My most vivid childhood memories involve crabs: checking the crab pots tied to my grandparents' pier in Annapolis, picking crabs for hours at a long table in my parents' backyard, listening carefully to my grandfather's instructions about how to capture every single bit of delicious meat out of a crab. And "helping" my father steam crabs at home, in our kitchen.
Steamed crabs are readily available at many Baltimore restaurants and carryout seafood houses: You can buy them already cooked and seasoned, ready to toss on the table and pick. But cooking live crabs at home is a truly Maryland experience.
At my house, the process began with a crab or two scampering around the kitchen floor. My brother and sister and I gave the crab a name (usually something catchy like "Crabby"), but we never got too attached; we knew the little guys on the floor would be in the pot in just a few minutes.
A few beers (two in the pot and one in my dad) and a pile of Old Bay later, we'd settle in at a newspaper-covered table, ready to pick and eat until we were just too tired to continue.
Some nights we fell asleep while our parents and their friends were still in the backyard, picking and talking and laughing. Those are the sounds of summer for a Maryland kid.
Every crab-cooking Marylander has a slightly different approach to steaming crabs; this recipe draws from my family's method, plus the recommendations of Mike Herr, manager of Annapolis Seafood Market in Annapolis, and Clancy Cornwall, a Severna Park resident who crabs for fun.
1 dozen live blue crabs
1-2 cans light beer (Coors Light, Bud Light or Miller Lite)
1/2 cup crab seasoning, or more to taste (Old Bay is the most well-known and my preference, but there are dozens of other brands available)
white vinegar (enough to cover the bottom of the pot when combined with the beer)
Use a large pot with a steamer basket insert; for more crabs, use a turkey fryer with a steamer basket over an outdoor flame.
Pour the beer and vinegar in the bottom of the pot, to a level of about 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Place the steamer basket in the pot. The liquid should not rise above the bottom of the steamer basket; you don't want the bottom layer of crabs to get wet. (If you don't have beer and vinegar, water is an acceptable substitute.)
Using tongs or gloves to protect your hands, place the crabs inside the basket (if using gloves, hold the crabs by their bodies for the best grip). Make sure they are alive before cooking — they should be snapping and trying to get out of the pot.
Cover the pot and place it over a flame or burner turned to high. Cornwall and Herr recommend cooking outside whenever possible.
After the crabs have cooked for about 10 minutes, open the pot and shake the seasoning over the crabs. (My father and Cornwall add the seasoning before cooking, but Herr recommends waiting until the crabs are halfway cooked, saying it may dry out the crabs if it is added too early.) The amount of seasoning depends on taste; those who like spicy foods should make sure the crabs are thoroughly covered.
Total cooking time will range from 15 to 20 minutes; longer for more crabs. The crabs are done when their aprons begin to pop away from the body of the crab. Check the pot after about 15 minutes to avoid overcooking.