Steamed Crabs Annapolis Maryland – Every summer, people from near and far flock to the Maryland coast to get their fill of blue crab. Here now, how and where is crab season.
Summers in Maryland aren’t crab-free summers. And not just any crab: We’re talking about the delicate and sweet Chesapeake Bay blue crab size, whose Latin name Callinectes sapidus means “beautiful swimmer.” There are few things that excite Marylanders more than tearing into a bushel of crab seasoned encrusted red-shelled beauties, or enjoying the delicacy of a deep-fried soft shell, accompanied by an ice-cold Natty Boh.
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Marylanders prepare hard shells and other seafood by steaming them, rather than the boiling common along the rest of the East Coast and Louisiana. Marylanders will tell you that boiling makes the crabmeat wet, rather than just moist. (Proponents of boiling argue that steaming pushes the internal temperature too high and dries out the meat). the spice rubbing on the crabmeat from their fingers. Consequently, in Maryland, steam is usually the only option on offer.
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Blue crabs can be found in waters as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Uruguay, but the crustacean’s strongest association has always been with Maryland. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, about 50 percent of the country’s blue crab crop comes from Maryland waters.
And they are an essential part of the region’s culinary heritage. “Blue crab is part of Maryland’s holy trinity of seafood, consisting of oysters, rockfish and blue crab,” says chef Spike Gjerde of Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen.
Gjerde is the first Baltimore chef to win the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, and he grew up in Baltimore. He knows his crabs about him: “The blue crab is really unlike any other crab in the world, thanks to the growing conditions and the type of estuary we have here,” he says. “In my opinion they are superior to any other crab.”
The lazy might prefer the larger West Coast Dungeness crabs, which are much larger and easier to eat. Many restaurants use the cheapest pasteurized crab from Asia for their dishes. But not all crabs are created equal. Gjerde notes that other crab species lack the depth of flavor and delicate texture of blue crabs. “Seasons have a lot to do with that,” he says. “The season typically starts around [April] and lasts until the cold weather hits in November. Seasonality has definitely influenced our appreciation of blue crab over the years, which is why it holds the place it does in the way of Chesapeake life.”
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From a scientific point of view, the need for hibernation is the main reason that Maryland crabs taste better than other types of crab and also taste better than blue crabs from other waters, according to Steve Vilnit of the Department of Resources natural disasters of Maryland, Fisheries Services. He explains that just like other hibernating creatures, crabs need to build up fat deposits to sustain them during their dormant period. “This gives our crabs a buttery flavor you won’t find anywhere else,” says Vilnit. “For someone who knows what they’re looking for, it’s possible to tell by eye which ones are from Maryland, but it will most likely be by taste.”
So how do you look at a crab and know if it’s from Maryland? One way is the color of the blubber, often called mustard by locals, which is a darker shade of yellow, according to Captain Frank Updike Sr. of Natural Light Charters, who leads crabbing and fishing trips with his son Frank Jr.
The easiest ways to make sure you get your Maryland crabs are first to ask and second to visit True Blue certified restaurants from the state of Maryland. The certification verifies through restaurant receipts that at least 75 percent of the crab or crabmeat used during the year came from Maryland.
But as Updike says, “Yes, Maryland crabs taste better. But even if a blue crab isn’t from Maryland, it’s still going to taste good.”
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Many consider softshell crabs to be a delicacy and a way to enjoy crabs without the daunting task of harvesting them. Soft shells are any crab that has moulted within the last 12 hours. During that time the shells are soft and papery, so they can be eaten whole, claw to claw, except for the gills and parts of the abdomen. These parts are removed before being cooked, so diners can eat with abandon.
Crabs typically die 18 to 23 times during their lifetimes and can only mate when a female is moulting. Because the crab spends only about 12 hours as a soft shell, crabs look closely for the sign that a crab is about to molt: the development of a line on the last leg, known as a paddler’s fin, that starts out white and progresses into pink and then red as it approaches moulting.
These pre-molting crabs, known as potato peelers, are usually kept in a special spatter tank until they hatch out of their old shells. The then precious softies are removed from the water to prevent their shells from hardening before being cooked and eaten.
Before finding their way to a dish, the soft shells are typically fried in a seasoned batter or stir-fried. It’s hard not to love something fried, but many natives consider sautéing the best option so as not to overwhelm the sweetness of the meat. Both methods keep the fatty mustard inside and typically result in a crab gushing with juice.
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At most Maryland seafood restaurants, soft shells are served as a sandwich with mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato, or simply on a plate that is enjoyed with a fork and knife. But of course many chefs have taken the classic further, placing it in the pervasive soft shell sushi roll, as well as tacos and atop pizzas.
Maryland crab season begins in April and runs through December. But much of what is found in crab houses early in the season or in winter comes from North Carolina and Louisiana.
The Maryland crabs that are served in April and early May are typically those that have stayed up north over the winter and dug themselves into the mud. Then, around Memorial Day, the initial supply is depleted and the crabbers await the crabs that are still migrating along the bay.
While June through August are the most favorite and tradition-laden times to eat crabs, September and October are the best times to get the biggest and fattest hard crabs at the best prices.
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Maryland’s soft cover season usually runs from mid-May through September. Because they’re a delicacy, the best time to eat them is when you can get them. However, they are usually the least expensive early in the season.
Mustard/Tomalley: Found in all crabs, tomalley, known as mustard in the mid-Atlantic, is the fat of the crab. It can range in color from white to Dijon mustard yellow to a greenish color. It is included with most prepackaged crabmeat to enrich its flavor.
Eggs: Found in mature female crabs, crab eggs are a bright orange color. When steamed it solidifies and is often used as a condiment in Chinese cuisine for dishes such as pork and crab soup dumplings or tofu.
Jumbo lump: These are the large chunks of meat attached to the crab’s swimming fins. It is favored for its presentation and size, and is correspondingly more expensive.
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Backfin: Backfin meat comes from the body of the crab and broken pieces of nodule. It tends to have a more crumbly texture than lump and is less expensive.
Apron: This is the flap on the white underside of a crab, ending in a point. They can be used to judge the sex and maturity of the crab.
Jimmy: These are male crabs; the tip of the apron is long and narrow. Adults have locking spines that allow them to open and close their apron for mating. These are typically preferred for consumption due to their size and have higher availability due to higher catch limits.
Sally: Also known as crabs, these are adolescent female blue crabs. Their entire apron forms a triangle and their blue claws are tipped with red. The aprons do not open as they are not ready to mate or carry eggs. Typically these are rejected due to their small size and reproductive potential.
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Sook: Mature female blue crabs are identified by an apron that is shaped like an upside-down U with a triangular point at the end. She also has blue claws with red tips. Sooks are usually less expensive and end up in collection houses due to their small size. Some say sooks have sweeter flesh than jimmies.
Sponge Crab: Sponge crabs are mature females that have fertilized
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