What Are Steamed Crabs?

B. Turner

Steamed crabs is a popular seafood dish, particularly along the east coast of the United States. Those who wish to try this dish can visit a crab house or restaurant that specializes in this type of food, or head out on the water and catch their own crabs. Some stores also sell steamed crabs by the dozen for customers to enjoy at picnics or backyard barbecues. These hard-shelled crustaceans are often cooked in spicy seasonings, which complement the sweet flavor of the crab meat. Picking the meat from steamed crabs is time consuming but can be a fun event that can last for several hours.

Steamed crabs are boiled whole in specially seasoned water.
Steamed crabs are boiled whole in specially seasoned water.

To make steamed crabs, chefs boil water in a large pot or steamer. Many add vinegar or even beer to the mixture, then season the liquid with some special seafood seasonings. Live crabs are added to the boiling water, then covered to keep the crabs from escaping as they cook. The crabs change color from blue to orange, indicating that they are ready to eat.

Coastal areas in the U.S. typically have an abundance of fresh crab to be steamed and eaten.
Coastal areas in the U.S. typically have an abundance of fresh crab to be steamed and eaten.

Steamed crabs are topped with another generous portion of dry spices before they are served piping hot. Diners may enjoy dipping the crab in a vial of vinegar, or a container of melted butter. A wooden hammer, or crab mallet, is needed to crack the hard shell, and a plastic or metal knife is used to extract the meat.

Most people serve steamed crabs on a protective surface to help control the mess created by the seasonings and crab shells. Tables at crab houses are covered in newspaper or brown craft paper, and diners are given plenty of napkins. A large bowl or bucket is placed on the table to collect shells and scraps.

People who have never eaten steamed crabs often need a bit of coaching to understand how to access the meat. Diners start by pulling off the small legs using a twisting motion. These legs typically contain little meat, and are usually discarded immediately. The larger front claws can also be pulled away from the body and cracked open with the mallet to access the claw meat. This meat is generally of a lesser quality than the meat found inside the body of the crab, and some diners prefer not to eat it.

Next, diners turn the body of the crab over to find the apron, a small triangular section along the "belly' of the crab. By inserting the tip of a knife below the apron, one can remove this apron and separate the body into two halves. The top half of the shell is discarded, along with the gills, intestines, and yellow digestive material, which may be referred to as the mustard. After these items are gone, it's easy to use a knife or the fingers to extract the crab meat.

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