In general, Dungeness crabs can be found year-round, at least on the West coast. They are usually sold boiled whole or in parts, but I always opt for live if I have the choice. They may also be sold picked, but that form is much less common. Crabs purchased out of season can be pricey and often yield much less meat than their in-season counterparts. So, as hard as it may be to resist, I usually try to hold out until the season opens. Dungeness crab season varies by jurisdiction but generally opens in October or November. For us here in California it was November 4th this year. By now those crabs have had the chance to start making it to market. The crabs available from now until Christmas will be some of the cheapest and meatiest of the year. Right before Christmas they’ll start to get expensive again as demand for crabs spikes. Crabs are a big part of many West Coast families’ holiday meals. Crab season is a long one and will remain open until early Summer, but the crabs right now feel special. We’ve waited a long time for them and they are at their peak. Make sure to go out and get a few between now and Valentine’s day. You’ll be glad you did.
When you pick up your next batch of these sweet and delicious crabs, you can simply boil them and dip them in butter. Fresh crabs are certainly good enough to stand alone. I’d also recommend you give my crab cakes recipe a try.
If you get a chance, find your way onto a recreational crab fishing boat and pull a few of your own out of the water. It is a unique and fun experience, provided you don’t mind getting a little cold. You can feel good about eating Dungeness crabs whether harvested commercially or recreationally. The Pacific coast Dungeness crab fishery is the best managed crab fishery on the planet. They are limited by season, size, and sex with only male crabs harvested. The numbers of crabs taken is tightly managed and is a great example of how sustainable harvesting of seafood helps both consumers and oceans. The crabs are abundant and not overly pressured and should feed us for generations to come.
When you head to the market to pick up crabs, I always recommend finding them live. These can be found at quality seafood specialty stores and at Asian grocery stores. The latter is usually much cheaper and they keep tons of them on hand especially early in the season. When you purchase live crabs look for animals that are active and intact, meaning they have all their legs and claws, and do not have any cracks in the shell. Boiled crabs are available at almost any grocery store on the Pacific coast. You may have to search a little harder in inland markets. On the East coast, you may have to buy blue crabs instead. Boiled crabs should feel heavy and be intact. They should be bright orange with no black spots at the joints. Black discoloration on a cooked crab indicates mishandled animals. The meat will be mushy and could have off flavors. The shells should be hard. If you can smell them, don’t buy them. Crabs are pretty self-contained and if the meat is making a strong enough smell that you notice in the refrigerated case before you even crack them, something is wrong. Of course, some seafood markets boil crabs all day long, so if the smell is coming from boiling crabs, that is another story. That is usually an indicator that you are getting really fresh crabs.
Once you have purchased your crabs, you can get a tutorial on how to process them HERE.
Keep your crabs or crab meat as close to freezing as possible, but don’t let them freeze. Consume within about 48 hours. I try to eat crab the same day it is boiled. Live crabs will survive for up to 8 hours out of water if you keep them damp. I usually run a little cool water over them every hour until I’m ready to cook them. The sooner the better though.
Crab is a sweet and succulent meat. It makes a great addition to a quesadilla or your favorite mac and cheese recipe. It goes well in many pasta dishes. It can be added to a steamed mussels or clams dish, and is a great topping for a salad. It makes a great topping for a lean fish fillet or a good steak. It can be the star of a low country boil or in California we like to boil them all by themselves. I hope you’ll take advantage of this great seafood, right away, in the best time of year. It just doesn’t get any better than fresh crab in the winter.