The shell remains soft for only a few hours after the crab has molted, making timing just about everything for this industry, located mostly on the central Atlantic coast and most famously in Chesapeake Bay. But the crabs ship well and are available nationwide right now. Most soft-shell crabs you see at the market are ready to cook. This may not be the case if you’re buying them from a real fishmonger, in which case you should ask to have them cleaned. At that point, I’d cook them within 24 hours; if you want to keep them longer than that, buy them live and clean them yourself.
All too often, soft-shell crabs are overbattered and overfried. The crunch at that point comes entirely from the fried batter, and the flavor is lost amid the oil and flour. My favorite mode of preparation — and by far the easiest and least messy — is to grill or broil the little guys. This adds to the skin’s natural crunch and leaves the meat tender and juicy. (My no-brainer recipe: baste with melted butter mixed with lemon and Tabasco and grill until plump and dark.)
But there’s no denying that a fried or pan-fried soft-shell is a beautiful thing. Keep the coating simple (again, my tendency is to keep it really simple and dredge the crabs in nothing but cornmeal), and fry or sauté quickly, in good oil or butter.
Do not overcook. When the crabs plump up and become firm, they are done, and — unless your heat is too low — this cannot possibly take as long as even eight minutes; if you’re deep-frying, three or four minutes will do. Any of the coatings here — with the possible exception of tempura, which is almost always deep-fried — will work whether you’re deep- or shallow-frying.
Now we come to the issue of sauces. It may not sound that exciting, but the majority of the time, I serve soft-shell crabs with just lemon wedges and parsley; there is nothing better. There is, however, different. And some of the best are here: cilantro “pesto,” ponzu sauce, a simple homemade tartar sauce. There are other possibilities also: soy or miso dipping sauce, chimichurri . . . very few sauces would not work, though I do think the best feature is very upfront acidity.
Convinced? It’s time.
Heat a charcoal or gas grill or a broiler until moderately hot; put the rack at least 4 inches from the heat source. Grill or broil crabs for 3 to 4 minutes per side, basting occasionally with melted butter (spike it with Tabasco or whatever else you like) or olive oil (good with garlic and herbs). Finish with lemon juice and freshly chopped herbs.
Put at least 3 inches of oil in a large, deep saucepan over high heat; you want the oil to be about 350 degrees. (If you don’t have a thermometer, drop in a small cube of bread; when the bread sinks halfway and then bubbles to the surface, the oil is ready.) Prepare a coating (recipes follow). One at a time, dredge the crabs in the flour mixture (dipping them in an egg mixture first if necessary), then fry (probably in batches) until golden, about 2 minutes total, turning once. Drain on paper towels.
Put about 1⁄4 inch oil, butter or a combination in a skillet. (Even better is clarified butter.) Prepare a coating. When the fat is hot (a pinch of flour will sizzle), dredge the crabs in the flour mixture (dipping them in an egg mixture first, depending on the coating you choose), and sauté. When the bottoms are nicely browned, 3 to 5 minutes, turn, and brown the other side. Drain on paper towels.
All coatings are adequate for at least 4 crabs. Add salt and pepper in every case.
Simple Flour or Cornmeal
Put a mound of all-purpose flour or cornmeal on a plate (you can add a big pinch of cayenne if you like). Dredge the crabs and fry or sauté.
Beat an egg with 1 cup milk in a bowl. On a large plate, combine 1 cup cornmeal, 1/2 cup all-purpose flour and 1/2 teaspoon cayenne. Dip the crabs in the egg mixture, then dredge well in the cornmeal mixture and fry or sauté.
Ground Oyster Crackers or Saltines
Beat an egg with 1 cup milk in a bowl. On a large plate, combine 1 cup all-purpose flour with 1/2 teaspoon cayenne. On another plate, put 1 1/2 cups ground oyster crackers or saltines (a food processor makes short work of this). Dredge the crabs first in the flour, then dip in the egg mixture, then dredge in the crackers and fry or sauté.
Lightly beat 2 cups ice-cold water with 3 egg yolks and 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour in a large bowl. (The batter should be lumpy and thin; don’t overmix.) Put about 1 cup of loose flour on a plate, and one at a time, dredge the crabs in flour, dip them in the batter, then fry until golden, less than 5 minutes total. Drain on paper towels.
Makes enough for at least 4 crabs. Salt and pepper, please.
Film a small skillet with olive oil; heat and add a chopped onion; cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 3 minutes. Add 1 pound chopped canned or fresh tomatoes (along with some fresh oregano or marjoram if you have it), and cook until the mixture breaks down, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley or basil leaves.
In a bowl or food processor, whisk together 1 egg yolk, 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice and 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard. Add 1 cup neutral oil, a few dribbles at a time, adding more until it’s incorporated. When a thick emulsion forms, add the remaining oil a little faster. (This process will take about 5 minutes by hand, 1 minute in a food processor). Stir in 1/4 cup chopped shallot or mild onion and 1/4 cup chopped cornichons or other pickles.
Combine 2 cups loosely packed cilantro leaves, 1 clove peeled garlic and 3 tablespoons neutral oil in a food processor. Pulse several times. Stop, scrape the sides, add 1 tablespoon lime juice and blend. Add water as necessary to purée.
Combine 2 tablespoons lime juice, 2 tablespoons fish sauce, 1 teaspoon minced garlic, 1/4 teaspoon minced hot fresh chili, 2 teaspoons sugar, 1 tablespoon minced dried shrimp (optional) and 1 tablespoon finely shredded carrot (optional). Stir until the sugar dissolves.
Combine 2/3 cup lemon juice, 1/3 cup lime juice, 1/4 cup rice vinegar, 1 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup mirin (or 1/4 cup sake and 1 tablespoon sugar) with one 3-inch piece kelp, 1/2 cup dried- bonito flakes and a pinch of cayenne. Let sit for at least two hours; strain before serving.