of your time. Start with a fresh, live crab.

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Dungeness season starts in November in the Bay Area, and you can get crabs at Fisherman’s Wharf (believe it or not, they do still sell fish there!), Pillar Point Harbor, or any number of seafood shops. The closer you are to the fisherman, the less you’ll pay by the pound. I paid between $5 and $7 per pound this year. Most crabs are somewhere around 1.5 to 3lbs. I budget a full crab per person, and then you’ll have leftovers for crab cakes, crab dip, crab salad, crab omelets… The list goes on. Anyway, the hardest part (physically, I mean, and maybe morally) is to get the crab in the pot. They will likely struggle. It’s best to pick them up by the butt (as illustrated above) either with tongs or your hand, and try to put them in the pot upside down. Their legs will flail and fight, so try to put the lid down quickly, and then tuck in any remaining legs that refuse to go in initially. About the pot – an inch or two of water set to boil, and a steamer basket if you have one – but don’t worry if you don’t – is all you’ll need. Once the water is boiling, drop your friend in and cover him with the lid. Hold the lid down until you’re sure the struggle is over. Set a timer for 12-15 minutes – 12 minutes for a little 1.5 pounder, 15 minutes for a larger crab, and wait. Now your crab will be the beautiful, vibrant orange you see in the first photograph.

Next, we move on to the cleaning. It’s gross, I’m not going to lie. For a long time, I made my best friend (my ersatz boyfriend) do it for me because I was squeamish. Now I can do it, but I still don’t like it. I never will. Run copious cold water over the crab to cool his insides (yes, it is a boy, you can tell by the pointy apron you’re about to snap off.) Then, bend his apron back, as shown. Get a good grip close to the base of the body, and snap it all the way off. You should reveal an indentation that you can stick your thumb into.

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I’m holding the crab steady with my dominant hand here – my left – and putting the thumb of my right hand into the indentation. Slide it in as far as you can, and get a good grip with both hands. You’re going to pop the top off the entire crab. Restaurants save this part of the carapace for presentation at the table, but since we’re eating at home, you can just discard it when you’re done. Anyway, get a grip, grab it tightly, and pull it away from your other hand. P2010054

Now, it’s likely a bunch of gross crap will fall out into your sink. Don’t let it go down the drain, even if you have a garbage disposal. It’s probably going to make your kitchen and pipes smelly, and we don’t want that. Scoop it all into the garbage or compost. You’ll be left with a sad, topless crab that looks something like this. This is the grossest part, so just get it over with carefully but quickly.P2010056

Essentially, you’re pulling all of the guts and gills off the crab and leaving the body meat behind. If it’s not stuck inside a crevice of shell, you probably don’t want it. There is some red stuff, some yellow stuff, some fibrous white stuff, some squishy white stuff… You want to get rid of all of it. Some of it is crab butter, but since I don’t have a taste for it, I’m not going to tell you about it. Just scoop and pull all of it off the body and toss it. Once you get the majority off, start running water over the crab again to rinse any bits off. You’ll reveal a clean white interior shell, beautiful white meat, and the red of the exterior shell showing on the legs. Once you’ve rinsed and picked all the yellow, red, and white goo and gills off the body, your crab will look like this.P2010057Take one hemisphere in each hand, with the round portion fitting inside of your hands. There will be a large indentation down the middle where the crab’s organs and gills were. Your thumbs will fit nicely in this space. Snap the crab in half this way, with one half of a body and legs broken free from the other half.

That’s it! Now, what to drink, and how to serve? I love to eat my crab with drawn butter and lemon. Some like mayonnaise, some like olive oil. You can even throw it on a baking sheet, baste it with garlic and oil, and roast it in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes to infuse it with those flavors. So many options!

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As for the wine, I’ll always pick something white – fresh, dry, lean, minerally, and especially bubbly. Sparklers pair excellently with shellfish of all types. You can’t go wrong with a Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc, a Champagne, a Chablis, or Sauvignon Blanc. We paired crab in a beautiful salad with the 2012 Frantz Saumon Mineral + from our recent club shipment – it was sublime.

What do you drink with your crab? Have you ever prepared one at home? If so, how do you do it? Let us know!