Ingredient Intelligence

3 Types of Crab Legs (and How to Buy Them)

updated Nov 10, 2022
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Credit: Patty Catalano

Ordering crab legs at a restaurant can be pricey, but cooking them at home is a fun and more affordable way to enjoy the shellfish. It all starts by making your selection at the seafood counter, thanks to this handy guide to the different types of crab legs.

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The first step is heading to the seafood department. Often the friendly fishmongers at well-stocked grocers are able to answer questions about sustainability and freshness. While they may also offer advice on what type of crab is best for your recipe and how much to purchase, it’s helpful to know a bit about the types of crab legs you may encounter before you step up to the counter.

Credit: Patty Catalano
Left to right: Snow crab, Dungeness crab, King crab

Dungeness Crabs

Dungeness crab get its name from the area in Washington state where the crustaceans were first commercially fished. Cooks on the West Coast may be able to find fresh Dungeness crabs when they are in season from fall to winter, but they are also available frozen year-round. Dungeness crab legs are sold by the cluster, generally four to five legs each. The meat is sweet, tender, and slightly nutty, and can be served dipped in butter or added to recipes from risotto to crab cakes.

King Crabs

If you want to make a statement by serving crab legs, there’s nothing like king crab legs. These massive crabs are caught in the cold waters of the Pacific and Arctic oceans. King crab legs are often sold by the individual appendage, rather than in multi-leg clusters, because of their size. The crabs’ shells are thick and spiny, so either a seafood cracker or a pair of sturdy kitchen shears is essential to extract the meat inside. The long legs of king crab hold large pieces of sweet, lobster-like meat. Plan to serve one to two king crab legs per person.

Snow Crabs

Snow crab shells are easy to crack with your hands or seafood crackers to extract the sweet and briny meat. The meat is delicate and ideal for recipes that call for shredded pieces of crab. Unfortunately, in October 2022, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the cancellation of this year’s winter snow crab season. The snow crab population is below the level required for the fishery, with experts mainly pointing to warming ocean waters. Frozen snow crabs from the previous season may still be available in stores, although quantities will likely be low and prices high.

Credit: Patty Catalano
Clockwise from top: King crab, Snow crab, Dungeness crab

How to Buy Crab Legs

Crabs are processed soon after being caught to preserve the delicate meat at its peak and to allow them to be stored and shipped. That’s why you are more likely to see frozen and cooked crab legs rather than fresh. Grocers may sell the crab legs still frozen or they may be thawed for display in the seafood case. For the freshest flavor, ask for frozen crab legs and thaw them yourself at home. To thaw crab legs, arrange the legs on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the refrigerator for about eight hours or overnight. Once crab legs have thawed, cook according to our handy crab leg cooking guide.