Softshell crabs: Local, plentiful and ready for eating

It is that time of year again. Softshell crabs are here! They are local, fat and juicy – and they are plentiful!

For those of you who are not quite sure what a softshell crab is, let me explain. The softshell crab is the blue crab in its molted stage. This means the crab is shedding its hard shell as it grows, and when it sheds the shell, the new shell underneath is soft and totally edible.

The crab takes one to three hours to shed its shell and, after it does, crab harvesters have to move the crab out of the water or the new shell starts to harden right away. The crabs are usually caught during what is called the “peeler stage” and put in shedding tanks.

The crabbers know when the crab will shed by the color of the edge of the paddle-like back fin. When the edge is white, it will be at least a week before it sheds. It then turns pink, and then red, which means it will shed right away.

They must be watched closely and checked on every four hours. As they shed, they are removed and placed in boxes with a layer of ice and either newspaper or straw on top, to keep them moist.

Blue crabs shed from late spring to early fall. During their three-year lifetime – assuming they’re not caught and eaten beforehand – they will shed about 20 times. They grow about a third of their size each time they shed.

Softshell crabs are easy to clean. The best way to eat them is to buy them live and either have the fish market clean them for you or show you how to clean them so you can do that right before you cook them. They can be bought live, live and cleaned, or frozen. Of course, the live ones are the best!

You can tell the difference between a fresh live softshell and a frozen one. It just isn’t as tasty once it is frozen. That is why we never serve frozen softshell crabs. Once they are cleaned or frozen, they lose a lot of their juices and aren’t as plump as they should be.

To clean a live crab (don’t worry, it can’t hurt you with its claws) you take a pair of scissors and snip across the front of the crab and remove the eyes and face. The next thing is to remove the apron on the bottom of the crab. Just flip it up and snip across it with the scissors and remove. Then take the crab and flip one side of the top shell up and cut off the lungs – “devil fingers,” some call them – and do this on both sides.

The softshell crab is now ready to cook and the entire crab is now edible. If it is too difficult for you to do this, then ask to have them cleaned at the market when you buy them.

If you buy them fresh and are going to clean them yourselves, do not put them in a plastic bag and close it up. It is best to put them on a tray and refrigerate the crabs and to keep wet newspapers or wet paper towels on top of them if you aren’t going to use them for many hours. This will keep them moist.

If you will be cleaning them soon, you won’t have to worry about this, but do not store them in a closed bag, since this will kill them and they will release their juices. Some people make that mistake with fresh clams and mussels, too, and when they go to use them, they are all dead and can’t be used.

The most popular way to cook a softshell is to pan-fry it or deep-fry it. Some people like it fried in a little butter or oil, with no flour or breading at all. It can’t get much better than this. But another great way is to lightly dust the crab with flour, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then fry it in some oil on medium heat. Lightly brown the crab on one side and then flip it over and do the other side. Cook it about three to four minutes per side.

Another interesting way to cook softshell crabs is to grill them. Most people don’t know that this is a great way to eat a softshell. Lightly brush the crab with a little olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and grill on a medium hot grill about three to four minutes on each side. It is a very different, but tasty, way to eat softshell crabs.

One of our favorite ways to cook softshells is to make a mix of all-purpose flour, a little corn meal, salt and pepper, and, after dipping the crab in some milk, toss it in the flour mixture and then shake off any excess flour. Place the crab in a cast iron skillet (which holds the heat well and gives a great taste) with some oil and fry until crisp.

Or you can deep fry them. This will give you a very crispy coating with a little texture. We like to serve a rémoulade sauce or a cilantro aioli with our softshell crabs.

Whichever way you choose, you will have a great tasting crab. You just have to find the way that you like best!

Rémoulade Sauce

1 cup mayonnaise

3 T. Dijon mustard

1/2 lemon (juice)

1 T. capers

5 cornichons (chopped) (may substitute 1 dill pickle, chopped)

1 tsp relish

Fresh dill – chopped

Mix all together and serve with softshell crab.

Cilantro Aioli

1 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1/2 juice of a lime (more if small or not juicy)

1/2 clove of garlic (chopped or microplaned)

1/4 chopped fresh jalapeno (seeds removed)

Mix all together and serve with softshell crabs.

Nutritional value of a softshell crab:

18 percent protein

1.1 percent fat

83 calories (per 3.5-ounce crab)

0.32 percent Omega-3

Softshell crabs are sold by their size. They are measured across the top shell from point to point. At Patsy’s Restaurant, we like to serve jumbos and whales.

Mediums – 3.5 to 4 inches

Hotels – 4 to 4.5 inches

Primes – 4.5 to 5 inches

Jumbos – 5 to 5.5 inches

Whales – larger than 5.5 inches

When we first start getting softshells in April or May, we usually are getting them from North Carolina, where the water is warmer. As the waters warm up, we get them from the Eastern Shore.

I have many suppliers that I use, but my favorite one is an Eastern Shore crabber and his wife. They have a big system set up where they go out and catch the crabs, and bring them to their shedding tables, which have running water going through them. They have to watch them 24 hours a day and check on them every four hours. It’s a tough job, and they do this all summer long.

I have to drive about 45 minutes to meet them to pick up my supply of crabs. But it’s all worth it, because they have the best, fattest, freshest crabs of any of my suppliers. There isn’t a middleman to go through. I get these the day they shed and right from the crabber who catches them. It’s an amazing process.

A lot of people are afraid to try softshell crabs. They think it is strange to eat the whole thing, but I can assure you that if you like any crab, you will love softshell crabs. I tell people who are reluctant to try t hem that it is best done in a sandwich the first time they try it. That way they don’t have to look at the legs (if that bothers them).

I tell them to just think of the legs as french fries. This usually takes care of their fear of eating a whole crab. Once they get over that, they are hooked. There is nothing like a big jumbo softshell crab!

So – they are here! They are big! They are fat and juicy! Come and get ’em!

Patsy Dill Rankin is the executive chef at Patsy’s Restaurant in Bethany Beach.