Food & Drink

Here Come the Soft-Shells

Tips, tricks, and recipes for making the most of a seasonal delicacy

photo: Margaret Houston


If you’ve ever picked through the calcified shell of a blue crab in search of tender meat, you know that it doesn’t come easy. That’s why chefs across the country go wild when the weather warms up and the sea delivers a bumper crop of floppy soft-shells. In southerly cities like Charleston and New Orleans, it’s happening now. If you live a little farther to the north, get ready. The crabs start coming around the beginning of May, and they won’t stop until the end of the summer.

Soft-Shell 101

Soft-shell crabs here in the United States are typically regular old blue crabs in the middle of a major transition. In the late spring and summer, growing crabs of all stripes shed their exoskeletons. Once they’ve busted out of those old shells, replacements harden in a matter of hours. The trick to harvesting soft-shells is to catch them in the transitional stage. Rather than scour the ocean for soft-shelled crabs, fishermen typically capture them before they molt and hold them in saltwater tanks. As soon as the crabs drop their shells, they’re pulled out of the water, which stops a new exoskeleton from hardening.

Shopping for Soft-Shells

Crabs are at their weakest when molting. They won’t move much. But if the soft-shells at your local seafood market aren’t moving at all, don’t buy them. Soft-shells should be alive until no more than a few hours before cooking. If you’re taking live crabs home, keep them on ice in the coldest part of the refrigerator and cook them within a day.

Do I need to clean them?

Plenty of fishmongers will take care of the cleaning for you, and you can even cook an uncleaned crab if you’re so inclined. You’ll just have to deal with gristle and chew, and you’ll have a few tough pieces on the plate when you’re done. But the cleaning process is easy, and highly recommended. Here’s how it goes: First, using a sharp pair of kitchen shears, slice off the mouth and eyes, and squeeze out the jelly-like substance behind the cut. Then, gently lift the top shell on the left side. Reach a finger inside and scoop out the gills. Repeat the process on the right side. Finally, flip the crab and remove the tough apron on the belly. Now, you can eat the whole crab. Just keep it on ice until you’re ready.

Soft-Shells Three Ways

Fried softies are everywhere this time of year. And while they’re undeniably delicious, there’s more than one way to cook a crab. For guidance, we asked for recipes from three top-notch Southern chefs who deep-fry, grill, and sauté soft-shells in their kitchens. Look below to learn their techniques.


Soft-Shell Crab Season: Fried

A New Orleans recipe that packs a punch

Ingredients

  • For the crabs

    • Peanut oil, for frying

    • 1 cup uncooked rice, pulverized in a spice grider

    • 1 cup all-purpose flour

    • 1 tbsp. cornstarch

    • Kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper, to taste

    • 1 cleaned soft-shell crab

    • 2 cups buttermilk

  • Lemon Aioli

    • Zest and juice of 2 lemons

    • 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard

    • 1/2 fresh jalapeño, minced

    • 2 egg yolks

    • 3/4 cup canola oil

    • Kosher salt, to taste

  • Salpicon

    • 2 tbsp. bacon fat

    • 2 cups shredded white cabbage

    • 1 tbsp. pickled peppers

    • 1 bunch green onions, sliced thick

    • 1 tbsp. sherry vinegar

    • Kosher salt, to taste


Preparation

  1. For the crabs:

    Pour oil an inch deep into a large pot or heavy frying pan and heat to 350 degrees.

  2. Mix all dry ingredients well and add salt and pepper to taste.

  3. Dip crab in buttermilk and then in the breading mixture. Fry the breaded crab for 4-5 minutes, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 135 degrees.

  4. Remove from the oil and dry on a paper towel–lined plate.

  5. For the Lemon Aioli:

    Add first 4 ingredients to a food processor. Turn it on and slowly drizzle in the oil. Alternately, vigorously whisk the oil into the other ingredients by hand. Season with salt.

  6. For the Salpicon:

    Heat bacon fat until smoking. Then, add cabbage and sauté for 1 minute. Add peppers, green onion, and vinegar, cook for another two minutes, and season with salt.

  7. Brush a 5-inch piece of French bread with olive oil. Toast it.

  8. To plate:

    Place the hot soft-shell on the grilled bread, and top with a spoonful of salpicon. Add a heaping spoonful of aioli to the plate, for dipping.

From chef Isaac Toups of Toups Meatery in New Orleans, Louisiana


Soft-Shell Crab Season: Grilled

Kick off cookout season with crab on the grill

Ingredients

  • For the crab

    • 1 crab

    • 1 tbsp. olive or scallion oil (recipe below)

    • Kosher salt and pepper, to taste

  • Scallion Oil

    • 3/4 lb. scallions (about 2 bunches)

    • 4 cups canola oil

  • Dip

    • 4 tbsp. salt

    • 1 tbsp. black pepper

    • 3 tbsp. lime juice


Preparation

  1. For the crab:

    Toss the crab with oil and season with salt and pepper. Drop onto a medium-hot gas or charcoal grill and cook for six minutes on each side, or until nicely browned and firm to the touch. Remove with a spatula.

  2. For the scallion oil:

    Combine scallions and oil in a medium-sized saucepan. Bring oil to a gentle simmer and cook for 7 minutes. Remove from heat, let cool overnight, and strain. (Makes 4 cups)

  3. For the dip:

    Combine all ingredients and serve in a ramekin alongside cooked crabs. (Makes enough for 4 crabs)

Recipe from Haidar Karoum of Doi Moi in Washington, D.C.


Soft-Shell Crab Season: Sautéed

A lighter way to enjoy soft-shells

Ingredients

  • For the crab

    • 4 tbsp. butter

    • 1 soft-shell crab

    • 2-3 whole ramps (optional)

  • Accompaniments

    • 1 spoonful pea pesto (recipe below)

    • 2 spoonfuls Greek yogurt, divided

    • 1 small handful mache greens

    • 2 pods raw green peas, shelled

    • 4-5 pea flowers

    • 1 sprig dill, torn into pieces

  • Pea Pesto

    • 1 head of garlic

    • Olive oil

    • 1 quart fresh or frozen peas

    • Zest of 1 lemon

    • 1 tbsp. sea salt, plus more to taste

    • 1 tsp. piment d'Espelette, or cayenne to taste


Preparation

  1. Add butter to a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. When butter is melted and just foaming, add the crab, belly-side down. Sauté for several minutes or until the belly begins to brown. Then flip the crab and cook for several more minutes, basting regularly with melted butter. Add the ramps, if desired, and continue to spoon the butter over both the crab and the ramps for another minute before removing them from the skillet.

  2. For the pea pesto:

    Coat the entire head of garlic with olive oil, wrap it in foil, and roast it at 350 degrees until tender and sweet, about an hour. Cut the head open and squeeze out the soft garlic inside. Measure 2 tablespoons for the pesto and save the rest for another project.

  3. Blanch the fresh peas in boiling water until bright green and tender, 3-4 minutes. Then shock them immediately in ice water. Alternately, thaw your frozen peas. Drain peas, add them to a food processor with all other ingredients, and pulse until smooth. (Makes about 1 quart)

  4. To plate:

    Drizzle a spoonful of yogurt across the serving dish. Place the crab and a lump of pea pesto on top. In a separate bowl, combine the mache with the second spoonful of yogurt. Mix well, salt to taste, and drop the greens in a loose clump on the plate, overlapping the pesto. Sprinkle peas, flowers, and dill over the dish. Top with ramps.

Recipe from chef de cuisine Jason Stanhope of FIG in Charleston, South Carolina


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