Steaming and boiling face off in annual crab cook-off

Along most of America's coastline, crustaceans get boiled. Sometimes in plain old Yankee water. Sometimes in spicy Cajun stock. Whatever the liquid, there's a whole pot of it bubbling away. Whatever the seafood — Maine lobster, Carolina blue crab, Louisiana crawfish — it takes the plunge.

And that's just wrong.

Ask anyone in Maryland, where there's just one way to cook a crab. That way is steaming.

"I think we're pretty much the main steamers as far as I know," said John Shields, chef-owner of Gertrude's restaurant and author of several books on coastal cooking, including "The Chesapeake Bay Crab Cookbook." "Florida, the Carolinas, the Gulf, they all boil. … [New England], they're big on the boiling, too. We've evolved culinary, and some of them are just left in the Dark Ages."

Which hasn't stopped the occasional boil, baby, boil chauvinist from inflicting unenlightened crab cookery on the Boil-Free State.

Mississippian Nick Thomas did just that Saturday in Riva in Anne Arundel County, at an annual party that puts steamed and boiled crabs to a festive taste test. The gathering, known as "War by the Shore," grew out of some office chit-chat about cooking crabs.

Thomas, from Ocean Springs, Miss., told co-worker Jay Shiba he boils his.

"I said, 'You do what?'" Shiba, a Marylander and steamer, replied. "'Why would you boil a crab?'"

They decided to have a cook-off, where friends could compare crabs and vote for their favorite. Thomas and Shiba have kept the party and rivalry going for five years now. No matter that they no longer work together, nor live in the same state. (The party location alternates each year between Riva and Ocean Springs.) About 100 friends from around the country come every year to taste, vote — and settle nothing.

"When it's time to vote, nobody can remember what they ate, nor are they capable of voting," go the words to the party's theme song, penned by James Anton of Fairhope, Ala., who used to work with Thomas and Shiba and made the trip to Riva for this year's party.

As an electoral exercise, the party has been an unmitigated flop. Hanging chads. Dead voters. Relatives lurking near the ballot box. Jimmy Carter himself couldn't straighten it out. So they've quit counting ballots, which allows both sides to declare victory. And concentrate on eating. Which they did quite contentedly at paper-covered tables in Shiba's leafy backyard.

Crab-lovers seem to cling to their favorite cooking method like barnacles to a rock. This is true for professional crab cookers as well as civilian eaters.

Jack Brooks, a partner in J.M. Clayton Company Seafood, considered switching from steaming to boiling at the Cambridge crab processing plant started by his great-grandfather in 1890. Until he tasted the results.

"It left a lot of moisture in the crabs, which we found undesirable," he said. "You don't want dry meat, but you only want moist meat, not wet meat. Those folks from Mississippi and the Gulf, they certainly know their food as well. It's all about personal preference. Being a Marylander and eating crabs in Maryland, I know ours are better. I'm not biased at all."

Rob Cernak, co-owner of Obrycki's in Baltimore, is right there with Brooks in the pro-steam camp.

"I've had boiled crabs before, and I'm not a fan," Cernak said. "We tried them ourselves over somebody I knew's house and never wanted to do it again."

Cernak thinks boiled crabs are not only too wet, but too evenly seasoned, which might not sound like a problem, but Cernak will tell you it is. With a boiled crab, the seasoning goes into the water and flavors the meat through and through. With a steamed crab, the seasoning sticks to the shell, then to fingers and meat as it gets picked and eaten.

"You get a little bit of spiciness and then you get the sweetness of the crab behind it," he said. "The crab boil just kind of gives it, I don't know, let's say a homogenous kind of flavor."

On the other side of the steam-boil divide is David Fouché, chef de cuisine at Deanie's Seafood in New Orleans' French Quarter. The restaurant serves seafood "just about every way you can think of," Fouché said. "Fried, broiled, sauteed, blackened, pan seared, oven roasted. You name it."

Except steamed.

"When you steam an animal, it loses flavor," said Fouché, who boils his crabs in a brine with pepper, granulated garlic and celery, Worcestershire sauce and lemon. "It really turns out flat, boring. That really doesn't have any appeal to me."

He also thinks steaming makes the meat dry and rubbery because the method is hotter.

"Water boils at 212," he said. "When you're steaming, it's way hotter. … It can get as hot as 600 degrees."

Pat Taranto, owner of Taranto's Boiler restaurant in Ocean Springs, Miss., is also sure boiling is the way to go.

"We boil everything down here, our shrimp, crabs, everything, we boil," Taranto said. "Personally, to me, it's a more flavorful, juicier product. You've got flavor [with steaming], but most of it's on it, not in it. When you boil something, you soak it and it absorbs it."

