Introduction: How to Cook and Clean a Fresh Dungeness Crab

Picture of How to Cook and Clean a Fresh Dungeness Crab

If you live on the Pacific coast, this is necessary information! Dungeness crabs are a fantastically tasty treat, as well as a lean, healthy, delicious holiday tradition. This Instructable will teach you how to cook and clean your own fresh Dungeness crab at home.

Why settle for soggy, pre-cooked and pre-picked Dungeness crab when you can prepare it fresh? Here are the basic tips you need to host your own crab feed, or make a perfect crab dinner for yourself.

Step 1: Get a Fresh Crab

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There are many options.

1) Go crabbing. Get your fishing license and set out some crab traps! If you've got a boat, or a friend with a boat, this should be easy. If not, consider getting a free boat.

2) Buy a fresh crab. Your local farmers' market might have a fresh crab stand; I got mine at the Oakland Grand Lake market. Seafood shops, yuppie grocers, and asian grocery stores may also carry fresh crab.

3) Buy a pre-cooked crab. This is sub-optimal, but will certainly do if you really can't find a live source or don't want to deal with live pinchers. In any case proceed to step 4 to clean your crab.

Note that a happy crab will be active and feisty when disturbed. Pick him* up with tongs or carefully with your hands, making sure to grab at the back of the shell. The crab can reach pretty far back under his body to pinch, but your upper fingers are quite safe. You can also grab hold of a couple of back legs on either side to immobilize your crab, but be careful not to break them off.

*you're only allowed to keep and eat the males

Step 2: Cook

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Steam or boil your crab at ~7-8 minutes/pound, lid on but cocked to allow a bit of venting. I chose to steam mine because I've got a large steamer insert, and steam decreases the amount of water retained in the body cavity. Boiling will get the job done quite well, though, and more people are likely to have a big pot than a big steamer.

If you're adding a large number of crabs, start your timer when the water comes back to a boil. Base your number of minutes on the average crab weight, not the sum total.

Round times down whenever necessary; raw/undercooked crabs can always be cooked further, while overcooked rubbery crab is unsalvageable. Thankfully there's a decent margin for error in crab-cooking.

If you're boiling, you can add some seasonings to your water. Add salt (or use sea water), a bay leaf, some celery chunks, a carrot, some pepper corns, and any other whole spices you've got sitting around. Pre-mixed crab boil seasonings are available, but not necessary.


- Take advantage of their cold-bloodedness! Chilling the crabs in the fridge or freezer just before use will slow their metabolism down enough that you can handle them easily.

- You can clean your Dungeness crabs before cooking. This keeps the mess out of the pot and allows for more crabs in the space. Just pre-chill your crab as described above, follow the instructions from steps 3-9, then cook according to this step's directions. However, this approach does require vivisection, which freaks some people out even if the crabs aren't moving. Take your pick. Also, if you've pre-cleaned and halved your crabs, re-weigh the parts (average weight of each half-crab) to determine cooking time.

- many countries/states require you to take your crabs home before breaking them down, so they can be checked for legal size by any passing fisheries officer. If you break them down while still on your boat, it may be construed as an attempt to sneak off with undersized crabs.

Step 3: Rinse and Cool

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Remove your crab from the pot, and rinse under cool water in the sink. This will stop the cooking process, cool down the shell enough for you to handle, and rinse off any icky crab guts that may have oozed out during cooking.

Flip him over a couple of times to get both sides with the spray.

From the comments:
Many people like the crab guts! I'm told they're great on rice or toast, or just sucked directly out of the shell. I was apparently raised wrong, however, so will continue to use words like "icky" and rinse out all the crab guts I see. Please feel free to post recipes that will prove me wrong!

Also, crab guts concentrate any toxins the crabs may be exposed to; make your own decisions on this point.

Step 4: Remove the Apron

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Flip up the apron and use your thumb to break it off at the back of the shell.

This is a male crab; the female's apron is wider and more oval in shape. Female crabs must be thrown back to keep the population up.

