Maryland Steamed Crabs

It’s hard to imagine that after eight years of weekly recipes, many from Maryland, Galley Pirates have yet to post Maryland’s iconic classic, Steamed Crabs. This is largely due to the fact that crabs have been so scarce the past few years I usually have to buy them from Annapolis Seafood. Or from Dave’s crab truck on Rt. 2. And they cost a pretty penny. But Chesapeake Bay crabs seem to be fairly plentiful this year. We just caught over a dozen off our dock in Spa Creek. The following is less a recipe than just directions. You will find no recipe card in this post. You just need live blue crabs, water and maybe some Old Bay Seasoning.

Blue crabs often hang out on the pilings, lines and ladders off docks. They’re pretty easy to spot. Tim and Evelyn went about the crab search with a net and a bucket…and a curious St. Bernard.

Net them and throw them into a bucket of bay water. The rule of thumb is to keep the males as long as they are 5.25″ in width, and release the females. The males (jimmies) and females (sooks, or sallies for the young ones) are easy to tell apart by two distinct ways: their claws and their aprons.

The crabs are lively, to say the least. They will be snapping at you and anything around them and trying their best to escape the bucket. (if you have a trap they can be kept in that cage and sunk in the water until “prep time”) One way to make them easier to handle is to cool them down. Place them in a paper grocery bag that’s loosely placed inside a large plastic bag (to prevent leaking) But do not seal tight. Place them in a cooler or ice box (do not freeze!) and lightly close the lid allowing some air to get in. The coolness will calm them down but will not kill them. You want them alive when you place them in the steamer.

And this is the big difference between cooking lobsters and cooking blue crabs: lobsters get plunged into a pot of boiling water; blue crabs are placed in a pot with a tray (or a pile of crushed beer cans) and about 3 inches of water so that they steam instead of boil. This is what a crab steamer looks like:

Maryland steamed crabs are typically cooked alongside sweetcorn (and often fried hushpuppies) and washed down with lots of cold beer and hours of conversation. To use as few pots and pans as possible I like to cook the sweetcorn in the bottom few inches of the crab steamer, without the tray.

Once the corn is cooked, lift the ears out with tongs and keep warm, place the tray over the remaining water and you’re ready to throw in your crabs. Place the live crabs in the steamer. Sprinkle Old Bay Seasoning on top. Place the steamer on your galley burner and place the lid on top. I repeat: place the lid on top! Light the burner.

Ok, let’s stop here. If this makes you at all queazy or you find the thought of slowly steaming anything alive, you should probably stop reading this. The somewhat cool, dormant crabs will start coming to life and you will hear a flurry of clashing claws in the pot. I know. It can be very depressing if you think about it too much. Just keep in mind that these are bottom feeders, a few steps above insects in my book. Let’s just say you would never make a pet out of one.

Ahh. After about 20-30 minutes the gnashing pot has quieted down and the blue crabs have turned from blue to red. And ready to eat.

And if you aren’t disgusted enough about steaming them, here are further directions: how to eat them!

  1. Lay the crab on it’s back and find the apron. (the pointy thing in the middle)
  2. Pull the apron off so you are able to grab the top shell by turning it over and sticking your fingers under the top shell or carapace.
  3. Pull off the carapace.
  4. Now you will see the “mustard” (yellow guts) and the gills. Scrape the gills off with a knife. You do not want to eat the gills. Even soft shelled crabs get their gills removed. You can eat the “mustard” but most people prefer to remove that too.
  5. Crack the crab in half with feet on both sides. This now exposes the white crab meat. The white meat is then picked out of each of the “compartments” within the crab. Notice the back fin area (where the “paddle leg” is) It has the largest compartment and the best meat of the crab.
  6. For the claws you will need a mallet. Just hammer them until they crack open and pick out the meat.

Take your time. Eating crabs is not as much a meal as it is a social event. It takes a long time to get every morsel out of a steamed crab. “Clean your rooms!” as my friend Carol always tells the kids at the table who seem to want to rush through this process. Dip the crab meat in drawn butter, malt vinegar and Old Bay.

The day got away from us so we didn’t get to enjoy these until after dark, but they are always delicious any time of day. We just substituted candlelight for sunshine, wine for beer and a pug for a St. Bernard. Whew! What a day!

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