How to Steam and Pick Blue Crabs, Maryland Style
If you’ve ever been to Maryland, you know that steamed blue crabs are as common there as lobsters in Maine, or crawfish in New Orleans. Crab houses abound, where you sit down to a table covered with brown paper, waiting for the spicy, steaming crabs to be dumped in the center. A few pitchers of beer or iced tea and plenty of napkins are also required for the full experience.
You can also make steamed crabs Maryland-style at home with minimal effort, provided you live along the Western Atlantic seacoast, the only place where you can find blue crabs.
And when you do find them, they’re not inexpensive, especially the larger size, that can cost about $60 a dozen. Still, if you have the opportunity to buy them, give this a try. They’re delicious, and “picking” crabs while quaffing some beers is a fun way to pass a couple of hours with friends.
Only a couple of ingredients (other than the crabs) are necessary – coarse salt and Old Bay seasoning. Mix them together in a bowl. The proportions are up to you – the more seasoning, the spicier the crabs will be.
Using a pair of tongs, (be careful, those claws can really nip you!), place the raw crabs in a steamer basket or colander, sprinkling a generous layer of the coarse salt and Old Bay over the crabs. Continue layering until the steamer basket is full.
Pour a bottle or two of beer at the bottom of a large pot. Some people use water instead of beer, and some add a bit of vinegar to the liquid. My colander rested just right on the lip of the pot, but with the crabs mounted high in the colander, there was no lid deep enough to fit above the crabs. So I improvised and turned another pot upside down over the colander. The crabs should never be immersed in the liquid, or you’ll have soggy crabmeat.
Steam the crabs on high heat for about 20 minutes.
Cover the table with brown paper (I used cut-up brown paper bags) and dump the crabs in the center of the table.
Now comes the tricky part, the “picking.” But when you’ve done it once or twice, it becomes easy. The first time I ate these, decades ago with friends Kathy and Cliff who live in Maryland, my lips got hotter and hotter from all the Old Bay seasoning, until Cliff demonstrated the right way to “pick” crabs, doing some of the work for me, and handing me the choice backfin pieces.
But I have long since learned to pick crabs and you can too.
Take a butterknife and stick it under the back of the crab as in the photo below. Then holding the crab in one hand and the knife in the other, lift the body of the crab away from the “apron.”
The apron will come off in one piece, but you still have some cleaning to do.
You need to pull off the gills, those feathery things on either side of the body. I also remove the “mustard,” the yellowish-greenish viscera that’s part of the digestive system. Some people love it, but I find it gross, so I get rid of it too.
Using both hands, snap the body in two. Then pull the claws off if you haven’t already done so.
The best part of the crab is the backfin meat, and if you practice you can take it out in one large piece. Put your finger on the wide part of the crab body and press gently while pushing upward.
The backfin meat should come out in one piece, but it may take a few tries till you get the hang of it.
Keep picking away at the main body, discarding any shells and cartilage, eating along the way. (Some people serve melted butter with these, but that seems unnecessary to me.) When you get to the claws, you’ll need a mallet and a small knife to help pry the meat loose. (Sorry, I forgot to take pictures of cracking the claws.) Just be careful not to bang too hard on the shell or you’ll end up splintering it into the flesh of the crab.
When you’re all done, gather up all the brown paper and throw everything into the garbage can. Hopefully pick up will come in the next day or two or you’ll have all the local cats hovering over your trash can.
Yes, indeed, a trip to a crab house is one of those quintessential Maryland experiences. As you say not cheap, but it’s wonderful eating. And the mess is part of the fun! 🙂
I have had the pleasure of eating Maryland style crab more than once. It was some time ago, but the memory of the paper covered table and a plastic bib are still vivid in my mind. As one who has caught, bought ans cooked my share of crab your tutorial for steaming crab is spot on.
Memories of my youthful days. My parents would bring home a brown bag full of live crabs and toss them on the floor for us to play with before dropping them in the pan. I’ve traded crabs for crawfish now that I’m in Texas, but never miss a chance to savor those crabs on a trip home.
Oh my goodness! Linda, I leave crab cleaning to my husband! We have huge mud crabs here in Northern Australia and that’s his job! Haha but I love to eat them!
I wish I could find blue crabs here in Colorado, but sometimes we are fortunate to find west coast Dungeness crabs–almost as good! I like using them to flavor a fish sauce.
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