a real joy for me growing up was the soft shell crab sandwich. certainly it was a delight to eat, but it also grossed out my sister, something about those legs dangling out from under the slices of bread was too much for her. for those unfamiliar with the soft shell crab, it is a crab which you eat the whole thing, shell and all. crabs shells don’t grow bigger, they must shed the old shell and then grow a new one. for a couple of days they have a soft shell before it fully hardens, during this time they can be eaten shell and all.
ma’s father mr. bill knows our love of the soft shell crab sandwich and had made preparations for our arrival by throwing a few in the freezer in july when they were plentiful. since many of our midwestern friends and people across the nation seem unfamiliar with softshell crab i felt a documentation of the cooking was in order.
step 1. thaw and drain the crabs
this crucial step could have been missed by anyone less attentive to detail than mr. bill. these crabs have also been cleaned, the eyes and mouth have been cut off, and the lungs or gills aka the dead mans fingers have been removed before they were frozen. the crabs get thawed in cold water and then drained for about a half hour. draining the crabs keeps them from being too wet and makes them fry up nicely.
step 2. dusting with flour
flour with salt and pepper are put in a bag and then the crabs are placed in the bag and dusted very gently, you don’t want to shake them as it will break the delicate crab. mr bill used an official seafood flour, i think it might have some corn starch in it too.
step 3. frying
you don’t want to mess with these too much as the crabs are delicate, not flipping back and forth, back and forth, you just want one flip, and then out of the pan. in order to do this the pan needs to be heated up well before the crabs are added, medium heat with a good amount of oil in the pan. the crabs get cooked briefly on each side, no more that 5 minutes on each side, till golden brown.
the classic sandwich is served on white bread, perhaps with cocktail sauce or tarter, or even ketchup. i opted for just eating them plan with a little cocktail sauce, and nothing else. they were as always delicious, sweet, briny with a little tangy bite from the “mustard” or the hepatopancrea – part of the crabs digestive system. over dinner mr. bill, who spent several summers commercial crabbing explained in more detail the life cycle of the crab and the shedding of it’s shell, explaining the difference between “busters”, “peelers” and “paperskins”, fascinating.