Step 5: Remove Carapace

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Stick your thumb into the hole left from removing the apron, and lift up gently but firmly. The carapace will detach from the body, trailing lots of attached guts. Fully remove the carapace.

If you want to keep the carapace for serving or dry it for your next art project, remove all of the squishy bits from its nooks and crannies. You may need to employ a small brush or tool to remove guts from the furthest recesses. After you've dislodged everything, give it a thorough spraying to make sure you've rinsed all the yuck off. Now you're ready to fill it with crab salad, or a seasoned crab/breadcrumb mixture for baked stuffed crab.

If you're drying the shell, give it a soapy scrub as well before leaving it in a warm, dry spot to dry out. An oven on the "keep warm" setting is great for this if you're in an otherwise humid place.

Step 6: Remove Gills

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Remove and discard the spongy, inedible gills from either side of the body.

Step 7: Remove Mandibles

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The mandibles are the mouthparts at the front of the crab. Crack them off and toss them out.

Step 8: Rinse Clean

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Rinse all of the greenish-brown goo out of the body; the only things left should be shell and tasty meat.

Step 9: Break in Half

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Turn the crab upside down, grip it on either side, and place your thumbs near the midline on the back (where the carapace used to be.) Push up with your thumbs and pull down with your hands; the crab should crack easily and cleanly along its center line (where the apron used to lie.)

Pull these pieces fully apart.

Step 10: Serve

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Half-crabs look nice for serving, and are a decent single-person serving if you've got some side dishes. If you've got a ton of crabs from your traps, though, why bother eating anything else?

Serve with a lemon wedge, and keep a cracker (or large knife, or slab of wood and a smashing rock) available for claw access.

Pull all of the nice large chunks of meat out of the body, then break open the legs and claws. You can pick the meat out with a tool, or forgo decorum and simply slurp it out directly. There's really no way to eat crabs delicately, so don't bother trying.

From the comments:
Use kitchen shears to slice through the sides of the legs.  You'll get easy access to the leg meat with less effort and mess.

Step 11: Extras

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1) Use the last leg segment (the crab foot/toe) to pick meat out of the legs and body. It works just as well as those special forks and picks they'd like to sell you.

2) Sauce is really unnecessary if you've got good fresh crabs; a bit of fresh lemon is plenty for flavoring. If you've got extra, and end up picking and refrigerating the meat, this is more likely to need extra flavoring. The extra meat is good with garlic butter, fresh garlicky mayonnaise or a garlicky Caesar-style dressing, or with a lemon/garlic/olive oil mixture; put it on a slice of fresh bread for good measure. Crab cakes are always good, just don't dilute your good crab meat with too much buttery breadcrumby stuff.

3) If you've got the freezer space, tuck the shell pieces away for seafood stock. A pot full of fish trimmings, crab and shrimp shells, hopefully with a bit of meat stuck to the insides, will make a great base for seafood chowders. Just be sure you don't include any gills or guts.


JimmyV26 (author)2017-01-28

Remember to humanely kill the crab before boil. Don't be a jerk.

VictoriaB74 made it! (author)2016-12-04

dinner was awesome.. thanks for the instructions!

KWDragon made it! (author)2016-08-19

Thank you! You were a last-minute dinner saver! I thought my husband knew what to do, and he thought I knew how to eat one. Lucky for us, you did!

NomaG (author)2016-07-31

thank you! First time preparing and you made it easy! So full, and so happy!

Bobby T (author)2015-10-13

I can never get past killing the thing myself. I'm a huge carnivore, but I suck so hard at killing my own food, it's pathetic... Can't do it with a crab too :/

Mustlovedogs (author)Bobby T2016-06-07

Me too... But, If you freeze it first to "tranquilize" it for 15-30 min you will limit movement. Then it's a lot easier to handle I think. I was nervous with my first lobster but no biggie.

canida (author)Bobby T2015-10-28

That's problematic! If you're going to eat it, you need to be willing to take responsibility for its death. Definitely start with less-cute things crabs, and just psych yourself up for dropping them into boiling water. Move up to fishing, then eventually go hunting. You don't have to do that every time, but should be willing/able to do it. Don't outsource your morality.

