Food for Thought - Soft Shell Crabs

It was lunchtime, I was hungry, and I needed cash.  On the way to my bank I walked past the local fish store and asked the owner to clean a couple of soft shell crabs for me.  I picked them up on the way home and brought them into the kitchen.  Moments after immersing them into a bowl of milk for plumping, a couple of legs on one of them seemed to move.  I thought to myself, “Oh, that’s interesting.  So it was crimped up and now it’s floating out because of the liquid.  It’s not alive, is it?”  

Then those little legs moved back to where they had been.  Back and forth a couple of times.  

In an instant I was back in my Suffolk Street apartment ― summer of 1990 ― where I had thrown my first of several biennial crab feasts.  That year, we went through two bushels of crabs in one night.  The morning after, I discovered a single live crab on the floor outside the kitchen and for one moment I wondered what to do.  Should I should cook it?  (“No,” said my roommate Chris, who ― though hung over ― had no trouble channeling a voice of reason.)  Should we set it free in the East River? (Humane as this sounded, we concluded it could not survive in the East River.)  Should we throw it out in the garbage?  That’s what we did.  (To this day I lament its loss because it was, alas, a crab gone to waste.)

Yesterday, with the pressure of an unexpected live crab again upon me,  I ran to get my video camera.  “If this is the death of a crab,” I thought to myself, “I might as well document it.”  

But when I returned to the kitchen only seconds later the crab was kaput.  I touched its leg: no movement.  

It shouldn’t have survived its eyes getting cut off and whatever else happens when one asks a fishmonger to clean a crab.  But for whatever reason the powers above had granted this creature a few added minutes of useless reprieve. One could say the final cause of death was DROWNED BY MILK.  (I hope it felt no pain but I don’t want to know ― I like crabs too much.)

I waited 25 minutes for the crabs to plump, and then I sautéed them in olive oil with salt and pepper. 

To sauté soft shell crabs, start with the top side down and cook 3-4 minutes per side over medium heat.  This way they can develop a good crunch and bright red sheen.  (Roll over top photo for a frying pan view of the topsides.) I usually dredge soft shells in flour and cook them in butter, but yesterday I followed the advice from Mark Bittman's recent article and made them sans flour (I used olive oil instead of butter).  

(Bittman's article offers a range of cooking options but does not suggest a milk bath.  Read it here.)

For my lunch, I sandwiched the two crabs in a twelve-inch segment of day-old toasted baguette along with Trader Joe’s “Aioli Garlic Mustard Sauce,” chopped cilantro and scallion from the fridge, and a squeeze of lemon.  Soft shell crabs work with any flavors.  Use the foods you have.  That said, my favorite soft shell crab sandwich has slices of late-summer tomato and sweet onion, lemon juice, and a thin spread of tartar sauce. 


Many fish stores and markets sell soft shell crabs.  I went to Carroll Gardens Fish Market, in Brooklyn, NY.  The price can vary, but in early May 2012, I paid $6.66 for two crabs (based on three for $10).  

Carroll Gardens Fish Market is open Monday - Friday 9 am - 7:30 pm; Saturday 9 am - 12 pm; closed Sunday. Map Carroll Gardens Fish Market.