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Picking order

Go to just about any crab house in Baltimore and you'll likely find place mats that feature illustrated directions telling you how to pick a blue crab. While these paper-based crash courses can indeed be useful, they all show the same six steps. That's akin to illustrating the fundamentals of a major religion on the back of a cocktail napkin. You have to leave out so much that it's hardly worth the effort.

Indeed, for some, picking blue crabs throughout the summer months is a major religion, with places like Obrycki's Crab House at the Inner Harbor or Cantler's Riverside Inn of Annapolis serving as houses of worship. Blue crab devotees are not generally fans of orthodoxy, though. Debate continues as to what parts of the crab should be picked (the art of removing the meat, not selecting an individual crab), in what order they should be picked and how, exactly, the picking should be performed. Herein, we'll get you started with the basics, and also cover the more esoteric aspects of dismantling the Chesapeake's number-one delicacy.

To aid the discussion, we've enlisted the expert counsel of Whitey Schmidt, a resident of Crisfield, Md., the undisputed Blue Crab Capital of the World. He has written eight books about Chesapeake-style dining, including the "Official Crab Eater's Guide" and his newest release, "The Chesapeake Bay Crabbiest Cookbook," and is known for his unique ability to pick crabs while driving down the dusty back roads of bay country.


How to pick crabs: A step-by-step visual guide. (SunSpot photos by Vince Lupo)

The first step in picking a crab, Schmidt says, is to snap all the legs off. The claws can then be cracked open to expose the yummy morsels inside. According to Schmidt, the key to successful claw cracking involves positioning the claw on the table with the fixed side (the pincher of the claw that doesn't move) facing up. Using a mallet, tap a knife gently into the fixed "finger" just past the point where it connects to the main part of the claw. Once it cracks, pull the fixed part down and out. If you've done it right, you'll now be holding a miniature crab-sickle (made up of the broken-off pincher and the claw meat, which should come out in a chunk at the end of the claw).

Schmidt says you shouldn't necessarily discard the other part of the claw. "You can save the claw and use it to pick the entire crab from here. No more mallets, no nothing. While I always like to use my Crisfield-made Carvel Hall picking knife, it's not absolutely necessary. The claw will do just fine." Schmidt notes that it's important to be gentle when cracking the claws. More tapping, less smashing. A heavy hammer suggests an ill-advised picker.

Hardcore alert: Each of the other legs can be snapped in half at the midpoint of their largest segments and squeezed to expose their sweet contents. It may seem silly to bother over such small amounts of meat, but wise crab pickers are a patient lot.

The next step is turning the crab on its back to remove the "apron" -- the little tab at the shell's base. You can get under the tab using a knife or a claw. Then it's time for the Wes Craven movie. Using both thumbs, insert them partially into the crack where the apron was removed and gently pull the two shells apart. Using a knife or a claw, scrape away the guts in the middle, then do the same to the feathery gills (lungs) -- or "devil" -- covering the backfin segments. Turn the crab over and cut the two segments apart, or just break them in two.

Hardcore alert: You'll probably notice a lot of yellow stuff in and around the cavity between the backfin chambers. Some people call that "crab mustard," but it's actually crab fat. It is quite strong -- similar to sea urchin sushi -- but some find it richly delicious.

Each segment can be cut in half to reveal two compartments: the backfin chamber (from where the backfin leg of the crab was earlier snapped) and the forward chamber. The backfin chamber contains the most succulent, shell-free lump of meat in the crab -- the "jumbo lump" -- of which the finest crab cakes are made. The forward chamber is a bit trickier to pick, with several shell walls between sub-segments. Again, patience is a virtue.

"I take that section and dunk it in vinegar topped with crab seasoning," says Schmidt. "Then, later, you go back to it and the shell walls are softened and the crab is sort of pickled. Delicious."

And with that, there's nothing left to do but move on to the next crustacean.

Happy picking!

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun

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