When Dungeness crab season starts on the West Coast (usually between November and December, depending on location), there’s a mad dash by consumers to cook and eat as many fresh live crabs as possible before it ends. Steaming whole crabs and cleaning them might sound intimidating, but the process is relatively easy: Just boil the crabs, remove a few select pieces of the shell, clean out a few squidgy bits, and rinse. The real fun is cracking and picking them. Make sure to have seafood crackers or small hammers on hand to get at all of the sweet, flaky meat. If you find yourself with leftover crabmeat, use it in Crab Cakes or Crab and Fontina Stuffed Mushrooms.
Special equipment: Once your crab is cooked and cleaned, extract the meat by cracking the claws, legs, and body open with small hammers or seafood crackers like these.
Game plan: Fresh live crab should be purchased and cooked the same day—the crabs can only be stored in the refrigerator for a few hours once taken out of their holding tanks.
If your crab is not exactly 2 pounds, calculate about 7 to 8 minutes of steaming time per pound (after the water returns to a boil). If you’re cooking more than one crab at a time, calculate the average weight by taking the total weight of the crabs and dividing by the number of crabs you have. Use this average weight to determine your total steaming time, about 7 to 8 minutes per pound. And be sure to use an extra-large pot with a tightfitting lid.
- 1Fill a large pot with 1 inch of water and stir in the salt. (Be sure your pot has a tightfitting lid.) Place a steamer rack inside of the pot. (If you don’t have a steamer rack, lightly bunch a long piece of foil so that it looks like a rope. Then make a figure eight out of the foil rope and set it in the pot.)
- 2Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Using tongs, pick up the crab, grasping it from behind and placing one arm of the tongs on the belly and the other on the back with the legs on either side. Place the crab back side up in the steamer rack. Cover and return the water to a full boil, about 1 minute. Reduce the heat to medium high and steam until the crab is cooked through, about 15 minutes more.
- 3Using tongs, remove the crab to a colander and rinse under cold water until cool enough to handle.
- 4Place the crab belly side up on a cutting board with the face closest to you. Using your hands or the tip of a knife, lift the triangular piece of shell at the tail of the crab (the apron), break it off, and discard. Pick up the crab with your hands, place a thumb in the hole where the apron was, and pull in one motion to remove the top shell (the carapace) from the rest of the body. Discard the carapace.
- 5Place the crab belly side down on the cutting board with the tail closest to you. Remove and discard the soft, pointy gills from the body. Break off and discard the mouthpiece (the mandibles). Pull away any loose fragments from the body and discard. Rinse away any viscera under cold water.
- 6Place the crab on the cutting board back side up and cut in half from face to tail through the middle of the body. If desired, cut the crab into smaller pieces by slicing between the legs, making sure to cut through the body.
- 7To extract the meat, use seafood crackers or small hammers to crack open the claws, legs, and body. Serve with aioli, melted butter, or cucumber mignonette for dipping.