This Is What You Need To Know About Lump Crab

You don't need to be a fishmonger to know how to choose fresh crabmeat.

Crab Boil with Beer and Old Bay
Photo: Victor Protasio; Prop Styling: Claire Spollen; Food Styling: Torie Cox

An invitation to a crab boil on the beach is a sure sign that warm weather has 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 a crab feast for your family and friends.

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 (and fisher-women) 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. They can keep you up to date on the availability and pricing of fresh crab. You can also order frozen or fresh crabs and unpasteurized crab meat from reputable online sources and have it shipped directly to you. Seafood farming does not include crabs, so you should expect fluctuations in the cost and availability.

A Word About Canned Crab

Despite being used to kill bacteria and increase shelf life, pasteurization of canned crab meat also kills flavor, texture, and aroma. When possible, choose fresh. Pasteurization may also impact this nutrient-dense food. Canned crab can destroy the protein found in fresh crab.

Choose the Right Grade

As with other animals, meat from different areas of the crab's body tastes slightly different. "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 works well for pasta dishes, crab pies, and crab cakes. "Backfin" indicates a mix of broken lumps and small pieces of meat from the crab's body. Use backfin crab in stuffings, dips, or soups. "Special" grade meat comes from the crab's body and is usually the sweetest.

Crab legs with butter and lemon
LauriPatterson / Getty Images

Store Smart

Fresh crabmeat (and already opened pasteurized crabmeat) should be kept in the refrigerator and used within two to three days. You can store unopened pasteurized crabmeat in the refrigerator for six months.

It's best to freeze crab in the shell or in prepared foods, such as crab cakes or casseroles, for 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 can pick them out easily.

Buying Whole Crab?

You can find many varieties of crab in the waters off the East Coast and 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 down to the claws. Soft shell crabs are 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.

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