Sunday, January 16, 2011

Soft-Shell Crab

When I was a new attorney, the  law firm I was working for had a retreat in San Diego at the San Diego Hilton. At an outdoor dinner-buffet, one of the food items was soft-shell crab and I put a generous helping on my plate. When I sat down to eat and looked at the crab, I thought of all the things found inside a crab and lobster when you extract the flesh: gills, green and yellow muck and other assorted odd n' ends I had no desire to put inside my mouth. Needless to say, I never took a bite.

Spring forward 22 years and I was at Penang, a Malaysian restaurant, with some friends. We ordered soft-shell crab, my first ever, and it was my favorite part of the meal. 
I've come a long way, or from another point of view, really gone down hill. The same thoughts I had in San Diego creeped into my head, but I quickly dismissed them and dug in.

I was recently at a local sushi restaurant and noticed soft-shell crab as an appetizer. I decided to try it out. The crab was very different from that served at Penang and not nearly as good. It was not as fresh, it appeared to be a different kind of crab and it was not prepared as well.
The Washington Post had a wonderful article about soft-shell crab on May 27, 2009, by Jane Black, titled "They Had to Hand It to Me: How the Charms of True Soft-Shells Subdued My Inner Crab." That, and a Wiki post provide the basis of most of what I say below.

In the U.S., most soft-shell crabs are Chesapeake or Atlantic blue crabs found in the western Atlantic Ocean. As the crabs grow, they outgrow their shells and molt, or shed them. When this happens they have a very soft-shell which soon hardens. Soft-shell crab is the crab eaten in this post-molt state before the new shell has hardened. Chesapeake blue crabs mostly molt from May to September. Crabs from the south, such as Florida and Georgia begin to molt sooner, as early as March. As demand has increased as well as  the desire to have it year-round, mangrove crabs from Asia have been imported into the U.S. Because they grow in tropical mud-flats, they provide a continual source of soft-shells.

Commercial fishermen pull crabs from traps in the water and look for a pale pink or red color on the swimming fin which is an indication that the crab is about to molt. These crabs are called peelers. The peelers are taken to processors and kept in tanks where they are continually monitored. Once the crab is out of its old shell, there is a two to four hour window to remove the crab from the tank before the new shell begins to harden. They are kept at about 50 degrees with very little moisture which helps to prevent the shell from hardening. Then for the best eating, the crabs must be eaten within two days. Any longer than that and water drains from their bodies and they get more mushy. Apparently the difference between really good soft-shells and less good ones is a matter of texture and juiciness. Really goods ones are kind of crisp and have "little juice explosions" as you eat them. 

There are a number of things that are done to make soft-shells commercially more viable, but detract from the soft-shell goodness. Sometimes their shells are allowed to harden a little. This makes them last longer, but makes the taste deteriorate. These crabs are called "papershells" or "tinbacks." This makes them taste like "mild-flavored crab cardboard." Good soft-shells are also cleaned right before they are eaten. The gills are removed (which I am happy to learn), the front is snipped off, including the eyes and mouth, and the back-underside, called the apron, is removed. Cleaning them well before they are to be eaten removes moisture. I am assuming this is often done when the soft-shells are to be frozen for shipping or preservation, another soft-shell flavor killer. 

Most soft-shells are deep-fried because it "masks a multitude of sins." The chef can use older crabs and papershells and the cook can be less skilled. But when using really good, fresh soft-shells, the best preparations are pan-frying or grilling.

With a little bit more knowledge, I'm guessing that my most recent soft-shell was a frozen mangrove crab. It had a different shape and look than a blue crab and it was very mushy. 
It was not particularly good and I would not order it again. Interestingly, I did inspect some of the insides while I was eating it and noticed some of the muck I described earlier. 
I ended my inspection and just ate - better to eat with less knowledge. My Penang experience was quite different. I'm sure it was blue crab, it was much less mushy and the preparation was much more flavorful.
I ate it outside the window of normal molting times for blue crab, so it was likely frozen, so it appears to me that the chef can still do some things to make a big difference in the taste and presentation, because I would definitely order the soft-shells from Penang again, frozen or not.

In July 2011 I went to King's Fish House and had Picatta style soft-shell crab.
These were molted blue crabs 
flown in fresh from Crisfield, Maryland. 
From a piccata recipe for soft-shell crabs by Emeril Lagasse, it appears that the crabs were dredged in a seasoned flour mixture, added to oil in a skillet until crispy and brown, 
then put in the oven. Then butter, lemon juice, chicken broth and capers are added. These were in a whole different class than the soft-shell crabs I ate previously. They were crisper - I really noticed the shell more than I did on the previous one, and they had definite juice explosions. In fact, several times when I cut the crabs, exploding juice landed on my shirt. They were less breaded and thicker, thus the innards were more noticeable, 

including a greenish tomalley.  
For the picture below, I removed the top layer of crab shell to expose what was underneath.

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