Most people think vegetables when they consider all of the culinary delights associated with the Spring. But there’s a seasonal crustacean that’s equally delicious, with a season every bit as fleeting as morel mushrooms, ramps and fiddlehead ferns — Soft Shell Crabs!
Though Soft Shell Crab season is traditionally marked by the first full moon in May (which is May 25th), they’ve already started surfacing at some of our favorite spots around time (Grand Central Oyster Bar, Aquagrill, Randazzo’s & more). It’s right around this time that the blue crab begins molting its shell to accommodate summer growth. The actual shedding process can take anywhere from one to three hours, after which the shell must be removed or the hardening process will continue. And as anyone that’s ever eaten a hard-shelled blue crab can tell you, there’s an awful lot of work involved in order to extract just a tiny bit of meat. That’s what makes soft shell crabs such an enjoyable spring delicacy, as the sweet and tender crustaceans can be eaten in their entirety — no mallets, crackers, or plastic bibs required!
While it’s always ideal to purchase live soft-shell crabs due to extreme perishability, they’re not always easy to find. So it’s perfectly acceptable to buy fresh (recently deceased) crabs, although you should still use your nose to determine whether or not they’re good enough to eat! Fresh crabs should smell clean and astringent, like a gentle sea mist. But if they have a strong, ammonia-like odor, they should be immediately discarded. Once purchased, store your soft-shell crabs in cool, moist packaging, like wet newspaper or straw. Fresh crabs can be held in standard coolers at approximately 36-degrees. And if you were lucky enough to get your hands on live crabs, the temperature of your cooler should not dip too far below 50-degrees, since the chill will ultimately kill your crabs. Many fish markets will gladly clean soft-shell crabs for you, but it’s a simple enough process to undertake at home. Holding the crab in one hand, use a pair of kitchen shears to cut off the front of the crab, about 1/2 inch behind the eyes and mouth. Squeeze out the contents of the sack located directly behind the cut you just made. Lift one pointed end of the crab’s outer shell, and remove and discard the gills. Repeat on the other side. Turn the crab over and snip off the small flap known as the apron. Rinse the entire crab well and pat dry. Once cleaned, crabs should be cooked or immediately returned to storage.
Since soft-shell crabs are entirely edible, the most common way to serve them is either sautéed or deep-fried (never boil them as you would a regular crab, or they’ll fall apart). As a rule of thumb, soft shells should be cooked for about 4 minutes per side or 8 minutes total. For a quick and tasty sauté, drop your crabs into hot butter and olive oil, then deglaze the pan with white wine, lemon juice, capers, chopped parsley, salt and cracked pepper to taste. For a classic soft-shell sandwich, bread your crabs with a mixture of seasoned flour and cornmeal, then deep-fry. Place them on a soft bun with vine-ripe tomatoes, a squeeze of lemon, and maybe a smear of tartar sauce, but don’t go overboard — you don’t want to add anything that will overwhelm that delicate, soft-shell sweetness.
Randazzo’s Soft-Shell Crab Sandwich
As expected, New York’s chefs are first in line to purchase soft-shell crabs, the second the season starts. Which means you can expect to find them dotting restaurant menus from now until summer’s end. In fact, May marks the return of the unimpeachable Soft-Shell Crab Sandwich at the 75-year-old Randazzo’s in Sheepshead Bay. Grand Central Oyster Bar pan-fries their Florida Baby Soft-Shell Crabs with Garlic and Herb Butter, our seafood go-to, Aquagrill incorporates them into a unique, Crispy Crab Salad with Roasted Corn, Tomato Salsa and Young Greens, and Rose Water in Park Slope batters their crabs in beer and tops them with Spring Coleslaw and Ramp Dressing. Ooh, and then there’s SriPraPhai, the revered Thai restaurant in Woodside, Queens, which devotes an entire section of their menu to the seasonal shellfish. Look for Fried Soft Shell Crab served four different ways… topped with shredded green mango sauce, served with pineapple, pumpkin, long beans and green curry, tossed with egg, curry powder and scallion, or sauced with a spicy slurry of chili, garlic, and Thai basil!
Grand Central Oyster Bar
89 E. 42nd Street, btwn. Vanderbilt and Lexington Aves.
210 Spring Street, btwn. Sullivan St & Avenue of The Americas
787 Union Street, btwn. 5th & 6th Aves.
2017 Emmons Avenue, at E. 21st St.
6413 39th Avenue at Roosevelt Ave.