Icky or delicious? Maryland's complicated relationship with soft-shell crabs

Third in a three-part series.

There's no denying that soft-shell crabs are a little weird.


They're slimy and slippery when raw. Cooked in a sandwich, their spindly legs and grabby claws poke out from the slices of bread and make some people wonder, "Do you seriously think I'm going to eat that?"

And although even some lifelong crab-loving Marylanders believe soft-shell crabs to be a different species than the well-known blue crab, they are in fact the same creature. Soft crabs are simply blue crabs that have recently molted, shedding their hard shells to reveal a paper-thin exoskeleton that hardens within hours.


Cooked during that brief and precious time, soft crabs are eaten whole (minus the lungs and eyes) and are prized by some for their tender texture and sweet meat.

"They only come for six to eight weeks out of the year," says Chris Becker, the executive chef of Bagby Restaurant Group, which includes the popular Harbor East spots Ten Ten and Fleet Street Kitchen. "And they're delicious!"

And although there was a recent push to make the soft-shell crab the state's official sandwich, even many die-hard Maryland crab fans are not fond of the shell-free variety.

"Of the true hard-crab eaters, only about 50 percent are also soft-crab eaters," says Tony Conrad, owner of Conrad's Crabs in Parkville. "The other half can't grasp the idea or don't know what they are."


Locals who dislike soft shells often admit they have never tried the crabs, using words like "ick" and "gross" to describe the prospect of eating the whole crab.

"The texture grosses me out," says Timonium resident Karen Cirrincione. "Let alone the little legs sticking out of a sandwich! Blech!"

Baltimore resident Jennifer Fordham agrees. "You can't pay me to eat a soft-shell," she says. "But I'll pick and eat cooked hard-shell crabs all day."

But once people get past their psychological blocks, they often find they love the delicacy.

"I didn't try my first soft-shell until 2006," says Kathy Patterson, of Baltimore. "Now I love them. Before, I was afraid of them."

Chef Jason Dyke of J. Paul's in Harborplace encourages his staff and customers to give soft-shells a shot. "You can't say you don't like it if you don't try it," he says with a laugh.

Judy Brunk, an artist, author and sometimes commercial crabber from Cape Charles on Virginia's Eastern Shore, can back that up. Originally from Indiana, she didn't start eating seafood until well after she married her husband, Dave, a native of Anne Arundel County. Her first experience with a soft-shell was a bad one — it wasn't cleaned properly — but she persevered, and now she's a fan.

"It does look like a big bug," she says. "But they're so nice and tender. We'd eat a lot of things if we shut our eyes and tried them."

For those who want to catch or serve soft crabs, it's a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Tommy Sheldon, who crabs the bay from his family's house on Gibson Island, stumbles upon them occasionally.

"I'm fortunate that I'm able to catch them myself from time to time," he said. "If I get lucky and find one in a trap, I cook it up that day."

But that kind of luck is rare; catching a steady stream of soft-shells requires focus, experience and special equipment. That's why local restaurateurs develop close relationships with crabbers who own the devices necessary to gather soft-shells.

"I have really good sources," says Brian McComas, owner of Ryleigh's Oyster in Federal Hill. "We contract our own 'slough boxes' on the water, so we get anywhere from three dozen to 150 a day. We sell them right away; they don't hold."

Catching soft-shells, McComas says, first involves catching "peelers," or crabs that are about to molt. Expert crabbers separate those crabs from the rest of their hauls, placing them in a separate tank — or "slough box" — so they are easy to grab once they shed their shells. The tank's circulating water, he says, helps the crabs slough off their shells.

"You have to constantly watch them because once they [molt], they harden up," says McComas. "As soon as they bust, you want to eat them within a few hours, when they're sticky, tacky and fresh."

Brunk, the crabber from Cape Charles, has spent hours observing crabs during the molting process.

