The All-You-Can-Eat Soft-Shell Crab: Recipes, Preparation and More

By Charisse Miller
small crab by the beach

The idea of eating an entire crab seemed laughable. Most foodies are used to consuming crab minus the shell. It’s all about the meat inside, after all.

But with the soft-shell crab, it’s an entirely different story.

For its legions of devoted fans, soft-shell crabs are the epitome of bliss when it comes to seafood. This iconic summer food is best served grilled, broiled, pan-fried and deep-fried. Nothing makes fanatics happier than having a whole soft-shell crab served in front of them. But if you’re new to the soft-shell crab life, however, it can be intimidating when a whole fried soft-shell crab is served in front of you.

This seafood delicacy is one you shouldn’t miss! Here’s everything you need to know about the soft-shell crab: iconic recipes, how to prepare the crab, the idea of eating the whole shell and more. Before you know it, you’ll be Googling “soft-shell crabs near me.”

What’s the Difference Between a Soft-Shell Crab and the Traditional Hard-Shell Crabs?

crabs on top of each other

Despite the differences in name, soft-shell and hard-shell crabs are the same species. What sets the two crabs apart are the shells. Soft-shell crabs shed their shells through a process called “molting.” During the summer season, soft-shell crabs shed their outer shell. Their exterior softens as the new shell takes time to harden. For a crab to become larger, it should discard its old shell and form a new one.

As a result, crabs hide under the rocks and bury themselves in the sand until their shells are hardened again. While this isn’t always the case, crabs that recently shed their shells have a paler abdomen and a slightly wrinkled appearance. The result is a crab with a new coat under its old shell. It swells up enough to create the bottom and top halves of the shell to separate.

The crab inside, now dressed in a soft new coat, is flexible enough to get out of its old shell. While it looks like a regular hard-shell crab, it’s just as hard as a rubber chicken.

When is Soft-Shell Crab Season?

Soft-shell crab season occurs from early March to late September, depending on the weather. It can also start in early April and run through October or early November. Depending on where you are, the season can also run longer, especially if you live on the East Coast or Chesapeake.

Soft-shell crab season often starts in Florida, eventually making its way to Maryland and the Atlantic Coast. The season wraps up by returning to Florida. If you’re not a big fan of keeping track of seasons, here’s a pro-tip: get your crabs before Labor Day.

Do You Eat the Entire Soft-Shell Crab?

“Can you eat all of a soft-shell crab?” soft-shell crab newbies often ask, especially when they’re presented with a whole crab. After all, we’re used to removing the shell of the crab to eat the juicy meat.

The answer is yes, you can eat the whole soft-shell crab. It may not seem like it, but the shell is edible and incredibly delicious. Whether you consume them deep-fried or sauteed in butter, soft-shell crabs are all-you-can-eat delights that you can literally eat all parts, except the face and some of the “icky” parts.

With these crustaceans, you get the whole shebang.

How Do You Shop for Soft-Shell Crabs?

Since these crabs have a shorter lifespan, it’s best to buy soft-shell crabs live from a reputable seafood market. Buy the crabs that still have their claws and legs intact. It may be tempting to buy the cleaned ones, but you don’t know how long these crabs have been dead. If you’re not a big fan of cleaning crabs, have a fishmonger do the cleaning for you. Just make sure you cook the crab as soon as possible for the best flavors.

Live soft-shell crabs move very slowly, unlike their hard-shell counterparts. So, don’t hesitate to examine them since their claws can’t do you harm. Also, stay away from crabs that have a strong smell.

When shopping for soft-shell crabs, make sure they aren’t wrapped in cellophane. This indicates they were probably frozen. Also, check if the shells are soft. Avoid buying paper shells, aka crabs that have been left in the water too long after molting.

If you are planning to buy a live soft-shell crab but not consume them yet, know that it’s difficult to keep them alive since you need a cooler at 40°F or below. Otherwise, the crabs will die at higher temperatures.

How Do You Prepare Soft-Shell Crabs for Cooking?

You can always enjoy crabs at your local restaurants, prepared by trusted chefs in the area. But home-cooked is also an option, especially if you want to flex your kitchen skills.