AllenG25 (author)2016-05-01

I see people, usually my guests for the crab dinner, simply rip the legs from the body. But a much easier way to get the meat is to pry the legs and the body segments together so you have crap lollipops. I usually break the legs open by twisting then corkscrew like. The only thing you need a cracker for are the hard knuckles and main claws, i save those for soup. Am i the only weirdo that prefers the body meat and legs over the big claws?

themanwoaname (author)2014-11-20

in the photo: "Gills! = tasty"
caption "remove and discard the spongy, inedible gills"

so....which is it?

I eat everything.

spyguy1 (author)themanwoaname2014-11-22

The logic symbol != means "not equal to." So the caption states (in logic shorthand): "Gills do not equal tasty."

canida (author)spyguy12015-10-28


Shizzpickle24 (author)2013-08-29

Just remember in most places (BC for one) it is illegal to split the crab at the beach/boat unless you are cooking and eating them on site. Once they are split they can no longer be checked to determine if they are of legal size and can not be transported in this manner. (unless you want to risk a several hundred dollar fine and having your equipment siezed!).
Having said that I am enjoying fresh crab tonight! (and a half crab is never enough!)

jscube (author)Shizzpickle242015-08-03

Thanks for the tip. I live in BC, and was not aware of that.

canida (author)Shizzpickle242014-11-18

Good to know! I'll add it into the Instructable.

james.clarkson.3517 (author)2015-01-06

I love the taste of seafood, especially crab. It is very difficult to clean and cook a dungeness crab; however, these are some great outlines. The pictures really help! I think that practice makes perfect; the more you do it, the more efficient you will become. <a href='' ></a>

Robbzilla (author)2014-11-25

FYI: If you're in the Dallas / Ft Worth Metroplex. many of the Vietnamese markets have live Dungeness and blue crab available, along with catfish, abalone, mussels, clams, and lobster. The Korean market on Royal & 35 also sells live flounder or sole. My Korean is poor, so I'm not 100% sure which one it is.

rodneywong (author)2014-11-21

Nice instructable, but just a few comments.

Steaming preserves the flavor and won't wash it out as boiling does.

Yes, I agree the tomalley and crab butter is delicious! If you don't want it, shake the body downwards to remove most of it. Rinsing crab under water washes out taste.

And a note on getting a boat and going crabbing: Find a pier or jetty and toss a net or snares, or from a kayak. Dungeness is legal outside of the Golden Gate in Ocean waters, and unless you're experienced you really shouldn't be acquiring any old boat and going out there. Take a boating safety course, or take an experienced Captain with you to show you the ropes.

Mech (author)2007-01-18 this step, you're rinsing out the crab mustard! That stuff makes half the taste!

canida (author)Mech2007-01-18

Yeah, but it's an acquired taste. People who need crab-cooking instructions definitely won't like it. :-)

themanwoaname (author)canida2014-11-20

it doesnt get acquired; unless you eat it.

TheCritic (author)Mech2012-02-21

I agree 100%. Some people are just ignorant and to squeamish about the innards of the crab . Yet what they don't know is that they may be eating it when they go out to eat cause most GOOD restaurants use it as a sauce. All they need is to know how to prepare it.

ryoko1011 (author)Mech2009-05-31

I love crab, but personally I never cared for the mustard very much...

jcrowley10 (author)2014-10-30

Note about the guts: PSP (paralytic shellfish poisoning) can occur from consuming dungy crab organs. Nothing to mess around with, so caveat edor (let the eater beware)

canida (author)jcrowley102014-11-18

That's concerning! Think I'll avoid acquiring that taste. :)

anneemde33 (author)2014-08-25

I moved to the PNW from "flyover country" (Omaha) and was a little freaked about dropping a live thing into boiling water, but after all, it's just a big sea spider, right?

