You don't have to be a sun-wizened crab fisherman to know how to choose fresh crabmeat.
Crab Boil with Beer and Old Bay
Credit: Victor Protasio; Prop Styling: Claire Spollen; Food Styling: Torie Cox

An invitation to a crab boil on the beach is a sure sign that both spring and warm weather have finally arrived. But you don't have to go to the coast to enjoy the season's freshest catch, and you don't have to be a seasoned harvester to know how to purchase fresh crab. Once you learn the difference between jumbo lump meat and backfin, blue crab and soft shell, you will be ready to host your own crab feast.

How, Where, and When To Buy

Fresh crab is available year round but, because they migrate into deeper waters during colder weather, you can purchase the freshest catch from March through November, when fishermen don't travel so far out. Look for fresh crabmeat at a fish market or a higher-end grocery store, and develop a relationship with your local fishmonger. He can keep you up to date on availability and pricing of fresh crab. You can also order fresh crab or frozen, unpasteurized crabmeat from reputable online sources and have it shipped directly to you. Crab is not a farmed seafood, so you should expect fluctuations in cost and availability.

A Word About Canned

Canned crabmeat has most likely been pasteurized to kill bacteria and increase shelf life. However, pasteurization also kills the flavor, texture, and aroma of this otherwise wonderful protein. When possible, choose fresh.

Choose the Right Grade

As with other animals, meat from different areas of the crab's body has slightly different tastes. "Jumbo lump," prized for its delicate nature, sweet taste, and satisfying size, comes from the two muscles of a crab's swimming fins and is the perfect size for chilled seafood cocktails and crab salads. "Lump" meat is made of slightly smaller white pieces and is good for pasta dishes, crab pies, and crab cakes. "Backfin" indicates a mix of broken lump and small pieces of meat from the body of the crab; use it in stuffings, dips, or soups. "Special" grade meat comes from the crab's body and is usually the sweetest. Dark brown claw meat comes from the legs and claws; it has a stronger flavor and is ideal for sauces and dips.

Store Smart

Fresh crabmeat (and pasteurized crabmeat that has already been opened) should be kept in the refrigerator and used within two to three days. Unopened pasteurized crabmeat can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one month. 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.

Prep Properly

It's important to remove any stray bits of shell. Spread the crabmeat on a baking sheet, and place it under the broiler for 45 seconds. The meat will barely get warm, but the shells will turn bright orange, so you will be able to pick them out easily.

WATCH: How to Make Best-Ever Crab Cakes

Buying Whole Crab?

You can find more than sixty varieties of crab in the waters off the East coast and in the Gulf, but the Blue Crab is, hands down, the most popular choice. The name comes from the bluish color of its shell that, once cooked, turns vibrant shades of red and orange. The meat is soft, sweet and juicy all the way down to the claws. Soft shell crabs are actually blue crabs fished at the beginning of molting season when their shells are regrowing and still soft. Soft-Shell Crabs can be grilled, sautéed, or fried and served in a Crispy Soft-Shell Crab Sandwich. Stone crabs are fished solely for the meat of the reddish-orange, black-tipped right claw, which harvesters snap off from the live catch and then throw the crab back into the water, where it will grow a new appendage.