Buying crabs

Crabs are priced by the crab, by the dozen or by the half or full bushel (a bushel includes between six to seven dozen large crabs). (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun photo / May 21, 2013)

Buying crabs is a fairly straightforward proposition — if you know what you want. Below are a few tips about what to expect and what to look for when buying crabs:

Specify gender: Crab gender is easy to distinguish: male crabs (or "jimmies") have a narrow, T-shaped "apron" on the back of their shell, while female crabs ("sooks") have a wide apron. In addition, live females have red-tipped claws, while male claws are blue. While both can be eaten, limits have been set this year on the number of females crabbers can catch. While some crab-lovers say female meat tastes sweeter, many shy away from eating females to encourage reproduction.

Find your size: Crabs range in size from small (4 1/2 to 5 inches across) to jumbo or colossal (larger than 6 inches). Some crab sellers may list their crabs as No. 1, 2 and 3. No. 1 crabs are the largest, heaviest males, No. 2s are smaller males and No. 3s are the smallest crabs, including females.

Estimate quantity: Crabs are priced by the crab, by the dozen or by the half or full bushel (a bushel includes between six to seven dozen large crabs). Bruce Whalen, manager of Cantler's Riverside Inn in Annapolis, says that most people visiting the restaurant eat about four or five crabs in one sitting (though that number could be much higher for experienced crab-lovers).

Legal and living: When buying crabs to steam at home, Annapolis Seafood Market manager Mike Herr recommends making sure the crabs are of legal size (at least 5 inches across for males; there is no size limit for mature females) and alive. "It's pretty simple," he says. "They're good as long as they're alive and trying to bite you."

Finding the heavy crabs: Tony Conrad, of Conrad's Crabs in Parkville, adds that shoppers can make sure they're buying the best fresh crabs by squeezing the back of the shell. "If you can't crack it with your thumb, it'll be heavy and full of mustard," he advises (mustard is the colloquial term for tomalley, a fatty substance that looks and feels like regular mustard). "But if the top of the shell is brittle, that's a 'whitey.' " (A whitey is a crab that has just grown its hard shell; it will be less meaty than a crab with a harder shell.)

Know your audience: Whether you're buying live or steamed crabs, Conrad also recommends knowing your crab-pickers. "Find a crab that fits your needs," he says. "If you have a bunch of kids sitting down, I wouldn't waste my money on jumbo crabs. Get something fun and easy for kids to pick."