Soft Shell Crab Crazy

by Gretchen Hanson

Gretchen Hanson, executive chef of Hobos Restaurant and Bar in Rehoboth Beach, will tell us about a Delmarva delicacy.

I used to say when I was a young chef that I would eat anything if it held still long enough or didn't run faster than I could. Whether you have a fanatical devotion or a borderline obsession you simply cannot deny that eating a soft shell crab is more than a little weird and a lot bloodthirsty.

There is the briefest of moments when they molt their hard shell and become a soft and tender sea spider. Someone at some point before recorded history decided that at that very minute they were not only edible but they were an uncommon delicacy and since that time chefs and foodies have had a fascination with creating new and different ways to present one of the most bizarre and unusual food items we consume.

Soft shell crabs have found their way onto menus around the world. I will unequivocally state that without exception you should never eat a soft shell that was not alive mere hours before you bit into him. Soft shells, like all fresh crab meat, deteriorate at a very rapid rate and anything over 48 hours old is already suspect in my book. Frozen soft shells are a completely pointless and futile so don't even bother. If you are eating a soft shell in a landlocked city then you better check first before ordering to make sure they are delivered via FedEx.

The Maryland Blue Crab is not the only crustacean to shed its skin and become entirely edible and delicious. The Mediterranean has a relative that is equally delicious and ubiquitous to the cuisine of the Amalfi Coast and China and Japan have their crustacean cousins as well.

Soft shell is a culinary term for crabs that have molted their exoskeleton and the new shell has not hardened yet. They are available from May to October and increasingly difficult to find and more expensive. Most Eastern Shore commercial fisherman are adept at reading the signs of a crab in the "peeler" stage or pre-molt and will put them in special tanks to watch for the shell to detach from the body. Literally the whole crab can be eaten with the exception of the mouthparts, gills, lungs and apron. The Eastern Shore did not invent the idea of fully edible crustaceans but I like to think we perfected it.

The Eastern Shore is undeniably soft shell crab crazy. First of all they are freshest here. Any crab pot or trap during the summer is bound to pull in at least a dozen softies. You have the briefest of moments to pull them out of the water before the new shells harden and become a "paper shell" and you want to watch your crab pots most closely during the full moon when the quantity of "peelers" increases exponentially. They then must be kept alive till the very last minute before consumption and by alive I do not mean listless.

They must be feisty little crustaceans and if you are not from around here you get a little green in the gills (pardon the pun) while watching the fishmonger dispatch them to the next realm. It is remarkably grim and bloodthirsty business which involves cutting off the face with a pair of sharp shears and pulling out the lungs while holding the thrashing body. In my kitchen the position of house 'Crab Killer' is one of honor and each season you must earn your stripes to become the Mighty Appointed.

Soft shell crab sandwich with Ginger Mayo, Applewood smoked Bacon and Old Bay Fries
at Hobo's Restaurant & Bar
Once the face, lungs and apron are removed they must be eaten with the greatest possible haste to ensure that the crab mustard remains fresh. This is the green secret sauce that gushes out when you take the first bite. It tastes like sea and shore and crab and is the most important component of the perfect soft shell. But how to actually eat them is where most of the controversy arises. Deep frying is the most popular Eastern Shore method no question and the merits of a batter dipped deep fried soft shell sandwich with a hint of Old Bay, Eastern Shore tomatoes and mayo cannot be disputed.

After the actual dispatch of the crustacean the making of the batter is the next big challenge. Too thick and the crunchy consistency is lost, too thin and your soft shell becomes oily. Batter should be thick enough to pour as a thin pancake but not quite crepe-like and have the slightest hint of Old Bay. Personally I am a huge fan of adding a bottle of Third Wave's First Wave IPA for that beachy smack your lips flavor and just a hint of hoppy carbonation. Give the batter a test run first and then make sure you flour the crab first and then dip so the batter adheres properly.

So much work. Right? That first bite with the crunch and ooze makes you swoon. Literally swoon in a way that few other dishes can imitate. Go ahead and take that first bite …the first bite that reminds you life is delicious around here.

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