Steamed crabs are a Maryland staple of summer. The smell of those Chesapeake spices and fresh blue crab is unmistakable. Most people just call up their local crab house and place an order but why not step up your game and steam your own. With just a few ingredients and equipment you’ll be able to steam crabs like a pro and save a ton of money at the same time.
Crabs can cost up to $400 dollars a bushel depending on the size and the availability in my area (central Maryland) most of the time we get a group together and everyone chips in and brings a side dish. Recently my brother and I decided to dust off the old crab steamer pot and try our hand at steaming live crabs ourselves. Honestly it was really quite simple and I think it’s safe to say we will be doing this more often.
Just down the road there’s a lady that sells live crabs for $20 a dozen or $110 per half bushel. We’ve appropriately named her “the crab lady”. Every weekend she’s out selling beautiful crabs to the experienced crab steamers of the area. I brought a cooler with a bag of ice and picked up a half bushel of medium/large male crabs. When purchasing live crabs make sure that the crabs are...you guessed it, ALIVE!! It was impressive to see the woman grabbing the crabs with tongs and knowing if they were alive just by the feel. Almost how a skilled fisherman can tell by the most subtle movement whether they have a fish on the line. Any dead crabs were immediately discarded.
The crabs should be kicking and putting up a fight to get into your cooler. The key to keeping crabs alive is minimizing stress. Don't toss them around or mess with them anymore than needed. When transferring to a cooler place them in using tongs and try to lay them right side up. Since we wouldn't be steaming the crabs until later in the day we left the cooler slightly propped open with the drain plug unscrewed to let any melted water drain out. The carbs will not be as rowdy once on ice and be easier to handle when it's time to cook.
Male crabs known as “jimmies” have a Marrow T shaped apron on the underside. In contrast, females “sooks” have a rounded dome shaped apron. An easy way to remember is that males aprion looks like the Washington Monument and females apron resembles the Capitol Buildings dome. Because of fishing restrictions you will almost always see males to keep the crab population at a sustainable level. Some crab connoisseurs will claim that female crabs are a bit sweeter but I don’t notice any discernible difference.
I always use a long folding table covered in newspaper or what’s affectionately known as crab paper. Use a few layers so you can just roll up the paper after the meal and dispose of all the shells and trash. After the table is covered with newspaper I like to put a big bucket of cold beverages in the center of the table. A cooler is fine but I don’t want to get up once I’ve begun picking crabs.
Each guest should have a slender knife, a crab mallet and multiple rolls of paper towels should be on the table, preferably with a vertical paper towel holder. Condiments like melted butter, old bay and cider vinegar can be served alongside ramekin dishes for dipping. Once the crabs are cooked they can be piled around the bucket in the center of the table or serve on sheet pans if space allows. Have everything set up just before you start steaming the crabs. Pro tip* Have a few of these Thermacell Outdoor Mosquito Repeller on hand, you'll thank me later!!
I’m a big fan of steaming crabs with beer. You don’t need to use anything fancy and you can even use a 50/50 beer to water ratio if you like. I normally go with a light lager that I’ll be drinking while I eat the crabs. I’m not going to say one brand over another because I know folks take their brand of beer seriously.
You will need a large pot with a steamer basket. We actually used a basket that’s been in the family for years. You’ll also need a propane burner to steam the crabs so again I’ll leave a link of one that I recommend. I also recommend a pare of these Oven Safe BBQ Gloves for picking up the crab pot and even protecting your hands from the crabs claws. I know this seems like a lot of stuff to buy but the money you'll save steaming your own crabs will pay for all this in just a few uses.
Once you have your steamer pot filled with beer and the propane lit it’s time to start layerings in the crabs. Use long tongs and a pair of gloves to protect your hands from the crabs. Layer the crabs covering the bottom of the basket then sprinkle a generous amount of crab seasoning.
I’m a big fan of J.O. #2 Crab Seasoning because it’s a little spicer or you can use J.O. #1. I don’t recommend old bay for seasoning the crab because it’s ground too fine and honestly it’s too expensive to use in that kind of quantity. After each layer of crabs are seasoned leave a few inches of space at the top of the pot for a few ears of corn. This is obviously an optional step but it goes great with crabs and is always a big hit. You should be able to steam a ½ bushel at a time in the size pot I recommend.
The crabs should steam with the lid on for about 25 minutes. Once they’re done cooking they will have a vibrant reddish orange color and it’s time to eat. The crabs will be super hot so you’ll have time to gather everyone around the table so don’t worry about them getting cold. I actually prefer to let my crabs cool down closer to room temperature. I find the crabs are easier to handle and the meat is much easier to harvest.
You’ll know you cooked crabs perfectly if the newspaper stays fairly dry during eating. Water logged crabs is a sign you used too much liquid or cooked the crabs too long.
I wish I could just skip this topic because I’m sure whatever I write will be wrong. I’ve been eating crabs for over 30 years and I’ve probably seen a dozen different ways. Some people eat the claws first then remove the shell and pick the backfin and lump meat. Some keep the legs on the crab to help remove the meat. Others use Special Crab Picking Knives and split the body in half and pick the meat.
I’m going to post a few videos of methods I approve of but there is no wrong way as long as you remove the lungs and don’t waste any meat.
Another area of contention is whether or not you eat the “mustard” which is actually the "hepatopancreas," an organ that only crabs and lobsters possess. ... In fact, a survey of Chesapeake Bay crabs, including ones caught in the Baltimore Harbor, found them safe to eat by Food and Drug Administration standards.Jun 21, 1992 * credit Baltimore Sun. I personally eat the mustard and it’s my favorite part. I recommend making friends and sitting next to people who don’t like it’s so you get extra.
With any leftovers you have you can chill and then pick the next day to make delicious Crab Cakes , Crab Guacamole or Chesapeake Crab Burgers. Steaming your own crabs doesn't have to be intimidating. I hope this post has given you all the info to try steaming them yourself.
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