Food & Drink

How Edna Lewis Fried Soft-Shell Crabs

A simple and classic softie recipe, from the newly re-released cookbook by the grande dame of Southern cooking

Photo: Kim Alexander

Fresh soft-shell crabs ready for frying.

Photo: John T. Hill

Edna Lewis.

Edna Lewis, who died in 2006, was revered as the first lady of Southern cooking. Born in 1916 in the rural farming community of Freetown, Virginia, she lived for many years in New York City, where she came to acclaim as a professional cook and author. Her elegant and to-the-point recipes and writing, such as in her 1988 classic cookbook In Pursuit of Flavor, humbly acknowledged her deep experience with Southern ingredients. Knopf recently re-released In Pursuit of Flavor, which shares many of Lewis’s secrets for achieving flavors that make readers homesick for their first tastes of the South.

In the book, Lewis shares helpful advice for prepping a coastal Southern delicacy: soft-shell crabs. “The soft-shell crabs, most available in the spring, are just about the most delicious shellfish you can cook. The preparation is simple and the crabs take very little time to cook. If you are cleaning them yourself, take them home alive and prepare them by cutting off their mouths, lifting up the shells, and removing the spongy-looking gills,” she wrote. “Rinse the crabs briefly but well under cold water. You want to be careful not to soak them or you might rinse away their flavor. You can ask the fishmonger to clean them for you but be sure they are alive when you buy them. Be sure to cook them soon after you get home as they are quite fragile. Serve them with a side dish of plain rice and a crusty bread.”


  • Serves 4

    • 2 cups flour

    • 2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

    • 3 tsp. salt

    • 12 to 16 small soft-shell crabs

    • 2 sticks butter

    • Juice of 2 lemons

    • Lemon wedges and parsley, for garnish


  1. Combine the flour, pepper, and salt, and mix well. Spread the seasoned flour on a piece of wax paper or a plate. Press the crabs into the flour to coat them. This is easier if it is done right after cleaning and rinsing the crabs.

  2. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter begins to foam and turn brown, add the crabs, shell side down. You may need two skillets, since you should cook all the crabs at the same time. Pierce each crab in two places and cover the skillets.

  3. After two minutes of cooking, squeeze several drops of lemon juice over each crab. Flip the crabs and cook them on the other side for two to three minutes. The shell side should be reddish and crispy. Remove from the pan to a platter and serve garnished with lemon wedges and parsley.

Excerpted from In Pursuit of Flavor by Edna Lewis. Copyright © 1988 by Edna Lewis. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.