What’s the big deal with Soft Shell crabs?

8 mins read

Photo above: A crab about to come out of it’s shell. 

By Molly Ingram

I grew up in Virginia just a short hop-skip and a jump from the crab capital of the world, Maryland. Soft Shell Crabs have a short window when they are available and when that happened, usually late spring, my dad would start smiling from ear-to-ear. Soft Shell Crab season was here!

A blue crab that has expanded his girth and is just about ready to back out of his shell.
A blue crab that has expanded his girth and is just about ready to back out of his shell.

My knowledge of Soft Shells was very limited and incorrect. I recently got a tutorial from Craig Reaves of Sea Eagle Seafood Market at their processing plant out on St. Helena Island. Soft Shell crabs are Blue Crabs that have shed their outer shell. OK, I get that. But what is amazing is the process by which a Blue Crab comes to be a Soft Shell crab.

If a crab “molts” its shell in the wild it will hide until such time as the new shell has hardened and the crab is again somewhat protected from predators. So those looking to get Soft Shells need to do it before the shell comes off. They are traditionally trapped and then put in a large holding tanks where each one is looked at to determine how far along they are in the molting process. Crabbers can tell by determining the color of a thin line found on the fin of the crab. This line changes color between white to red indicating where the crab is in the process of getting a new shell.

“A ‘whale’ of a crab,” said Craig Reaves of this 9" blue crab recently caught off the Sea Eagle docks in St. Helena.
“A ‘whale’ of a crab,” said Craig Reaves of this 9″ blue crab recently caught off the Sea Eagle docks in St. Helena.

The best Soft Shell Crabs are typically virgin females. Picture this. The crab trap has an inner protected bait compartment where a male crab is placed. The females then come to him. Seriously. A “honey trap” in reverse. I have to admit when Craig told me this it made me crack up. Think of all the movies that could be done in reverse. Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct with the roles reversed. Gives you something to think about while lazing in the hammock.

But back to crabs. When they are ready to molt, they have increased their size by about 30% and there is no longer room for them in the current shell. So the shell breaks and they back out of it. The whole process is fairly quick and the window to get them while they still have a “soft” shell is very limited. Craig has workers who continually look at each crab to determine when it will shed and make sure as soon as it does, the crab is removed from the tank and prepared for market. This is a 24/7 operation and needs to be constantly monitored.

So now the Blue Crab is officially a Soft Shell Crab, what do you do with it and why is it considered a culinary delicacy? In my opinion, Soft Shell Crabs are best eaten golden and crisp either sautéed on top of the stove or immersed in a deep fryer. Soft Shell Crabs are also wonderful in a simple sandwich with some mayonnaise or tartar sauce, a couple of slices of tomato, lettuce or not, and then this delicious, tasty, entire crab that has been cooked however you like them best between 2 pieces of great bread.

Here are some of my personal favorite recipes. Plan on two crabs per person.

Simple family recipe for two people

Soft Shell Crabs, cleaned
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon butter 

Sprinkle each crab with salt and pepper. Place flour in a shallow bowl. Dredge each crab in flour, turning to coat; shake off excess flour.

Melt butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add crabs to pan, top sides down; cook 3 minutes. Turn crabs over; cook an additional 2 minutes.

Dinner party worthy sautéed Soft Shell Crabs

2 cups dry white wine
½ cup olive oil, plus one tablespoon for sautéing
2 garlic cloves, one mashed, the other thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus 2 teaspoons for seasoning
Soft Shell Crabs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, roughly chopped 

In a large metal bowl, whisk together the wine, oil, garlic, pepper, and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Place the crabs in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Marinate the crabs for 15 minutes at room temperature.

Place the flour in a medium shallow bowl. Slick a very large skillet with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and place it over medium-high heat. Remove the crabs from the marinade, shake off the excess liquid, and transfer them to the bowl of flour. One at a time, coat both sides of all the crabs with flour (only a light dusting is necessary) and
set aside.

Place half of the crabs into the hot skillet and sauté them for about 4 to 5 minutes per side, or until the crabs have reddened and are slightly crispy. Remove the crabs from the skillet and drizzle them with a few drops of butter, and sprinkle with a little of the parsley and some of the remaining 2 teaspoons of salt. Serve immediately.

Too much work? Then come on down to Port Royal this weekend, April 16th and try them prepared several different ways at the Annual Soft Shell Crab Festival put on by the Old Village Association of Port Royal. There is a lot to do for the whole family and you get all the benefits of this wonderful regional delicacy right from our own local waters with no muss and fuss in the kitchen. The Festival starts and 11 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. so plan on a crab-filled lunch or early dinner. There are no fees for entry to the Festival or for parking so consider adopting a crab for the big crab race sponsored by the Rotary of the Lowcountry with your extra cash. All in all, it is just a great way to spend a Saturday. Hope to see you there.

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