The care and handling of crab cakes

John Shields, Chesapeake culinary expert, is the featured guest on the latest episode of the Roughly Speaking podcast. Here is John's essay on the "care and handling of crab cakes," excerpted from, "The 25th Anniversary Edition of Chesapeake Bay Cooking," (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Paris may have its foie gras, New Orleans its gumbo, and Spain its paella, but the folks living along the shores and far-reaching tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay have their own signature dish: the crab cake. No dish is more closely associated with the Chesapeake and the blue crab than the mighty crab cake. 

When asked to describe their aquatic culinary prize, locals are hard-pressed to come up with a concise description. “Well, hon, it ain’t a confection, and you don’t normally bake them, and sure ain’t a dee-sert . . . naa . . . it’s not exactly made in a cake pan either . . . well . . . oh hell, it’s more like a ball of crab all spiced up and fried.” 

Now the crab cake may well be a unifying source of fierce regional pride, but its many recipes produce more squabbling, feuding, and heated family debates than either the local ball club or politics. Tucked away in each family’s archives is The Crab Cake Recipe. It is the only one; it is the best; and all the others are wrong. Period. I’ve witnessed barroom brawls over which restaurant or tavern serves the best crab cake. Research on the ubiquitous cake provides tremendous pleasure for the stomach, but is, all in all, a dangerous business. 

The Chesapeake crab cake has been a staple of the local diet dating back to at least the sixteenth century. Crab cakes were made by local Indian women who mixed the crabmeat with herbs, vegetables, and cornmeal, forming them into small cakes that were fried in sizzling hot bear fat. They were called “cakes of crab.” The preparation technique has changed only slightly over the centuries, with the exception that bear fat is not used for frying these days. 

What remains true of Bay crab cakes today is that different regions of the Chesapeake have their own style of cakes. On the Eastern Shore folks prefer their crab cakes prepared simply so that the flavor of the crab is allowed to shine through. This happens by moistening the crab just slightly with lemon butter and adding virtually no filler, or what locals sometimes refer to as “sawdust.”

Since there is little binding to hold the cakes together they must be broiled and handled with great care. The end result for a crab purist is sheer bliss: an absolutely pure, unadulterated crab cake. Folks from other parts of the Bay, particularly near the big cities, scoff at this notion and find these cakes bland. They prefer the style of cake that is flavored by a spicy, mayonnaise-enriched batter with a bread or cracker binding. The cake is then either fried or broiled. A third version of a crab cake, which is common in the southern parts of the Bay, is made by using a lightly seasoned cream sauce to hold the crabmeat together. The cakes are then chilled to firm them up and later lightly coated in bread crumbs and lightly fried. There are crab cake recipes for a full spectrum of tastes, yet people continue to experiment and discover even more. 

Now, what’s all the fuss about? They’re just little balls of crab all mushed together, right? Wrong. Here’s a guide to the structural makeup of a crab cake. 

Choosing Crabmeat for Crab Cakes: This is like choosing a pet. Should it have a fancy pedigree or be a mixed breed? This all depends on your tastes and, in some cases, your wallet. The crab cake dishes in this book list the crabmeat grade the recipe’s originator believes works best, but feel free to substitute any type of crabmeat. 

 Jumbo Lump Crabmeat is what purists generally insist on and is the very best that money can buy. Crab cakes made with all jumbo lump are best sautéed or broiled rather than deep-fried. These big, beautiful lumps, with absolutely no shell or cartilage, come from the backfin on either side of the crab. In the old days of the crab business this type of crabmeat was aptly known as “backfin.”  

Lump Crabmeat is a bit of a misnomer and is actually a blend of one-third jumbo lump and two-thirds flake (smaller pieces of crab from the chambers of the body). This type of crabmeat makes a beautiful cake of large, delectable lumps of crab combined with flavorful body meat. Just a touch of binding holds the lump cake together nicely. This meat is perfect for any style crab cake you may wish to prepare. 

Backfin Crabmeat is all flake from the center body cavity of the crab. While it does not make a particularly nice crab cake on its own, it works quite well when mixed with jumbo lump or lump. Higher in shell content than jumbo lump and lump, this type requires careful picking over to remove small bits of cartilage. It’s a great way to bring the price of the crab cake down and still produce a high-quality crab cake and make the family proud. 

Claw Meat provides dark, sweet meat and a less expensive crab cake. These cakes, while not regarded as top of the line, are what are served in many coffee shops and neighborhood taverns, as well as at local fairs and carnivals. They are quite tasty and economical for large gatherings and parties. Crab cakes made with claw are generally fried and have a wonderful crispy outside with a delightful flavor from the sweet meat. Claw meat tends to have a higher moisture content, which requires a tad more binding to hold the cakes together.  Most locals use claw meat in their vegetable crab soups as well.  