"The soft-shell is an interesting critter," she says. "They help each other out of their shells sometimes, getting behind and under each other to give a little lift. It's fun to watch."

A group of Baltimore restaurants recently wrapped up a weeklong soft-shell "celebration," during which chefs experimented with a variety of soft-shell preparations, from a yuzu-spiked tempura-fried entrée at Ten Ten to a soft-shell-topped eggs Benedict at Miss Shirley's.

Despite the allure of high-end dishes, chefs acknowledge that their soft crabs are often seasoned with simple nostalgia.

"Just pan-fried with a little paprika, mustard powder and flour," says Becker of Ten Ten. "I love my mom's."

McComas agrees.

"My favorite way to eat soft-shells is the traditional way, the way my grandparents gave them to me as a kid," he says. "Sauteed, on white or wheat bread, mayonnaise, salt and pepper, lettuce and tomato. Simple. You don't need to do too much with it."

That straightforward soft-shell crab sandwich has many fans in Maryland, including state Sen. Richard Colburn. This year, Colburn, a Republican from the Eastern Shore, introduced a bill that would have designated the soft-shell crab sandwich the official sandwich of the state of Maryland.

The bill passed the Senate in April but was shelved in the House of Delegates. Still, Colburn remains a supporter of the endeavor, saying it would raise the profile of the soft-shell crab and, in doing so, improve the economic situation of Eastern Shore watermen.

But Colburn's motivations are not just economic; he's also just a fan.

"It's a stellar sandwich. It's unique," he says. "The small legs of a soft-shell crab, once they're fried, they're like potato chips. The big claws are crispy on the outside and moist and meaty on the inside. It's crunchy, moist, meaty, and sometimes a little gloppy. With a glass of sweet tea or a Natty Boh, it's heaven."

Recipe: Maryland soft-shell crabs with creamless corn, oven-roasted tomatoes and sugar snap peas

At Ryleigh's Oyster in Federal Hill, chef Patrick Morrow serves lightly floured, sauteed soft-shells over a creamy — but creamless—- corn mixture studded with sweet roasted tomatoes and bright blanched sugar snap peas.


Makes two servings


For the crabs:

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 soft shell crabs, cleaned

1 cup flour

2 eggs

For the creamless corn:

2 ears local corn on the cob

1 quart corn stock (see note)

1 dash Tabasco

1 dash lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Note: To make corn stock, place four corn cobs, without the kernels, in two quarts of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Let simmer for 45 minutes. Stock will keep in an airtight container, in the refrigerator, for up to one week.

For the oven-roasted tomatoes and sugar snap peas:

1 leek grilled and roughly chopped

1/2 pint cherry tomatoes

1 cup sugar snap peas, blanched and julienned

1 teaspoon olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

For the crabs: Heat one tablespoon vegetable oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. Beat eggs. Dip clean soft crab into beaten eggs, covering completely. Shake off excess.

Dredge crab in flour and place in hot pan. Cook for four to five minutes on each side.

Served stacked over creamless corn, roasted tomatoes and sugar snap peas.

For the creamless corn: Remove kernels from cob and place both into saucepan. Cover with corn stock. Reduce liquid, over medium heat, for 45 minutes. Puree until mixture is thickened.

Add Tabasco, lemon juice and salt and pepper to season.

For the tomatoes and peas: Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Place tomatoes on a cookie sheet and roast for two hours.

Combine all ingredients in a saute pan and warm over medium heat.

Recipe: Tempura soft-shell crab with cucumber- avocado salad, fried shallots and sambal aioli

Chris Becker, executive chef of the Bagby Restaurant Group, serves tempura-fried soft shells at Ten Ten in Fells Point. Offset by a cool cucumber and avocado salad, crispy fried shallots and spicy aioli made with the fresh chili paste sambal, the crabs capture a variety of flavors and textures.

