Food & Drink

Seeking Out Soft-Shells

May marks the beginning of crunch time for these seasonal delicacies

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There’s no getting around it: Soft-shell crabs cause quite a ruckus. You either love them, or not so much.

Pick one up when raw, it’s slimy and slippery. Prepared in a sandwich, their spindly legs and grabby claws poke out between the slices of bread, which can cause some die-hard blue crab lovers to exclaim, “Those softies creep me out.”

On the flip side, the softies have been touted as a culinary luxury on par with truffles and caviar. Really—  Well, maybe.

Dusted with flour or dipped in a light batter, the soft-shells are sautéed until their lacy crusts turn honey brown, signaling that the sweet, juicy meat within the papery shell is ready to eat. Forget the intricate maneuvers of picking meat from hard-shell crabs; with soft-shells, you eat the whole darn thing.

The soft-shell is actually the same species of blue crab that is cracked and eaten all summer around the mid-Atlantic region. Getting the perfect soft-shell—a delicately crunchy and juicy one—requires rapid-fire timing and precision in the chain of command as it moves from waterman to processor, distributor to chef. The soft-shell crab season’s arrival coincides with May’s first full moon, which is the traditional marker for when they start turning up on menus all over the region.

Those who love these sweet and briny seasonal crustaceans got a treat at the Soft-Shell Crab Nouveau party during the Mid-Atlantic Food and Wine Festival in May near New Castle, Del. Chef Chad DiFebo, whose family owns Feby’s Fishery Restaurant & Seafood Market, created one of the night’s four soft-shell crab dishes: a cornmeal-dusted, fried soft-shell crab served over a bed of shaved asparagus and fava beans tossed in a warm pancetta vinaigrette. The dish also featured vegetables grown on his family’s 200-acre Pennsville, N.J., farm.

“It’s a seasonal delight, like ramps and other spring produce or wild mushrooms in the fall,” says DiFebo. “It’s like eating an oyster. People wonder, what am I putting in my mouth” It’s all about the texture, all the little crispy bits. I tell folks, give it a shot.”

Soft crabs are simply blue crabs that have recently molted, revealing a paper-thin exoskeleton that hardens within hours. As the waters grow warmer, blue crabs start shedding their shells in a massive (but fleeting) growth spurt rendering them fully edible–spindly legs and all, but minus the lungs and eyes.

If the crab stays in the water, the feisty fellow is armored anew. However, when harvested, that process is halted, and the crabs remain soft. When the crabbers pull each trap from the water, they are looking for a pale pink or red color on the crab’s swimming fin, an indication that the crab will soon molt.

Watermen then deliver bushels of crabs to processors. The crabs are placed in large, shallow holding tanks according to their expected shed dates: “peelers” (days away) or “busters” (hours away). Time is short between molting and the crab’s new shell hardening. Immediately upon shedding, the live crabs are sent to market, where chefs and retailers have at most two days to sell the crabs.

Early in the season, Feby’s goes to Samuels & Son Seafood in Philly to purchase soft-shells that come from Texas, Florida, and Louisiana waters. As local waters warm, Feby’s suppliers are Bay Hundred, J. T. Phillips, and the Chester River Crab Co. DiFebo says he buys four to eight dozen, twice a week. At Feby’s seafood market, the cost was $6.50 apiece in early June and prices are expected to moderate a bit throughout the summer months.

Soft-shells are not just restaurant fare. Fishmongers like Feby’s will clean the crabs for you, or you can use scissors to snip off the mouth, eyes, gills, and the flat abdominal apron yourself before cooking.

“A lot of folks go crazy for soft-shell crab season,” says DiFebo. “What they don’t realize is they are actually really easy to make at home. It’s not complicated; cook 350 degrees on a stovetop in a deeper pan. It’s all about getting the crispy texture.”

Start with the basics: a flavorful breading process—the classic flour-egg-breadcrumb treatment or the equally traditional beer batter. You can amp it up by seasoning both the flour and the breadcrumbs (panko is best) with Old Bay and perhaps a touch of cayenne pepper to add some kick. Then fry the crab in vegetable oil.

Try grilled crabs atop a bowl of tomato-cumin soup as a delectable first course and pan-fried crab in a BLT dolloped with Green Goddess dressing.

Gussy things up and slather on a homemade mayonnaise and mustard sauce spiked with, you guessed it, more Old Bay. A vinegar-based cabbage slaw delivers freshness and some acidity to the sandwich. Add fries and a cold brew, and you’re ready to go.

Terry Conway has been a regular contributor to The Hunt magazine since 2003.