April 29, 2018Tasty Soft-Shells Make Any Occasion


Contact: Mike Hutt
Virginia Marine Products Board
Tel: 757-874-3474
Fax: 757-886-0671
E-mail: mhutt@vaseafood.org

Tasty Soft-Shells Make Any Occasion

If you’ve never tasted a soft-shell crab before, you’re in for a special treat. Fried or broiled, sautéed or stir-fried, soft-shells can make a festive meal perfect for any occasion.

In years past, only those who lived right on the Atlantic could enjoy the delicate flavor of the soft-shell crab, which is simply the blue crab in its molting state. Even if you lived at the water’s edge, you could only look forward to new methods of encouraging crabs to shed their shells, now everyone across the country has access to that marvelous species which so intrigued James Michener at the opening of his book, Chesapeake. Remember the blue heron who cried out with glee as he swallowed the delicious bits of crab which Michener calls “the choicest morsel in the bay?”

Soft-shells are every bit as good as Michener led you to believe–and with a few tips from knowing chefs, you can prepare unusual, elegant meals for any time of day with surprising ease.

Depending on where you live, you’ll find soft-shell either live or fresh-frozen. Both are priced according to size, with the larger crabs being more expensive. To select the highest quality crab, the best rule is to buy from a seafood retailer you trust, allowing two to three crabs per person depending on the size. The retailer is the best guide you can find to selecting premium quality soft-shells.

If you’re buying them live, look for some movement when the crab is touched. You needn’t worry about being pinched by the crab’s claws, because unlike its hard-shell counterparts, the soft-shell crab is unable to defend itself against predators. Test the crab’s shell to be sure it’s very soft. If you feel resistance, don’t buy–the shell is continuing to harden and will not be as delicious as one which is very soft.

Freezing soft-shells doesn’t hurt them a bit. The taste is every bit as good as

a live crab–and defrosting is simple. Just set them on a plate covered with paper towels and leave them in the refrigerator overnight.

With soft-shells, you can enjoy even more of the delicious taste of crab without having to go to the trouble of picking out the meat. Every part–claws, legs and body–is absolutely delicious. Once the crab is cleaned, you’ll want to savor every morsel.

Your retailer will probably clean the crabs for you. If not, you’ll want to clean them before you cook. The cleaning process is simple: Slice across the front of the crab, removing eyes and sandbags. Lift the points of the shell and remove the grayish “fingers.” Then turn the crab over and remove the apron from the underside. Now you’re ready to cook.

Soft-shells are so versatile that your biggest problem may be deciding which way to cook them. Like all seafood, you must be careful not to overcook, as you want to preserve the crab’s natural moistness.

If you’re going to use a sauce with your soft-shells, you’ll probably want to sauté or broil them. To broil, brush the crabs with melted butter then place them bottom side up on a rack three inches from the heat. Broil four to five minutes, then turn them over, brush with more butter and broil another four to five minutes. Or dust them with flour and sauté them in butter, top side down first, for about four minutes on each side.

With both methods, you’ll first want to prick each claw and leg with a fork to prevent them from popping. Serve with your favorite sauce: hollandaise; garlic and butter; almandine or soy sauce and clam juice would all make excellent choices.

If you’re planning to fry them, you might try coating them as you would shrimp in a tempura batter and deep-frying. They’ll take four to five minutes in 375 o oil. Or dip them in beaten eggs, roll in breadcrumbs and fry them top side first in a pan of hot oil. Drain thoroughly on paper towels.

You can even quarter the crabs and add them to a stir-fry with a dash of ginger for a sensational variation.

Cooking out? Place your soft-shells in a pan with a sauce of butter and lots of cracked pepper and set the pan on the grill. Baste frequently to protect the crab’s natural juices, and get ready for an unusual twist on outdoor cooking your family will rave about.

If you’re serving more crabs than you can cook at one time, simply place the cooked crabs in an uncovered pan in a warm oven until you’re ready to serve.

Because soft-shells have such a delicate flavor, whatever you serve with them shouldn’t be too overpowering. Try asparagus, broccoli, cold sliced cucumbers or broiled tomatoes for color and flavor. Garnish the plate with parsley or pimento for a plate to relish and remember.

Your guests will be delighted with the Crab Imperial variation, perfect for elegant candlelight dining.


(4-6 servings)

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 teaspoons prepared mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon red pepper
  • 1 pound backfin crabmeat
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 12 soft-shell crabs, cleaned
  • 1 cup fresh buttered breadcrumbs

Cream Sauce: Melt butter in saucepan. Add flour and blend over low heat, stirring constantly, for 3-5 minutes. Slowly stir in milk. Cook and stir until thickened. Blend in mustard, salt, red pepper. Gently fold in crabmeat.

Soft-Shell Crabs: Prick legs and claws of each crab with the tines of a fork to prevent popping. Place crabs, bottom side up, on a broiling rack 3 inches from the heat. Brush with melted butter. Broil 4-5 minutes. Turn over, brush again with butter. Broil 4-5 minutes.

To Assemble: Place about 3 tablespoons (1/12) of the crab mixture on top of each boiled crab. Sprinkle with buttered crumbs at serving time, bake in a preheated 350 o F oven for 15 minutes.

A Virginia version of the traditional Eggs Benedict, this Crab Stack includes an easy method for hollandaise sauce. Or substitute your favorite hollandaise for a special brunch you’ll long remember.


(4 servings)

  • 8 soft-shell crabs, cleaned
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 4 English muffins, split, toasted and buttered
  • 8 slices cooked ham, 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick
  • 8 slices ripe tomato
  • 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups hollandaise sauce

Crabs : Prick legs and claws of each crab with the tines of a fork to prevent popping. Sauté in butter about 4 minutes on each side over moderate heat.

Blender Hollandaise : Place in blender: 4 egg yolks, 3 tablespoons lemon juice, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon white pepper and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper. At medium speed, very slowly add 1 cup butter which has been melted to bubbling but not browned. Blend an additional 10-12 seconds until sauce is thickened and smooth.

To Assemble : Place toasted English muffin halves on plate. Top each with ham, then tomato and cooked crab. Spoon about 3 tablespoons hollandaise sauce over each. Serve immediately.

For additional information on soft shell crab, visit our web site at www.vaseafood.org.