Anyway, thanks for all the tips. Loved the photo instructions.

canida (author)anneemde332014-11-18

Tasty sea spiders! And welcome to the west coast. :)

axanthicsurf (author)2013-11-24

I might add. If you caught your own crab clean the outside before cooking. I use a steel brush for cleaning bbq grills. Cheap and effective. I use to live in SF and I snare my own crabs! Can't beat the best meal after a hard work catching them. lol

canida (author)axanthicsurf2014-11-18

Good tip! And yes, nothing beats Dungeness season. :)

CHIEFGR8TWOLF (author)2013-10-07

I have had the luck to visit family in Washington state and go crabbing with them. I saw some strange things get brought into the trap that I had not dealt with before that. But since they show me such a good time I decided to cook the crabs for them. Where I am from we catch crabs by the bushel in Seattle they were only allowed six of the legal size for each fisher which netted us about 24, not to mention all the star fish, octupuss, and spider crabs we had to throw back. After steaming them and seeing the meatiness of these crabs I could see why! Even with eight of us we could not finish them all. So I cleaned the left overs and used them the next day to stuff and grill some salmon fish. My family said they had not had that much fun cooking and spending time like that in awhile. Family cooked food and fun conversation is always a great way to get the family together. Good tip on the cold, we just use ice in the cooler with the drain open slows them down but doesn't drown them.

canida (author)CHIEFGR8TWOLF2014-11-18

That sounds excellent.

seasaltstory (author)2013-06-24

Thanks for the great instructions. I found the taste of dungeness crab "mustard" aka tomalley to be very different from the tomalley of lobsters and blue crabs, both of which I love to eat. I cooked a couple live dungeness crabs this past weekend, and tasted the tomalley of both, but they were bitter and I thought, "there's NO WAY I can acquire a taste for that!" I was surprised, because I find the tomalley of lobsters and blue crabs to be so yummy! Anyway, I did some more research, and read that depending on the season, the tomalley of any of those crustaceans can be bitter. So I'll definitely try dungeness crab tomalley again in the future. However, tomalley does contain filtered toxins (PCBs and some other scary sounding stuff), so I won't be eating it as much as I'd like to.

Geofficus (author)2012-12-14

...finally! Someone ELSE that knows this technique! I learned how when I was like 20 in Sooke BC (ironically where I now reside 19 years later) my GF's dad took me down to the docks, said "pull those up" so I hauled in two traps each containing about 50 or so...he quickly gauged them and tossed back about five or six only! He instructed me to grab them firmly with one side of legs in each hand (can't remember wearing gloves but I was pinched today by a keeper right on the end of my thumb!) and thrust them face first on a 1/2 " steel threaded rod that was protruding from the dock...snap them in half at that point, rinse in the sea and in the bucket they went!! Ate so much that Xmas dinner evening I never touched crab again for about five years.......deprived of fresh Dungies TILL NOW!!!! Nom nom nom nom nom the beach is forty steps away! nom nom nom nom

jrohn (author)2012-11-13

A personal note on crabbing. I have seen some many people keep their caught crabs in a bucket of seawater. This will kill your catch before you can cook it. The crab will use up all the air in the water and actually drown.. I know people who left dead crabs in their bucket overnight before cooking and got sick from eating their crab. Just place them in a dry bucket!!

ProfessorCat (author)2012-08-06

As bottom eaters, crabs filter the water through their gills so the gills are not edible.
But the other stuff in the shell is delicious! they are to the crab like what egg yolk is to an egg. Although some people don't like egg yolks, throwing it out is such a waste.

cveale (author)2012-05-19

Crab gills are in no way or shape poisonous. They're just not edible, like feathers.

RoboticKop (author)2010-09-26

The gills are has a nice crunchy yet soft texture. what do you mean by not edible? Do you mean it does not have nutrients?

TheCritic (author)RoboticKop2012-02-21

Gills are NOT an edible part of the crab IN NO WAY due to the toxins which may filter through them along with the bad texture and taste.