If you preferred the frozen soft-shell crabs, these are already cleaned (or dressed) and ready for cooking. On the other hand, if you bought them fresh, you need to prep them first. All you must do is snip straight across the shell’s front part, the part behind the eyes. You can easily do this with a pair of kitchen scissors.

Next, lift the top of the shell and remove the ‘lungs,’ which are the crab’s feathery gills. Then, flip the crab and remove the lower hinged plate at the shell’s bottom.

How to Eat Soft-Shell Crabs?

As mentioned above, you eat soft-shell crabs whole. Don’t worry about the shell breaking your teeth. The shells are pliable and crunchy, plus the meat inside is juicy, sweet and bursting with flavor.

There are many ways you can prepare a soft-shell crab: grill, broil or fry. But before you explore other soft-shell crab recipes, keep a rule of thumb in mind: you must fry or broil your soft-shell crab for about four minutes per side. If you want to grill them, grill them for five minutes per side.

You can cook soft-shell crabs in two common ways.

The first soft-shell crab recipe involves lightly flouring the crabs and pan-frying them in a mixture of butter and olive oil. Once you’ve pan-fried the crabs, deglaze the pan with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, a splash of white wine and some tiny capers. Throw in some freshly chopped parsley and add a dash of salt and cracked pepper to improve the taste.

If you want to go hard with your soft-shell crab recipe, you can’t go wrong with deep-frying them and putting them between two loaves of bread. Deep-fried soft-shell crab sandwiches combine fried soft-shell crab with lettuce and tomato on a toasted roll. For the added flavor, you can spread some mayonnaise or tartar sauce. Finish this crab sandwich meal with a side of coleslaw and you’re good to go.

Like with any hearty meal, it’s best to consume soft-shell crabs in moderation. After all, you don’t want to overload your digestive system with fat. But when you do get to enjoy, savor every inch of this soft-shell crab.

Do you need more detailed soft-shell crab recipes?

Here are some of the tricks behind these famous soft-shell crab meals.

Fried Corn Meal Crusted Soft Shell Crabs

Ingredients

  • Eight (8) fresh soft-shell crabs, cleaned
  • One-half cup (1/2) cup of cornmeal
  • One egg
  • Four (4) tsp. of old bay seasoning
  • One-half cup (1/2) cup of all-purpose flour (bleached or unbleached, whichever is fine)
  • One cup of buttermilk
  • Three (3) cups of canola oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. In a dish, mix the buttermilk with a beaten egg. Once the mixture is fully combined, add the crabs and let them soak for five minutes.
  2. Combine the flour with the cornmeal and season the powdered mixture with old bay seasoning, salt and pepper.
  3. Dip the crab in the egg and buttermilk mixture before dipping them into the flour/cornmeal mixture. Remove the excess breading.
  4. Add the oil to the deep fryer or saucepan and heat it up to 360 degrees.
  5. Fry the crabs for about three minutes or until crispy.
  6. Take them out of the oil and drain the excess oil on paper towels.

Thai Soft-Shell Crabs

Ingredients

  • ­Eight (8) soft-shell crabs, cleaned
  • Two (2) cups of milk
  • Two (2) tsp. of Tabasco sauce or sriracha sauce
  • Two (2) limes, juiced.
  • One-half (1/2) cup of white wine
  • One (1) tablespoon of sesame oil
  • One-fourth (1/4) cup of minced mint leaf
  • One-fourth (1/4) cup of minced basil leaves
  • Two (2) cups of flour
  • One-half (1/2) cup of coriander leaves
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Two (2) Thai chiles, minced and seeded

Instructions

  1. Combine the sriracha (or Tabasco) and milk in a bowl and set aside. Mix the salt, pepper and flour in a pan. Dip the crabs in the milk/Tabasco mixture before dredging it in flour.
  2. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Place the crabs in the pan and cook them for three minutes. Cook until they are tender. Drain on paper towels.
  3. Return the skillet to the stove and add the chiles, wine, lime juice and scallions. Simmer the sauce for about three to five minutes.
  4. Place two crabs on each of the plates and drizzle with the sauce. Garnish the meal with some basil, mint and coriander.

Why settle with the basic fried crab legs when you can eat the WHOLE CRAB? This is an option when you eat soft-shell crabs! Enjoy the entire crab and see why this crab has plenty of fans.

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