Mixed Cakes are made from a blend of two or more types of crabmeat. My favorite mix is half jumbo lump and half jumbo, but actually, any combination will work. Try your own formulas to find what you like best. 

Bindings: These are the ingredients used to hold together and season the crab cakes. The wet ingredients are mixed with various seasonings, tossed with the crabmeat, and held together with breading. The principle is to try to use the least amount of breading possible to get the cakes to hold together without exerting pressure to compact them. Some traditional binding ingredients are eggs, mayonnaise, cream, cream sauces, seasonings, bread crumbs, cracker crumbs, and bread soaked in milk. 

Seasonings: The local seasoning concoctions—quantities, ratios, secret mixing methods—can enhance or mask the crab, and may or may not bring tears to the eyes. The following seasonings are the ones most commonly used in crab cakes, as well as in many other typical Chesapeake blue crab dishes. 

Lemon Juice means juice from freshly squeezed lemons, not the bottled stuff. 

Mustard, including dry and prepared (Dijon is especially popular), is often added to crab cake mixtures. 

Old Bay Seasoning is virtually synonymous with crabs. It is the most recognizable of all the Chesapeake seasonings on the market. Can’t have one without the other—not around the Chesapeake anyway. For years I have been a spice courier, traveling back and forth across the country delivering this concoction to homesick Chesapeake Bay natives. The seasoning is a must for steamed crabs and perfect for crab cakes, crab imperials, and the like. 

Parsley is sometimes chopped and added by the tablespoonful. 

Prepared Horseradish is the white kind found in jars in the grocer’s dairy case. 

Tabasco Sauce or any hot chili sauce is made from Tabasco peppers, or other small spicy chili peppers that have been fermented with vinegar. 

Worcestershire Sauce is of English origin and is made from vinegar, molasses, garlic, anchovies, and other spices. 

Preparing and Forming Crab Cakes: These are the most important steps in making successful crab cakes. 

Picking Pick over the crabmeat carefully for shells. Be gentle: The lumps of crabmeat are the beauty of the crab cake and must not be torn apart while picking. 

Batter Mix the batter (that is, the eggs, mayonnaise, seasonings) in a separate bowl from the one that holds the crabmeat. Sprinkle the breading (that is, the bread crumbs or cracker crumbs) over the crabmeat and then pour the batter on top of the breading. Gently toss or fold the ingredients together with a rubber spatula or your hands, again taking great care not to break up the lumps of crab. 

Forming Form the crab cake mixture into slightly flattened, rounded masses. Some folks recommend gently packing the mixture into an ice cream scoop and then tapping it out. It can, of course, be formed by hand or molded into small, rounded cups. Again, gently is the key word when describing how to form a cake. Do not compact the crab cakes too much. They should be held together loosely. The size of the cake depends on the maker. Most cakes weigh about 2 to 3 ounces each. Recipes that call for 1 pound of crabmeat will yield about six to eight cakes, enough to feed three or four people. Veteran crab cake makers feel it is best to refrigerate the cakes for at least an hour before cooking. This allows the binding to absorb some of the moisture so that the cakes hold together better. 

Frying is the most common cooking method for crab cakes. They can be panfried in hot cooking oil (usually vegetable or peanut oil), about 1/2 inch deep, or deep-fried, with the oil heated to 375°F. 

Sautéing is high-class crab cake cooking, generally using clarified butter, olive oil, or a combination of the two. When sautéing crab cakes it is best to form the cakes just a tad thinner so that they will heat all the way through, which will take about 4 minutes per side. 

Broiling is one of the best ways to cook cakes, because the flavor of the crab does not have to compete with that of the cooking oil. All you need to do is brush the cakes with a little melted butter if desired and place them about 3 inches from the heat in a preheated broiler until nicely browned. Plan on broiling about 8 to 10 minutes per side. 

Sauces: Locals are quite opinionated about what type of sauce, if any, should be served with crab cakes. Lemon wedges are always served with cakes, but here are some other favorites. 

Tartar Sauce is the most traditional accompaniment to crab cakes. 

Mustard Either a prepared, horseradish-laden type or Dijon mustard will do. 

Red Wine Vinegar or Cider Vinegar Just a dab will do. 

Remoulade Sauce is a classic French-inspired sauce that is a nice change with cakes. 

Chesapeake Hollandaise Sauce and other sauces from the hollandaise family are impressive with a fancy crab cake dinner. 

Accompaniments: At restaurants and taverns along the Bay, most crab cakes are served with French fries and mounds of fresh coleslaw. At home everyone has a favorite accompaniment. Try saltines—that’s right, hon, sit a piece of cake on top of the cracker and go for it. Potato salad, sliced ripe tomatoes, fresh steamed asparagus, cucumber salad, corn on the cob, corn bread, and biscuits are other possibilities. 

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