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Timber 2 Table - Crispy Fried Soft-Shell Crab

This coastal delicacy is easy to make at home when soft-shell crabs are available

Crispy Fried Soft-Shell Crab


30 Min

Prep Time


15 Min

Cook Time


Easy, Medium

Difficulty

Imagine being able to step back in time, to a place where cell service and internet are spotty, at best. Where there is only one community store/restaurant and life moves along at a leisurely pace set by the coming and going of mail boats and the ferry from the mainland. A place where automobiles are almost nonexistent and everyone gets around by foot, bicycle, or golf cart.

That place is Smith Island, Maryland, once a bustling fishing village about 10 miles off the mainland near the Virginia border. There was a time when Smith Island had well over a thousand permanent residents, including hundreds of watermen who made a living fishing the Chesapeake Bay for crabs and oysters. There were processing plants, thriving commercial docks, and way more houses than exist there now.

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Fried soft-shelled blue crabs are a Smith Island specialty.

Erosion and the decline of the commercial fishing industry have taken their toll on the island. Today, what once was a larger mass of land has eroded into three separate, smaller island communities that make up Smith Island proper. The town of Ewell is the largest, with a population approaching 200. Tylerton and Rhodes Point are down to around 40 residents per town.

Smith Island has always been known as the blue crab capital of Maryland and a few die-hard crabbers still remain, setting traps, dredging and tonging to bring in tasty blue crabs. Other longtime watermen, like Eddie Corbin, will take guests out for a private tour of surrounding marsh areas to see wildlife and learn the history of the area.

An unusual thing happens to a blue crab in the spring of the year. They molt, shedding their hard shell. For a day or two, the soft crabs are completely edible, shell and all. Crabbers sometimes catch the soft-shell crabs, but everything in the water, from fish to birds to people, love to eat them, so soft crabs tend to not move around much, preferring to stay hidden.

What crabbers do catch are hard-shelled crabs that are almost ready to shed. Known as “peelers,” these crabs have a red outline on their swim fins. Watermen like Danny Tyler take these peeler crabs and place them in tanks along the docks or in covered “peeler sheds” where they run a constant current of fresh water from the bay over the crabs, watching closely until they shed their hard shells. It’s a full-time job, as once they shed, the outer shell immediately starts to harden. Just a few hours after shedding, the crabs are known as paper shells, where the main back shell has a papery feel to it. It’s still edible, but not as delectable as a true soft-shell.

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Waterman Danny Tyler shows the author his peeler tanks and explains the process.

The reason the crabs molt each spring is that their growth inside the shell over the previous winter makes it too tight. When they shed their hard shell, the resulting soft crab is often much larger than the shell it came from. Danny says it is common to see the body size on a soft crab grow by an inch or more after shedding.

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Soft-shell crabs emerge larger than they were in their previous hard shell, often growing by up to an inch.

Since they are harder to come by than their hard-shelled versions, these soft crabs demand a premium price. The most common way to prepare them is fried, much like chicken. In most areas, the entire crab is eaten, back, legs, and all. Danny says Smith Island residents and folks along the nearby mainland are spoiled by the ready availability of soft-shelled crabs and often remove the backs, legs, and claws, just frying the main body section.

I prefer a blend of the two methods. I do remove the backs, but I enjoy the crispy fried legs and claws. It’s important to make sure you buy your blue crabs from a reputable source and that the crabs are either fresh and still alive, or were fresh frozen, straight from the water. If you buy fresh, keep your crabs in a cooler on ice or refrigerated until ready to prepare. One of the good things about handling live soft-shell crabs is that they can’t pinch the way the hard-shell version can.

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Buy your soft-shell crabs fresh and alive or fresh frozen immediately after catching.

To prepare a soft-shell crab for frying, start by rinsing it well under cold water. Use a pair of kitchen shears to cut along the front of the crab, just behind the eyes. Discard the front part or “face” of the crab.

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Use kitchen shears to trim away the front part, or face, of the crab.

Next, lift the apron from the bottom of the crab. On males, it will be a long thin point; in females, a wider triangle shape. Just lift it with a blade from your shears and either cut it away or just twist it off.

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Remove the apron from the bottom of the crab.

If you want to leave the back on, lift one side and remove the feathery gills from underneath. Just use your fingernail, a kitchen knife, or one side of your shears to rake it off. Let the shell fall back and repeat the process with the other side. If you decide to remove the back entirely, just peel it away, exposing the gills and making it easy to remove them. The yellow paste inside is affectionately known as the “mustard,” and many crab lovers relish the added flavor. If you aren’t quite to that point, you can rinse it away under cold water. That’s it. The crab is now ready to fry.

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Trim away the gills and either leave or rinse away the yellow “mustard.” Your choice.

Clean all crabs before frying.

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Repeat until all crabs are cleaned before starting to cook.

Start by mixing 1 beaten egg with 1 cup of milk in a shallow dish. For the breading, I prefer preseasoned Kentucky Kernel flour, or you can season your own flour to your liking, with salt, pepper, garlic powder, Old Bay, J.O. Crab Seasoning, or whatever spices you prefer. You can also use just about any premixed and seasoned fried chicken breading. Heat ¼ inch of vegetable oil or lard in a large skillet over medium-high.

Dip the cleaned crab in the egg wash.

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Dip the crabs into a mixture of milk and beaten egg before dredging in seasoned flour.

Next, move it to the seasoned flour, flipping to evenly coat both sides. Gently lower the crab into the hot oil. Take care: Soft-shell crabs tend to pop and spatter when they hit the hot oil.

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Gently lower the floured crab into hot oil. Watch for pops and splatters.

Repeat with remaining crabs. Fry in batches so you don’t overcrowd the pan. After 3-4 minutes, gently flip the crabs and continue frying for another 2-3 minutes or until the crust is crispy and golden. Don’t overcook or the crabs will be mushy and a bit rubbery.

I like to serve fried soft-shells with corn on the cob and roasted or boiled red potatoes or rice.

Ingredients

1-2 soft-shell crabs per person

1 egg, beaten

1 cup milk

2 cups Kentucky Kernel or other seasoned flour

Oil for frying

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