While both sides of the culinary debate are clearly dug in, here are unconfirmed reports of crab-house conversions.

"We have a lot of people, because of the casinos [in nearby Biloxi, Miss.], who come in and want it steamed, and we don't do it," Taranto said. "We put them on boiled and they love it."

Yet Shields, the Maryland cookbook author and chef, claims he won diners over with steam years ago when he lived and cooked on the West Coast.

"We had Dungeness crab, and you boil Dungeness crab, and everybody gets all excited for Dungeness crab time," Shields said. "I started doing steamed Dungeness with kind of like an Old Bay, and they couldn't believe the difference. They went crazy."

Thomas, the cook-off party's boiler, described his method as dreamy way for any crab to give up the ghost.

"We prepare the most beautiful spice bath those crabs will ever be laid to rest in," said Thomas, a 40-year-old business manager for a Mississippi shipbuilder. "The crabs are basically backstroking in there while they're going to — while they're waiting to be consumed."

He claims that comes through in his final product.

"When I'm up here, I'm definitely in enemy territory," Thomas said. "It's a pro steamed crowd — until they taste boiled."

His rival crab cooker begs to differ.

"Why would you boil something and make it soggy?" said Shiba, who is 54 and works in aerospace and defense. "He boils vegetables like potatoes and mushrooms up front and ruins people's taste buds before they get the taste of their crabs."

Shiba doubts any Marylanders are won over by boiling.

"They're just telling him — it's good to be polite, I'm sure," Shiba said.

Most people at the party were wary of taking sides, at least outside the confines of a secret ballot.

"I gotta know these people for another couple years," said Anton, the theme song writer.

Kevin O'Neill of Alexandria did let on that he was partial to steamed crabs. He grumbled when the liquid from the boiled crab he was picking ran off the table and onto him.

"It went right down my leg and into my shoe," he said. "There's moisture, but there's too much moisture."

When pressed, John Denkinger admitted that he preferred the boiled, even though he's a college buddy of the steamer.

But what does he know? Denkinger, 54, had never had fresh crab before Saturday. He's from Nebraska.

"We get crab that comes in a can," he said. "You buy it like tuna in a little can. They mix it with mayonnaise and put it on a cracker."

As everyone at the party could agree: That's just wrong.

Shiba's steamed crabs

Take a big pot (Shiba uses one made for frying turkeys) and fill with about an inch of liquid, equal parts water and beer. Insert a rack that will hold the crabs above the water line. Add a layer of crabs, sprinkle with Old Bay and kosher salt. Repeat until the pot is filled with crabs. Turn on the heat and steam for about half an hour.

Or take the easy way out, as Shiba did this year, and buy them already steamed. He got his from Frank's Seafood in Jessup.

Nick Thomas' boiled crabs


2 bushels of crabs


3 8-ounce bottles of liquid crab boil

9 pounds Zatarain's Crab Boil (labeled "Complete Nothing to Add")

4 Zatarain's Crab Boil in a Bag

Vinegar and beer

18 lemons, cut in half

18 oranges cut in half

40 bay leaves


50 pounds small potatoes, cut in half

25 cloves of garlic

25 pounds smoked sausage

100 ears of fresh corn, shucked and snapped in half

25 cups fresh button mushrooms

10 onions, cut in half

Rinse the crabs off well. Light the fire under the water and add about three-quarters of the seasonings to the water, squeezing the lemons and oranges. Bring the water to a boil. Let simmer for 15 to 30 minutes. The longer the better.

Add potatoes, garlic and sausage and boil for about 10 minutes. Add corn, mushrooms and onions and cook another 10 minutes.

Remove vegetables and re-season the water with remaining seasonings.

Return water to a boil, dump in crabs and stir. Once water returns to a boil, boil for ten minutes and shut the fire off.

Add two 2-liter jugs of ice (don't break them apart) and move them around in the water. Spray the outside of the pot with a light mist from the garden hose a few times every few minutes. The objective is to cool the water down so the crabs stop cooking and start soaking up the seasoning. Stir every few minutes until the crabs sink a little. About 15 minutes after the fire is turned off, start tasting. If the crabs are not to your liking, let them continue to soak, tasting every five minutes. When they're the way you like them, set them to drain and remove them from the pot. Let them air cool for several minutes.

Serve with dip made by combining:

1 cup mayonnaise

1 cup ketchup

2 tablespoons mustard (Creole)

1/2 teaspoon salt

pinch black pepper

pinch cayenne pepper

1/8 teaspoon liquid crab boil

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