How to Eat Crab: The Easiest Method

published Dec 22, 2022
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Cooked crabs on a platter.
Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

There’s no getting around it: Picking (and eating) freshly cooked crabs takes some effort. But with the elbow grease comes a great reward in the form of a pile of sweet and tender crabmeat just for you.

Whether you’re at a crab boil with friends or just want to indulge at home, here’s how to remove meat from whole crabs. Blue crabs are the standard crab variety, but this method also works for other varieties like peekytoe (aka rock), Jonah, and Dungeness.

What You’ll Need to Pick Meat from a Crab

Specialized seafood equipment is nice but not necessary for cracking crab shells and extracting meat. As I always say, the best tool is the one you’re most comfortable working with. 

  • For cracking tough shells, you can use a crab/lobster cracker, a regular nutcracker, or a meat mallet.
  • For softer shells and crab legs, a pair of kitchen shears can be helpful for snipping away the inedible parts.
  • And for picking out the meat, you can use metal crab/lobster picks, small two-prong appetizer forks, or chopsticks.

You can eat the meat you pull out of the crab as you go, or you can save all the meat and feast after all your crabs have been dispatched. If you want to do the latter, I recommend having two bowls on hand: one for the shells and one for the meat.

It’s also good to have a damp washcloth or paper towels on hand, as this can get messy!

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

How to Break Down and Eat Whole Crab

Separate the parts of the crab.

Pull the large claws and all the legs off the body except for the very back legs with the flat paddle flippers. Each component can be worked with on its own. You can pick apart the pieces in any order you desire — claws, legs, body; body, claws, legs; or separate all the crabs in your basket and do all the claws first. It’s completely up to you! 

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Break down the body.

If your crab has already been cleaned, it’s ready to pick and you don’t have to do anything in advance. But if you’re working with whole crabs, you’ll have to do one extra step. 

Place the crab body on your surface with the white underside facing you, and pull the T-shaped piece of shell called the apron off using the center “tab” part of the piece. This exposes a divot near the base of the crab that you can use to pry off the hard outer top shell. You can use your fingers, a pick, fork, or scissors to do this.

Once the body is exposed, remove the grayish feathery gills and the yellow paste known as “mustard” — it’s actually a filtering organ for the crab, and while it’s edible, it’s not to everyone’s taste.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Pick out the meat from the body.

Break the crab in half. Each half contains segmented chambers, similar to looking at a cross-section of a piece of citrus. And each of those chambers contains meat that you can pick out with a fork, pick, chopsticks, or your fingers.

Finally, pull the back flipper legs off the base of the crab to expose the largest lump crabmeat on the body. Sometimes the crabmeat comes out attached to the legs, and sometimes you need to pick it out on its own.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Crack and pick the claws.

Use a crab cracker, nutcracker, or mallet to crack both segments of the large claw shell. Once you’ve made a large crack in each segment, you can twist to separate them and start peeling off the shell. Use your fingers or a pick to remove the meat.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Remove the meat from the legs.

Depending on the size of your crab, there might not be much meat in the smaller legs, but every bit counts.

Twist each leg apart at the joints to break it down into segments. You can snip the legs open with scissors to remove the meat, or just squeeze the leg segment to extract the meat through the open end.

Wash your hands!

And start all over again with your next crab.