It's Dungeness crab season in California! I've been buying these yummy critters for $2.99 per pound at Sun Fat Seafood. Great prices on cheap crab are being found all over San Francisco at places like Manila Oriental Market, Chinatown, and Clement Street. If you've felt intimidated about cooking and cleaning your own Dungeness, don't. I'll talk you through it here.
First, always select Dungeness that are feisty and active. They should come out of the tank fighting. Never buy crabs that come out of the tank with no fight in them. Sniff them. They should smell clean, like the ocean. If you detect any ammonia odor, do not buy. Cook the crabs the day you buy them, preferably within a few hours of purchase. They will not last long outside of the saltwater tank, so this is not something you can keep in your refrigerator overnight. When you get home, put the crabs in your refrigerator. This will get them sleepy and sluggish and makes them easier for you to handle them.
I prefer to steam my crabs instead of boiling them, as I feel the meat comes out more tender and flavorful this way and is not so waterlogged from the cooking water. I have a huge cooking pot with a steamer rack that I bought for $39 at the Giant Value store on Mission Street in San Francisco. Many of the el cheapo stores on Mission Street sell these large aluminum cookpots with racks. They are used for steaming tamales, but I've found that they work well for cooking lobster, crab, and other large amounts of shellfish. Amazon.com also sells them, such as this one here.
Calculate your cooking time as 7 minutes per pound. If you're cooking more than one crab, calculate by average crab weight, not total crab weight. It is always better to under cook, because you can then cook a little more, but you cannot undo an overcooked, rubbery crab. Fill your steamer with water up to the rack and bring to a boil. Add your crabs, close the lid, and wait. They will turn bright orange - here's why! Once they are cooked, stop the cooking process by putting them in a waiting ice bath. Once chilled, you can easily handle them. The meat inside should be opaque and white, not translucent. If I'm planning to cook the crab in a stir-fry or roast them, I'll usually under cook them during the steaming, and then crack them, and finish the cooking.
To clean them, follow these steps:
1. Flip the crab over and remove the "apron" and the mouthpieces from the bottom of the apron.
2. Remove the legs and place in a bowl.
3. Stick your finger in the hole where the mouthpieces were and lift the crab body away from the shell (carapace.) Toss the carapace. However, if you're making crab stock, save the carapace and clean out the entrails.
4. The greenish/yellow stuff is the liver. You can eat it if you want. The purple stuff is not edible, toss it. The grayish, pointy-shaped things on either side of the crab body are the gills. Remove them. Remove the two J-shaped parts at the opposite end of the crab's mouth.
5. Rinse off the body to remove any foam or entrails. Add it to the bowl with the legs.
Now you're ready to crack away and eat them with butter, or use the claws, legs, and body in other recipes!
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(Images: Kathryn Hill)