How To… Dress a Crab

Preparing Chili Crab in my former Brooklyn apartment.

No, not like the tranny on Eighth Avenue, but how to kill, clean and breakdown a crab for cooking.

Always buy crabs that are alive. First, they taste better and second, dead crabs deteriorate rapidly. I wouldn’t recommend crabs that have already been cooked too, even thought they might be cooked fresh off (sometimes even on) the boat. The crab is often overcooked and you are limited to eating steamed crab, as opposed to a stir-fry or some other cooking technique. 

Feisty!

When buying live crabs, choose active ones and ensure that all it’s legs and claws are intact. When I was in New York, I bought my Dungeness crabs (which are the best for Chili Crab since you can’t find Sri Lankan or Mud crabs in NYC, thanks Fatty Crab for the idea) from a small hole-in-the-wall seafood stall on Mott Street, in chinatown. The crabs were relatively cheap there and always vigorous. Once I bought three crabs to take to Boston. I put them in a bag full of ice, boarded the Chinatown bus and they survived the whole trip. 

“I’m Freeeee!” This one crawled off the counter. You can run Crabby, but you’ll only die tired.

Are you ready?

The first time I had to kill something for cooking, I almost freaked out. It was a lobster and as I was putting my knife though it’s head, it started frantically writhing in my hands. I think I threw up in my mouth a little. I subdued it again and plunged my knife into the shallow wound I created earlier. I wanted to end it as quick as possible. You have to have a certain violence of action to dispatch the crab as quickly as possible so that it won’t suffer. As Sean Connery said in The Rock, “You must never hesitate.”

Ready now?

First turn the crab on its back. There should be a little slit right between and below its eyestalks. This “mouth” is the easiest opening for your knife. Force your knife sharply through in a downward stabbing motion and then cut to the direction of the eyestalks where its “brain” is located.

 

Twist your knife to the side so that it enlarges the wound. (You can thank the army for teaching me that.) The idea is cause as much damage as possible, and to increase your chances of destroying its “brain” in the least amount of time. Hopefully you would have killed the crab almost instantaneously. This is probably the most humane way to kill a crab.

 

Even with a gaping hole, the crab might still be twitching. It’s already dead; its body just hasn’t gotten the message yet.

 

Next, pull off the top carapace from the main body. Take the top carapace in one hand and the main body in the other, now pry them apart. (This is probably the grossest part.)

 

The top carapace should come away as one piece.

 

 Pull off the gills, also known as dead man’s fingers from the crab.

 

The de-gilled crab. It might look unappetizing, but fresh crab is really delicious. It’s worth the effort! 

 

Now locate the “mouth plate” at the front of the crab.

 

Pull it out.

 

At this point your crab is more or less cleaned. Some people like the tomalley, the yellow-green stuff left on the body, others think it’s a health risk because there might be a build up of toxins if the crab lived in polluted waters. Discard it if you want. All you have to do now is split the crab in half.

 

Use a cleaver or a heavy chef’s knife and press down right in the middle of the crab. You should be able to slice cleanly through.

 

Your crab is now ready to be cooked. Happy eating! 

7 responses to “How To… Dress a Crab

  1. I have just witness a murder… Wow, you actually let them exercise before the slaughter…

    To think that I have just eaten crabs 2 days ago and my dad refer to kill them at home… Those huge ones sure can survive under the blade…

  2. Hi Fen

    I hope I didn’t offend you or any of my readers because of this post. It was my intention to show the most humane way to kill and prepare a crab for cooking. I think that killing it almost instantaneously with a knife is a lot more humane than throwing a live crab in boiling water, where it will cook alive for some time. It is also more preferable to just ripping apart the crab for cooking while it is still alive.

    Everyone (minus our vegetarians friends) has eaten some sort of animal. Cows, pigs, chickens, fish and yes, also crabs, they all had to be killed for our consumption. I think we ought to respect the animals by doing it in the most humane way and also by not wasting the food.

  3. Wow this post was awesome. Still don’t know if I could kill a crab for cooking but at least now I know how! Good work!

  4. Hi Ed

    Thanks! Yeah it takes some getting use to, I was squeamish the first time I did it. If you ever cook crab tell me how it goes.

  5. Hi David,

    I definitely know your intentions, and I have to admit that killing lobsters and crabs can be a cruel thing to do when the death is not instantaneous.

    I was reading a novel about slaughter house and out of curiousity I surfed the net for informations, the sights were tramatizing… However, I can’t resist meat so mixed feelings about it…

    By the way, does the “poking of the eye” technique work? Didn’t realize that you slit right between and below its eyestalks, cos my dad attempted a slit at the region where there is a V-shaped shell for male and a rounded shell for female, the crab didn’t die immediately, quite a struggle. Since then, he refuse to kill them at home…

  6. Fen:

    Crab and also lobster physiology is actually quite fascinating. As invertebrates (animals lacking a backbone) they are closer to insects than with other animals we normally associate with food. There is debate among scientists whether lobsters feel pain the way we humans do. (And I’m guessing that crabs are similar.) But on the safe side, I assume they do feel pain. Which is why I always want to kill them as fast as possible. There is actually an incredibly interesting book, The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson, which talks about the life of lobsters, fisherman and scientists in a very informative, simple and funny way. There are a few pages dedicated to lobster physiology and what happens when it’s cooking.

    The heart of the crab is actually located at the middle of the body where your dad cut the crab. However the heart is small and because a crab uses an open circulatory system (where its blood circulates freely throughout the body and is not confined to vessels the way our blood is,) if you miss the heart, the crab will just bleed out slowly.

    Although I have no background in science or biology, I prefer going after its “brain” (not a brain like you and I have, but a collection of nerves called the cerebral ganglia,) because it makes sense for quickly dispatching the crab. It’s located near its eyestalks and I twist the knife to cover as much area as possible, increasing my chances of hitting the tremendously small “brain,” I hope this was helpful.

    If your dad does ask his fishmonger to kill the crab for him, make sure you guys put the crab on ice for the journey home. Crabmeat spoils very quickly especially in Singapore’s warm climate. According to Chef Jasper White, for regular seafood, one hour at room temperature is equivalent to the fish being dead for another day (and crabs spoil a lot faster than fish.)

  7. Hi David,I delfniteiy know your intentions, and I have to admit that killing lobsters and crabs can be a cruel thing to do when the death is not instantaneous. I was reading a novel about slaughter house and out of curiousity I surfed the net for informations, the sights were tramatizing… However, I can’t resist meat so mixed feelings about it… By the way, does the “poking of the eye” technique work? Didn’t realize that you slit right between and below its eyestalks, cos my dad attempted a slit at the region where there is a V-shaped shell for male and a rounded shell for female, the crab didn’t die immediately, quite a struggle. Since then, he refuse to kill them at home…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s