Introduction: How to Cook and Clean a Fresh Dungeness Crab

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 7: Remove Mandibles

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

Step 8: Rinse Clean

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

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

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

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.