Originally published 12/4/12. Updated 12/4/20.
The day after Thanksgiving, Matt and I drove out to Half Moon Bay to get in on the season’s first crabs, buying them directly from the fishermen. For about six glorious weeks, the Bay Area enjoys a bounty of Dungeness Crab, and we just can’t get enough.
During this time, you can find crabs at virtually every grocery store, and many local markets, but there’s something special about walking down the dock and having a fisherman pull out his catch with a gloved hand, weigh it, and slip it into a plastic bag for you to enjoy on the spot or take home. When I say ‘enjoy on the spot,’ I mean it. Just a few steps away from the boats, a local restaurant will steam your crab for you and give you all the fixins (the butter, the lemon slices, and some hot sauce) to enjoy your crab right then and there. This is how we usually do our crab outings. We bring our own wine and/or beer, and breathe in the sea air as we drown our crab meat in butter using our hands. This year, we decided bring our cooler, break out our giant stock pot, and make some fixins of our own at home.
The entire 30 minute ride home, I was worried that our crabs would not survive the trip, but lo and behold, when we pulled them out of the cooler, they were alive and well and looking angry (or maybe that was just my imagination running wild). We slipped them into the freezer to numb them (this is the most humane way of killing — er — cooking crab).
Before being numbed, they took a few swipes at Matt. Though, luckily, a good set of tongs (not to mention, long arms) helped secure them in the bag.
I knew that our crab feast was going to be messy, so I decided to line our kitchen table with some craft paper, weighing it down with a few lemons. Matt paired his crab with a bottle of Brother David’s Triple from Anderson Valley Brewing Company. Inspired by a recipe I had seen in Mourad: New Moroccan, I decided to whip up two butter sauces for dipping our crab — one lemony garlic butter and a harissa butter. I know Matt was a little skeptical about my harissa butter idea, but once our crab was on the table, and he got a taste, he was sold. Personally, I liked having both options, though if I had to only make one, I’d run with the harissa butter…
A Step-by-Step Guide to how to cook and clean live crab at home
1. Place live crabs in freezer for approximately 15 minutes to numb them prior to cooking. Freezing the crabs before you cook them is more humane and makes it easier to place them in the pot because they won’t be moving around as much (or trying to kill you).
2. Find your largest stock pot and fill it with water. Salt the water, heavily, and add 3 bay leaves, a tablespoon or so of whole black peppercorns, and a teaspoon of paprika. Bring to a boil. 3. Remove the crabs from the freezer and using a pair of tongs, grab them from behind so you don’t get pinched (see photo above). Depending on the size of your pot and your crabs, you’ll likely want to cook one at a time. Lower each crab into the boiling water with its legs facing down.
4. While the crabs are cooking, prepare an ice bath by filling a large bowl with cold water and ice. Allow each crab to cook for approximately 15 minutes (once they float to the top, give them an extra 2-3 minutes). Once they are done, drop them briefly into the ice bath to stop the cooking process.
5. Let the crab cool for a minute before beginning the cleaning process.
6. To clean the crab: begin by removing the top shell. You can do this by looking for grooves where your thumbs will fit near the rear legs. Pull up on the shell.
7. Flip the crab over and locate the long, almost triangular section of shell running partway down the center of the shell. Pull that piece up and backwards to remove it.
8. Flip the crab again and remove the gills that run along the sides with your hands. Unless you eat the “crab butter” (the mushy yellow stuff in the cavity) wash it away with the intestines.
9. The legs should easily twist off and, in most cases, can be cracked by hand. For harder pieces (such as the claws) use a mallet to crack them. We like to wrap them in a tea towel before cracking to cut down on the mess.
10. Take the body and fold it back and forth like a book. It should crack in half after a few bends. Place all of the crab pieces on a large serving dish.
11. Get a bib and plenty of napkins. Eating crab can get messy. Eat crab using your hands and have a thin, pointed utensil on hand to help you get the meat out wherever your fingers can’t reach.
For the Harissa Butter
Combine 1/2 stick of butter, 1/2 tablespoon of harissa powder, 1 thinly sliced garlic clove and the juice from 1/4 of a lemon in a small saucepan. Slowly melt the butter over medium heat, stirring to mix it with the other ingredients. Cook for a few minutes before removing from the heat (don’t let the butter brown).
For the Lemon-Garlic Butter
Combine 1/2 stick of butter, juice from 1/4 of a lemon, and 1 thinly-sliced garlic clove in a small saucepan. Follow the instructions for making harissa butter.
Serve crab with plenty of napkins, Harissa Butter, Lemon-Garlic Butter, and lemon wedges. Beer and wine are optional, but highly recommended (unless you don’t or can’t drink, in which case, a nice bottle of sparkling water will do just fine).