I am often asked whether I prefer crab or lobster… and my answer is ‘it depends who is paying’!... but actually I would generally go for a dressed brown crab – if it is bang on season.
There are many types of crab available around the globe and in the UK there is a selection that we could make use of.
The most popular is arguably edible brown crab – often sold as Dressed crab -it is a British seaside favourite and a must have it you are visiting Cromer, or Devon, or Cornwall – anywhere that they are guaranteed to be freshly cooked and ‘hand-picked’. In the summer – they are a big hit in pubs and restaurants, but they are available all around the UK coast and sold live, cooked and dressed in good fishmongers’ country wide.
Male crabs are identified by large claws and the female by a rounder carapace (or body shell) and smaller claws. When cooked, the carapace is a rusty red/brown colour and the edge of the carapace looks like a pie crust that has been crimped.
If you like white meat – found in the claws and purse (under carriage of the crab) you want to ask for a cock or male crab. If your preference is the brown meat, a hen crab is a better bet as female meat is sweeter than the male. The brown meat is the offal and quantity and quality will depend on the season, but generally summer months are good and the crab meat, full in the shell.
The key point is to ask for hand-picked crab meat. There are a number ways of extracting the meat quickly, but done by hand – the white meat should be flaky and sweet and requires nothing extra. Always double check for shards of shell in the meat as biting down on this ruins the enjoyment of tucking into it.
The brown meat is robust in flavour and benefits from additions such as vinegar, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, anchovy essence – and if it is a little wet some fresh bread or panko crumbs to bind it.
Traditionally dressed, the meat will be returned to a clean shell, brown meat down the middle and white meat at either end.. and a garnish of chopped parsley, chopped hard-boiled egg white and sieved cooked yolk. My parents saying that they remember crab garnished in this way, but the pattern was that of the Union Jack… very hard to replicate! All you need to serve is brown bread, butter and some lemon wedges.
Other live and fresh crabs sold in the UK include Spider crab – under-utilised and popular with some chefs. They have little meat in the carapace, but sweet meat in the claws – these require a heavy implement to crack them open. These are found around the UK and for some fishermen are a nuisance as they tear and damage nets very easily.
Little mud and velvet crabs are also very popular with the Oriental market and find their way into Chilli Crab where the meat is left in the shell.
Imported frozen crab is also readily available. Take care when choosing this as you want something that has flavour and isn’t too wet. Canadian Snow Crabs are making regular appearances now on restaurant menu’s and in the fishmongers. This crab has long legs and small chunky claws – with nothing much in the carapace. These are perfect used in Crab Cocktail, toppings for canapés and Hot Potted Crab: served in the shell – meat mixed with butter, seasoning and cream cheese and baked.
King crab imported from both Norway and Alaska is a very special but costly treat. These crabs are an invasive species and are quite a size – often weighting in over 4kg each. Again the carapace of these have little meat, but the long, spindly legs and small claws release the most wonderful, white succulent meat. A claw cracker is required for the shell is tough. One leg is enough per person and they are sold as leg ‘clusters’
And… how about ‘soft shell crab’? We are often asked about this. It is a species of crab predominantly found off the East Coast of the US and is a type of blue swimmer crab that is also known as Maryland Crab. The soft shell occurs when the crab moults its shell, which enables it to grow and happens often when the crab is young, but less as it matures. The crab is harvested at the moulting stage. It is available fresh in the US in late spring and early summer. In the UK it is sold frozen, but is never as good as fresh. It is also worth pointing out that it is illegal to harvest UK indigenous species during the moulting process and in a soft shell state!