Your Biggest Crab Cooking Questions Answered

Here's your guide to the fab crab—with tips to help you make the most of each dish.

Simple Boiled Crabs with Garlic-Vermouth Butter Recipe
Photo: Jennifer Davick

Crab Q&A

Whether stacked neatly on ice in tidy white tubs or scuttling across the bottom of a tank, crabs are available in lots of ways—from whole, live crabs to cooked meat and claws—and yes, they are worth the splurge. Inside that rough exterior lies some of the best flavor the sea has to offer: slightly sweet, slightly salty, and perfectly tender. Here's what you need to know before you head to the seafood market.

What is the difference between the types of crab sold in containers?

"Jumbo lump" signifies premium, large white chunks from the crab body that are perfect for chilled seafood cocktails and salads. Lump meat is made of slightly smaller white pieces and is good for pasta dishes or crab cakes. "Backfin" indicates a mix of broken lump and small pieces from the body of the crab; use it in stuffings, dips, or soups. Dark brown claw meat comes from the legs and claws; it has a stronger flavor and is ideal for sauces and dips.

Can I substitute different species of crab in a recipe?

Generally, blue, snow, and Dungeness crabs have a similar salty-sweet flavor, but differences in taste will occur based on factors like the saltiness of the water where they are caught, how they are processed, and how they are cooked. The claw and leg meat will have a more intense flavor than large body pieces.

How long can I store crab in the refrigerator?

Crabmeat is quickly perishable. Use it within two or three days.

Can crab be frozen?

Yes. It's best to freeze crab in the shell, or in preparations such as crab cakes or casseroles up to three months. Without the protection of the shell or other ingredients, frozen crabmeat loses its tender texture and becomes stringy. Cook whole crab before freezing, and never thaw and then refreeze.

What is the best way to thaw and heat crab legs?

Thaw the legs overnight in the refrigerator for best texture. To cook, steaming is ideal, but if your pot is not large enough, you can also place leg clusters in a roasting pan with about ½ inch water, tent the pan with aluminum foil, and then bake at 350° for 15 minutes.

Types of Crab

Blue: Found all along the East Coast and into the Gulf, this variety's name comes from the color of its shell. Once cooked, however, the shells turn vibrant shades of red and orange.

Soft-shell: Refers to the brief time just after a blue crab molts, during which the entire shell is edible. They're available fresh from spring to early summer, and frozen year-round.

Dungeness: Fished from Alaska and all down the West Coast from late fall until late spring, Dungeness crabs are much larger than blue crabs—one will serve up to two people

King: The largest crab species, it's fished in Alaska and the Bering Sea. It's sold primarily in leg clusters, with shells that are very tough and covered in small, sharp points.

Snow: Thriving in the cold waters of both Pacific and Atlantic oceans, snow crabs are easy to crack and often seen as leg clusters at all-you-can-eat seafood buffets.

Stone: This South Florida specialty is harvested from October to May for the claws only—fishermen snap off a claw and toss the crab back into the water to regenerate a new one.

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