SandySprueill (author)RoboticKop2011-09-26

I believe that what he means is that the gills are actually very bad for you. The gills are full of toxins and metals that the crab (a bottom feeder) has come into contact with during his lifetime.

I'm sure that they have a nice texture and may be completely edible for some species but for dungeness I would strongly suggest not eating the gills.

psycho_candy (author)2011-12-30

Dude, I'm Asian, I think this guy is totally nuts for getting rid of all the "icky guts" of the crab. As Bunk said in the Wire: "Damn white people, throw away the best part of the crab." But you DON'T eat the gills on a Dungeness Crab, that is just plain WRONG.

TheCritic (author)psycho_candy2012-02-21

I am from the states and I agree TOTALLY. HUGE FAIL THERE.

Can't believe how ignorant some people can be to throw away the best part of the crab. Most of ALL the micheline star restaurants use this to make a GREAT sauce to go along with the crab.

toftie (author)2008-12-16

I would actually recommend the most humane and easy way (although takes a good stomach) is finding a spot outside with a sharp edge (counter top type edge) that is extremely sturdy. I actually use the stainless steel sink edge or the cleat (used to tie the boat to the dock) and you hold the live crab by it's legs in two hands (one hand on each side holding the legs together) right side up (hard full shell on top) and slam the front part of the shell (where the eyes are) down on the edge of the counter/cleat so as to completely rip the top shell off the crab. Kills them instantly and then you just run them through water and you can clean it perfectly without having to crack it in half or pull it apart. Keeps it nice and whole but clean if you wanted to cook it in spaghetti sauce for example. I could post some video or pictures if it would help.

tmccloskey1 (author)toftie2011-11-24

My girlfriend does it this way and when she was explaining it to me, I didn't understand. Your directions make much more sense! Gonna try this next time!

freebird314 (author)toftie2008-12-19

A video would be great. I perfer to steam my crabs, being I'm from the East Coast. Cleaning them first sounds like a great idea!

tmccloskey1 (author)2011-11-24

Thanks for the great information! I'm a "newbie" to this whole live crab thing. I love crab as does my family but I've always purchased it cooked, cleaned and cracked. I followed your instructions to a "T" and it was so incredibly easy! My 10 year old and I had 15 crabs cleaned "live" and the mess cleaned up within an hour! They are in the pot cooking as we speak! Thank you for making this so simple for me! Happy Thanksgiving!

sauwen (author)2011-08-05

Noooo!! That gooey stuff is the best part!! Nom nom nom.

calba (author)2011-07-29

When I eat crab or lobster, to get to the bones I use a compact letter opener—the ones with the razors.

poj (author)2009-02-01

I can't believe that you're cleaning out the "guts" in your instructions. For many of us, that is called the "mustard." It adds so much taste. For those of us who actually know how to eat crab, eating it without the mustard is so bland. And for those that batter it, it takes away from the natural taste of it and makes it taste like anything else that is deep fried and battered. I wish more people could have an open mind instead of being "grossed out" by actually the best part.

funkisockmunki (author)poj2011-07-13

It's also a safety issue. The guts are often high in levels of PBCs and other contaminants. They are bottom feeders ya know, and we've been polluting the heck out of the oceans for decades.

funkisockmunki (author)2011-07-13

Great tutorial with beautiful pictures. I came here hoping to get up the courage to hunt and kill one for food while scuba diving, but have just lost my appetite. (no fault of yours, just wow, yuck!). I'll have to forward it to my friend to see if he is up for vivisection or ripping creature parts off and rinsing goo out of them. Thanks canida!

ivy99 (author)2009-07-19

very helpful tutorial but speaking as an asian person, i'm pretty horrified at the fact that you're removing all the good bits under the shell and rinsing it off... what a waste. i'd suggest putting some of the soft squishy bits on some rice. treat it like its a delicious pat of butter

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Bio: I've been posting Instructables since the site's inception, and now build other things at Autodesk. Follow me for food and more!
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