Makes two to four servings

For the crabs:

4 soft shell crabs, cleaned

3 cup rice flour (divided into 1/2 cup and 2 1/2 cup quantities)

5 teaspoons sherry vinegar

2 tablespoons sesame oil

5 teaspoons salt

4 tablespoons cold water

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

4 shallots, sliced thinly

Neutral oil (like vegetable or canola) for deep frying

Salt and pepper to taste

For the avocado-cucumber salad:

1 English cucumber, julienned

2 avocados, diced

1/2 teaspoon minced ginger

2 tablespoons cilantro, picked whole leaf

Lime juice to taste

Canola oil to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

For the sambal aioli:

1 cup aioli or your favorite mayonnaise

1 to 2 tablespoons sambal (fresh chili paste)

1 to 2 teaspoons lime juice

Salt and pepper to taste

For the crabs: Place all wet ingredients and salt in a bowl. Add the 2 1/2 cups of rice flour, baking soda and baking powder and stir gently until incorporated and smooth. Place about four cups of oil in a heavy pot large enough that the oil does not fill the pot more than halfway. Heat oil to 350 degrees and maintain temperature.

Dredge the cleaned crabs in the remaining 1/2 cup of rice flour just to coat, dip the crabs in tempura batter and carefully place in fryer. Fry crabs until crisp and golden in color. Lightly dust shallots in flour and carefully place in oil (still at 350 degrees). Fry to a golden brown.

For the salad: Place cucumber, avocado, cilantro and ginger in a bowl. Dress with the lime juice and oil and season with salt and pepper. Toss gently.

For the aoli: Incorporate all ingredients until well-combined. Place in a ramekin to serve as a dipping sauce.

For assembly: Place salad in the middle of plate. Top with one or two crabs and fried shallots. Serve the aioli on the side as a dipping sauce.

Recipe: Soft-shell crab sandwich

Though restaurants all over the Baltimore area offer creative spins on soft-shell crabs, many chefs say their favorite way to enjoy the seasonal delicacy is as the centerpiece of a simple sandwich. This version, from chef Jason Dyke at J. Paul's, is simple and delicious.

Makes one serving

1 soft-shell crab, cleaned

2 cups beer

2 cups all-purpose flour

Salt and pepper to taste

Old Bay seasoning to taste

Cayenne pepper to taste

Toasted sourdough bread


Tomato, sliced

Onion, sliced

Neutral oil (like vegetable or canola) for deep frying

Heat oil in a deep pot or fryer to 350 degrees. Whisk together beer, flour, salt, pepper, Old Bay and cayenne pepper to create beer batter.

Dip cleaned soft shell in beer batter, covering completely. Place crab in heated oil and fry for two minutes. Crab should be crispy with a golden outer layer.

Drain excess grease and serve open-faced on sourdough bread. Top with lettuce, tomato, onion and condiments of your choice, such as tartar sauce, Old Bay mayonnaise or cocktail sauce.

Crab terms

Blue crab: Any crab from the species Callinectes sapidus, including those with hard or soft shells.

Peeler: A blue crab that is preparing to molt. Signs include the appearance of a new shell under the old, first visible as a fine white line around the old shell, and white wrinkles on the claws.

Soft-shell crab: A blue crab that has recently molted, so named for its soft shell. Within a few hours of molting, the crab's shell begins to harden. Also called "soft crabs."

Tank or float: A water-filled receptacle, with water flow to mimic tides that is used to hold peelers during the molting process.

How to clean a soft-shell crab

Most local shops sell soft shell crabs already cleaned and ready to cook. However, if you need to clean one on your own, follow these three simple steps, shared by Chef Jason Dyke of J. Paul's in Harborplace:

• Using sharp kitchen shears, lift up the crab's apron on both sides and open crab.

• Pull out the lungs.

• Cut the eyes off, starting about 1/4 inch behind the eyes.

To see more coverage of Maryland crabs, visit baltimoresun.com/crabs

Recommended on Baltimore Sun