What are Crayfish?

A Kaminsky

Whether they know them by the name "crayfish," "crawfish," "crawdad" or even "mud bug," most people have seen the crayfish, and many have eaten them. The crayfish is a respected freshwater crustacean closely related to the lobster, and near and dear to the hearts and palates of Cajun food lovers everywhere.

New potatoes, which are often served with crayfish.
New potatoes, which are often served with crayfish.

About half of the world's 500 crayfish species live in North America, but they are found all over the world. Their short lifespan means they multiply quickly and in great numbers, and so are a self-renewing resource. Crayfish are also food for predator fish such as trout and bass, and are crucial in keeping these species hardy and plentiful.

Crayfish are closely related to the lobster, also prized in Cajun cooking.
Crayfish are closely related to the lobster, also prized in Cajun cooking.

Most crayfish live in quiet streams or backwater, frequently under river stones and logs. They swim backward quickly to escape, although when they "walk," it is slow and leisurely. Like lobsters and crabs, they have pincer claws and a nip from one can be painful. They use their claws both for defense and hunting.

While occasionally wild-caught, most crayfish used for eating are farmed. This enables growers to control what the crayfish eat. Crayfish are scavengers and will eat anything, which can alter their taste. Commercially farmed crayfish have controlled diets and are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so their quality is assured.

Since they are so abundant in places such as south Louisiana, they have become a staple in the Cajun diet. Their mild, sweet taste is perfect for many French-influenced dishes such as etouffee, but they are equally popular boiled and served with corn on the cob and new potatoes. Their flavor is similar to shrimp, but sweeter. Crayfish tails are edible, but a popular Louisiana custom is to "suck the heads." They say this is the best part of the crayfish, since a greater amount of seasoning ends up in the heads.

If preparing crayfish to eat boiled whole, the cook should prepare the crayfish by putting them in a tub of cool water, and stirring occasionally to allow any dead crayfish to float to the top. These should be discarded. After the crayfish have been rinsed, they can be boiled in a pot of seasoned water for about 5 minutes, or until the shells turn bright red. They can be held off the heat in the warm water for up to 10 more minutes to season more. Seasonings for boiled crayfish include lemon, crab boil, onions, garlic, white wine and bay leaves. For other dishes like etouffee, the cook will generally use crawfish tails. Numerous recipes for etouffee can be found on the Internet.

Whether boiled or in another dish, the crayfish is a delicious meat for seafood lovers. It is also a vital part of its ecosystem's food chain.

Crayfish are found in the waters of Louisiana.
Crayfish are found in the waters of Louisiana.

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