Soft-shell crab is a regional favorite this time of year, but those tasty, Crispy Soft-Shell Crab Sandwiches don’t just magically appear in the kitchen of your favorite beachside diner. Just like succulent grilled steaks and hot fried chicken, that protein comes from a living creature, and someone has to do the deed of preparing it for our consumption. A soft-shell crab is, in fact, a blue crab that has lost its hard shell. In order for a crustacean to grow, it must periodically shed (molt) its old exoskeleton, or shell. A mature crab will generally molt about once a month, growing larger with each molt. The term “soft-shell” refers to the brief time after a blue crab molts and before the new, hardened shell has formed; the entire shell is edible during this period.
Whenever possible, soft-shell crabs should be purchased alive so they are at their freshest. Store live soft-shells uncovered in the fridge on ice for no more than one day. You can also buy frozen soft-shell crabs but, more than likely, you will still have to clean them and they will not be as fresh and sturdy as a live one. Your local fishmonger may clean soft-shell crabs for you, which is a good reason to develop a friendly relationship with him. However, if you are up to the task, follow these three steps:
Quickly rinse crabs under cold running water to remove any dirt or debris clinging to the crabs. Using a sharp pair of kitchen shears, snip off the front of the crab about ½ inch behind the mouth and the eyes. Squeeze out and discard the gooey matter where the cut was made.
Carefully raise the top shell on one side of the crab. Use the shears to cut away (and discard) the feathery looking gills; repeat on the right side.
Lastly, turn the crab over to expose its underside. Look for the flap known as the apron. On male crabs, it will be long and thin; on females it will be wider. Lift the apron with your fingers or the shears, pull it off the body, and discard.
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Rinse the crab once again, pat dry, and cook or store immediately. Wrap cleaned crabs in plastic wrap and keep in the coldest part of the refrigerator for up to two days.