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Catching Crabs + Crab and Sausage Gumbo

Dungeness crab season is here and there’s no better time to learn how to cook crab to perfection–and eat it, too!

crab sausage and shrimp gumbo in a bowl with a glass of wine and a piece of garlic bread

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.

Dillon beach crabbers
Crabbers getting ready to head out

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.

foggy tomales bay crab fishing grounds
Looking out on the crabbing grounds of Tomales Bay

Catching Crabs

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.

Boy with a big dungeness crab in a boat
My son caught the first crab of the day!

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.

Crabbers with the day's catch

This year, was a good one: Nineteen worthy Dungeness landed in our boat in the first few hours at bay.

Freshly caught dungeness crabs lying on the ground on their backs

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.

Woman holding a bucket of crab in a kitchen

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.

dungeness crab in a bucket

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.

how to crack and pick dungeness crab

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.

Sunset on Dillon Beach
Sunsets at Dillon Beach are amazing!

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.

square picture of a bowl of 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.

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Yield: Serves 8 to 10

Crab, Shrimp, and Sausage Gumbo

square picture of a bowl of crab gumbo

This gumbo recipe is adapted from instructions that were relayed to me over Facebook messenger by my Cajun friend Lynn Landry. I feel obliged to tell you that Lynn does not believe in combining land and sea animals in gumbo, but I was set on including andouille sausage. Lynn also informed me that, contrary to what I had always thought, true Cajun gumbo uses either roux or okra to thicken the broth, but not both (her grandmother flunked Home Ec because she put both in her gumbo!) Since a lot of people are put off by okra, I went with the roux.

Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 2 hours
Total Time 3 hours

Ingredients

  • 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)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 1 pound peeled shrimp
  • 1 pound crabmeat
  • Steamed white rice, for serving
  • File, for serving (optional)

Instructions

  1. 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.
  2. 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
    right.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Notes

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.

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Last Updated: November 9, 2019
By on November 9th, 2019

About Robin Donovan


Hi, I’m Robin! I am a full-time food blogger, recipe developer, and cookbook author. I spend my days cooking, writing about, and photographing food.

I’m the author of more than 40 cookbooks, including Ramen for Beginners, 5 Ingredient Cooking for Two, Sushi at Home, The Baking Cookbook for Teens, and the bestselling Campfire Cuisine.

My food writing has also been featured in major print and online pubications including Cooking Light, Fitness, San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and other popular publications.

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5 thoughts on “Catching Crabs + Crab and Sausage Gumbo”

  1. Your post is so well timed! Just this morning, I plunked down the rental fee for a vacation house in Tomales Bay…..and then I read the website more carefully and realized that the house doesn’t have cable. Without being able to watch “Intervention” and “Tosh.0” I’ll need some way to entertain myself…..maybe we’ll go crabbing?!

    Reply
    • Hi Justin,

      We just went up for our annual crabbing trip and stumbled upon a new recipe that was a big hit: Crab Chirashi Bowls. Basically sushi rice topped with crab (steamed, picked, and sauteed in a little sesame oil and ginger), japanese radish pickles (hari hari zuke), wasabi paste, and a drizzle of the sauce from the crab. Next time, we thought a dollop of ikura (salmon roe) would be a nice touch for visual and textural contrast.

      Another big hit has been pasta with crab and jalapenos. I think I’ll post that one soon! Easy and delicious.

      Robin

      Reply

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