Dungeness crab season is here and there’s no better time to learn how to cook crab to perfection–and eat it, too!
Dungeness Crab Fishing Season
The first Saturday of November is just a regular day to most people. But for my family, it is sacred: It is opening day of non-commercial Dungeness crab fishing season. The crab fishing season runs from November to June, but we like to get first dibs.
Two weeks before the professional crabbers get to drop their pots, amateurs like us get the first crack at the area’s delectable crustacean crop. Each year we rent a rambling vacation house perched on the cliffs of Dillon Beach, a tiny town nestled at the mouth of Tomales Bay.
First thing Saturday morning, we push off in a small motorboat loaded with crab nets into the brisk waters of Tomales Bay, a long, narrow inlet tucked at an angle like a pants pocket into the Marin County coastline. In the early morning hours, fog creeps over the ridge of Point Reyes National Seashore and tiptoes across the calm, clear water that we toss our baited nets into.
If it’s a good year, we spend the better part of the day pulling big, fat crabs up, rebaiting the nets, and tossing them in again.
When you add up the cost of renting the house and the boat, buying the gear and the bait, and all the expenses of an out-of-town weekend, it quickly becomes apparent that these crabs aren’t exactly free. But those precious Dungies are worth every penny.
This year, was a good one: Nineteen worthy Dungeness landed in our boat in the first few hours at bay.
Should You Clean the Crab Before or After Cooking Them?
Domoic acid is a neurotoxin that is produced by algae and can accumulate in shellfish and other sea creatures. Eating contaminated shellfish can be dangerous, but the California Department of Fish and Game keeps tabs on domoic acid levels, issuing warnings and sometimes delaying the fishing season if the levels get too high. The toxin tends to concentrate in the internal organs (viscera, guts, etc). As a result, cleaning the crabs before cooking them can greatly reduce diners’ exposure.
How to Clean Dungeness Crab
To clean a live crab, you need a sharp corner–a sturdy board, the corner of a picnic table, the edge of a cement wall, a wooden fence, or even the corner of a pickup truck bed all work.
Trigger warning for the next paragraph. Cleaning live crabs is not for the faint of heart.
Hold the crab by the legs with the top shell facing up and the crab’s face (eyes? Do crabs have faces?) turned away from you. Bring the middle of the crab’s breast plate down hard onto the corner of whatever object you are using. This will split the body in two, so that the crab dies instantly, and the top shell will pop off at the same time. Here’s a great video that shows this technique in action.
Next, clean off any remaining lungs or other organ material. Rinse the crab and then move on to cooking them.
How to Cook Crab
I learned how to cook crab on the fly—while facing down a bucketful of them. Turns out it is really easy—especially if you follow the above method of killing and cleaning them first.
Put 2 or 3 inches of water in the bottom of a large stockpot fitted with a steaming rack. Add a teaspoon or two of salt and bring the water to a boil. Add the crab halves to the pot, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low or low (it should continue to simmer, but you don’t want to risk boiling all the water away).
Steam the crabs for 18 to 20 minutes, until the meat is opaque and flaky. Transfer the crab halves to a colander in the sink and rinse them well with cold water to stop the cooking. Serve immediately or chill until ready to serve.
How to Eat Dungeness Crab
Dungeness crab is delectable steamed, cracked, and eaten right out of the shell. When we have a lot, though, we like to use some in a crab-centric dish. We’ve made crab sushi, crab paella, spicy butter-roasted crab, and this year, crab gumbo.
Lucky for you, commercial crab season starts on November 23, so you should be able to net a couple of keepers—already cleaned, steamed, and cracked—at your local fish market for less than a twenty spot.
More great recipes you’ll love
- Several crab legs
- 8 cups water or fish stock
- 2/3 cup all-purpose flour (see note for a gluten-free option)
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 3 celery stalks, diced
- 1 large green bell pepper
- ¾ pound andouille sausage, sliced into rounds
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 cup scallions, chopped (both green and white parts)
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- ¼ cup chopped parsley
- 3 bay leaves
- Cajun spice blend (like Tony Chachere’s)
- ½ teaspoon concentrated liquid crab boil (optional)
- 1 pound peeled shrimp
- 1 pound crabmeat
- Steamed white rice, for serving
- File, for serving (optional)
- Put a stockpot on the stove and add the crab legs and the
water or fish stock. Bring to a boil over medium heat and then reduce the heat so that the liquid is at a gentle simmer.
- In a skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat medium and sprinkle the flour into the oil, whisking to blend. Cook the roux, whisking constantly (and I do mean constantly!) until it turns a rich brown color. You want the flour to brown and become toasty, but be careful not to let it cook too fast or it will become bitter. It should take around 40 to 50 minutes to get it just
- Once the roux is browned, add the onion, celery, bell pepper, and sausage and cook, stirring, until the onion is soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and then add the whole thing to the stockpot with the crab legs.
- Stir in the scallions, thyme, parsley, bay leaves, Cajun spice blend,
concentrated liquid crab boil, if using, salt, pepper, and water or fish stock. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for at least an hour. Two hours is even better. Skim fat off the top as it cooks. Remove the thyme stems and bay leaves. Taste and add additional salt,
pepper, Cajun spice seasoning or any other seasonings as desired.
- Add the shrimp to the pot and let cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until the shrimp are opaque and cooked through. You can mix the crabmeat in at this point, but I like to divvy the meat up among the serving bowls to make sure everyone gets a generous serving.
- To serve, scoop rice into serving bowls. Top with a generous handful of crabmeat, and then ladle the gumbo (making sure to get plenty of shrimp and sausage in each bowl) over the rice. Pass the file at the table for people to add as desired.
I made this gluten free by using sorghum flour instead of regular wheat flour in the roux. I honestly could not tell the difference in the finished dish, though I do feel like the sorghum flour roux browned a bit faster than all-purpose flour.