Atlantic blue crabs have shed their shells to make way for summer growth, meaning soft-shell season has commenced and restaurants are rushing to put them on their menus. These crispy crustaceans are all the rage this time of year, so we asked local chefs: What’s your favorite way to prepare them? And, what are some tips for cooking softies at home?
Delaney Oyster House executive chef Shamil Velazquez, who gets his soft-shells from Braden Oyster Farm in Beaufort, said he sold 72 crabs the first weekend of the season.
“I think what gets people excited is it’s one of those things that just comes around so few times throughout the year,” he said. “I just had my parents in from Puerto Rico. I bought a couple, fried them up, and they were mind-blown that you could eat a crab from A to Z.”
At the Calhoun Street restaurant, Velazquez said they process the crabs “as close to service as possible” to maintain freshness. On the menu now is a fried softie coated in a honey-walnut sauce made using mayonnaise, sweetened condensed milk, lemons and turmeric.
“It comes out looking really glossy, sweet and tangy,” said Velazquez, describing the dish as an ode to the honey-walnut shrimp you might find at your favorite Chinese restaurant.
Over in Mount Pleasant at Ville Sainte Bistro, owner Carole Robert also sold around 72 crabs — or two “flats” — the first weekend she served soft-shells, which she purchased from Tarvin Seafood. Robert prefers to saute rather than fry her crabs because of how delicate the meat is, she said.
“I have tasted it many times fried, and to me, it takes away from the delicacy. I literally saute them with butter, garlic and parsley,” said Robert, whose restaurant serves French cuisine with a reliance on local ingredients. “That preparation is called ‘persillade,’ and we use it for the escargot as well. From beginning to end for that dish to hit the table, it’s a good 20 minutes.”
In that 20-minute time frame, Robert butchers the crabs to order. For home cooks looking to prepare softies, she suggests either learning how to butcher the crabs or finding a place that will clean them for you, like CudaCo. on James Island.
CudaCo. co-owners Chris John and Shaun Brian pick up their soft-shell crabs daily from a top-secret purveyor near Bulls Bay. According to Brian, whose seafood market prides itself on sustainability, proper handling of the crabs is essential.
“The biggest thing with softies is they don’t sit inside the tank for too long after they molt, so in that regard we end up with the softest soft-shell crab possible,” he said, describing the process when crabs shed their shell. It takes a couple days for a new shell to form — the soft-shell crabs that end up on our plate are caught during this time frame.
CudaCo.’s crabs are cleaned and prepped to order for $14. By maintaining them alive until purchase, CudaCo. offers the freshest product possible, Brian said.
“For that price point, we’re going ahead and getting them prepped,” said Brian, who starts by cutting off the head — he calls this technique the most “humane” approach.
“Then after we do that, we clip the gills out, which can have sand and mud. We then take a little spoon and pull out the liver, but make sure not to disrupt any of the head fat. By taking out the liver inside, it just helps to maintain that freshness.”
At CudaCo., Brian also serves a soft-shell crab sandwich ($20) that combines the crab with a lemony, Duke’s Mayonnaise-based house-made remoulade. For folks looking to cook up their crabs at home, Brian has a simple suggestion.
Start by rinsing the crabs before coating in cornstarch. Then, set a pan up on medium heat with clarified butter, coconut oil, grapeseed oil, canola oil or peanut oil.
“You just simply season the crab, dust it very lightly with some cornstarch and then just pan fry it with about a tablespoon of oil,” he said.
Velazquez said that home cooks should be wary of the excess liquid inside the crabs, which can get messy. And when it comes to preparation, he agrees with Brian — let the crab shine with a minimalist preparation.
“I suggest that they have some sort of frying screen, or else oils will get everywhere,” said Velazquez, cautioning against an overheated pan. “Don’t over complicate it. Let the crabs speak for themselves.”