Photography by Michael Hrizuk
The words molted and exoskeleton probably won’t make mouths water outside of the Lowcountry, but for us locals, those terms get us hankering for blue crab — deep fried, sautéed or grilled. One of the many perks of living here is soft-shell crab season — that magical two-hour window when delicious blue crabs shed their protective covering and can be eaten almost entirely. They hold all the flavor of your everyday crab without any of the hassle of prying meat from its sharp, thick shell.
Soft-shell crabs come into season along the East Coast when the water temperature rises above 50 degrees. The farther down the coast you travel, the longer the season lasts. The season used to start around the second week of April, but that hasn’t been the case lately.
“It’s very hard to predict the start of the season but I can tell you, the last three years, we have gotten going earlier than has been the norm,” said Andrew Carmines of Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks. “We have started March 17, 13, and 8th the last three years. The start will depend on water temperature on the bottom.”
Great places to get them
If you’re looking for local soft-shell crab, keep an eye on the social media pages of the following restaurants and grocery stores. Just remember to be patient, as availability is day-to-day. If a restaurant doesn’t have a supply problem, then their crabs probably aren’t local and fresh. Check early in the day and change your lunch and dinner plans accordingly.
- Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks
- Michael Anthony’s Cucina Italiana
- ELA’s On the Water
- Charlie’s L’etoile Verte
- Sea Grass Grille
- The Sage Room
- Piggly Wiggly HHI
- Red Fish
- Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Bar
- Bluffton Oyster Company
- A Lowcountry Backyard
- Skull Creek Boathouse
- Benny Hudson Seafood
- Sea Eagle Market
Charlie’s L’etoile Verte
Pan-fried soft-shell crabs with spiced pecans noisette
2 cups House Autry breading
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 medium soft-shell crabs, cleaned and rinsed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup pecan pieces
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
Pinch of cumin
Lemon wedges, for serving
Directions  Prepare the soft-shell crabs. Put the seafood breading in a pie dish or plate and season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Dredge the crabs in the seasoned flour to coat, shaking off the excess.  Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high flame. Lay the crabs in the hot oil in a single layer without crowding; you may have to fry them in batches. Be careful, the crabs have a tendency to pop and spatter. Cook the crabs for about 3 minutes on each side, turning once, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and cover to keep warm.  Lower the heat to medium and add the butter to the pan. Let the butter melt and start to bubble. Add the pecans and spices; cook, stirring, for 2 minutes until nuts are toasted and butter is browned. Serve soft shell crabs with pecan-butter mixture while hot along with lemon wedges.
Pretzel fried soft-shell crab
4 live soft-shell crabs, cleaned
2 jalapeños, sliced
2 cups buttermilk
2 cups House Autry breading
2 cups pretzels, fine ground
1 tablespoon corn starch
2 tablespoons Lusty Monk “Original Sin” mustard (can substitute stone ground mustard)
1 cup crème fraiche (can substitute sour cream)
1 teaspoon chives, minced
2 cups arugula
1 lemon, juiced
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Directions  Heat your fryer to 365 degrees. Meanwhile, prepare the softshell crabs (below).  Place the prepared crabs and sliced jalapeños in a small bowl and add the buttermilk to cover. Allow to soak for 20 minutes.  Meanwhile, prepare your breading by placing the pretzels in a food processor and grind until fine. Combine with the House Autry breading and cornstarch until completely incorporated.  To make the crema, combine the mustard, crème fraiche and chives and whisk together until combined.  Remove the crabs and jalapeños from the buttermilk and drain. Toss in the prepared pretzel breading and drop in the fryer carefully. Cover the items with another basket to allow them to stay submerged. Stand back and be careful as the crabs will pop and splash grease (we call them crab bombs). Fry for 90 seconds or until golden brown. Remove from the grease and pat dry. Serve immediately.  Toss the arugula with the lemon, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Plate the crabs on a platter with the dressed arugula, place the jalapeños throughout the dish, and serve the crema in a ramekin. Happy cooking!
How to prepare softshell crab
Here is the method chef Sean Carroll of Alexander’s uses to prepare the soft-shell crab used in this recipe: Using a pair of kitchen shears, remove the front of the soft-shell crab by cutting 1/2 inch behind the mouth and eyes. Squeeze out the contents of the sac behind the cut that was made. Remove the gills from both sides of the crab. Turn the crab over and remove the flap known as the apron. Rinse and pat dry.