How to Cook a Classic Maryland-Style Crab Feast
Learn how to host a real, genuine Maryland crab feast.
What Is a Maryland-Style Crab Feast?
Maryland crab feasts are a longtime tradition in the state. In the summer, friends and families gather around picnic tables to eat boiled blue crabs and a number of side dishes and cold beverages. Picking crab meat takes some time, meaning these feasts are a leisurely affair - a time to go slow and catch up. Even if you don't live in Maryland, you can recreate a Maryland-style crab feast with your friends and family by using this article as a guidebook. We walk you through how to set one up and give you our favorite crab boil and side dish recipes.
What to Know about Blue Crabs
Types of Blue Crabs
There are two types of blue crabs: soft-shelled crabs and hard-shelled crabs. Soft shelled crabs are typically pan fried or deep fried. We're going to focus on hard-shelled crabs, which are typically boiled.
When Is Blue Crab Season?
Hard-shelled blue crabs are in season from October through the end of January. The later in the season the crabs are harvested, the meatier the crab. While October to January is peak season for mature crabs, the blue crabs are fished all year long, with large crab boil feasts usually in the summer when you can eat outside.
What Size Crabs to Buy?
Crabs are given size names related to the width of the top shell, 5 inches across are smalls and anything over 7 inches are supers: you’ll probably get mediums at the fish market.
How to Buy the Best Blue Crabs
No matter which size you buy, look for a few signs that indicate freshness:
- Color: Crabs’ shells will be tinged blue with female claws having a bit of red on their claws.
- Liveliness: When you touch a crab, it should move and try to bite you to indicate it alive. Don’t buy a limp, dead crab. As soon as a crab dies, bacteria take over and start eating the crab meat making it mushy and tasteless.
- Gender: Male crabs are called jimmies and females are called sooks. Males are meatier and some crab suppliers prefer to throw the females back into the water to help keep the crab population up.
More Buying Tips
- Ask for some straw: If crabs are in straw or seaweed, ask for some after the crabs are weighed, then keep it with the crabs until you cook them.
- Buy crabs day-of: Your best bet is to buy fresh crabs the day you plan to cook them. We suggest ordering in advance but be sure to examine them when you pick them up.
How to Store Live Blue Crabs Before Cooking
Be sure to keep your crabs cool and moist. You can keep them alive in your refrigerator for a day when they are stored properly.
- Line a container large enough to hold all the crabs you bought with wet newspaper.
- Place the crabs in the container with straw or seaweed if you have it.
- Cover with more wet newspaper.
- Keep the container in the refrigerator or a cooler with ice below the first layer of newspaper.
How Many Blue Crabs to Buy
Assuming you’ll have side dishes to go with the crab, 4 or 5 crabs per person is what you’ll probably need. Most people get tired of picking crab after they’ve picked the meat out of five. If you have leftover crabs, you can store them in the shell, refrigerated, overnight and pick the meat the next day.
How to Make a Crab Boil
Special equipment: a large cooler, a 36-quart stockpot with basket insert and crab mallets
Nothing says summer like a traditional Maryland-style crab feast (AKA crab boil). Dust fresh blue crabs with zesty homemade seasoning, steam them to perfection and invite plenty of friends over to enjoy the bounty.
1: Rinse and Ice the Crabs
Rinse 4 dozen live blue crabs with cool water and transfer them to a large cooler. Top the crabs with ice and let them sit until they are still, about 1 hour. This helps them calm down and be still, which helps with layering them in the steamer.
2: Make the Seafood Seasoning
To make the seafood seasoning, grind 1/2 ounce bay leaves (about 48 leaves) in a spice grinder until finely ground. Transfer the ground bay leaves to a bowl and stir in 1 cup paprika, 1 cup celery salt and 2 tablespoons cayenne.
3: Make the Boil
Pour two 12-ounce bottles of lager beer into a 36-quart stockpot with a basket insert. Add 3 cups apple cider vinegar and 2 tablespoons of the seafood seasoning. Add 6 cups water and stir to combine. Add the steamer basket (the liquid should be below the basket), cover and bring to a boil over high heat.
4: Add the Crabs
Put 12 crabs in a single layer, shell-side up, on the steamer rack in the stockpot.
5: Add the Seasoning
Sprinkle the crabs liberally with about 1/4 cup seafood seasoning. Add another layer of crabs and some more seafood seasoning. Repeat the process, layering and sprinkling, with the remaining crabs and seasoning.
6: How Long to Boil Crabs?
Cover the stockpot and steam until the crabs are bright orange all over (there should be no traces of blue or green), 20 to 25 minutes.
7: Serve the Feast
Transfer the crabs to a large platter or rimmed baking sheet--or spread them out directly on a table covered with butcher paper -- and serve with crab mallets for cracking the shells.
How to Eat Blue Crab
First-timers, we're here for you! This is a common question.
- Twist off the legs. They should come off easily in your hands.
- Remove the apron. Turn the crab over and remove the tail flap by pulling it up with a knife. Discard the apron.
- Pull of the top shell. Put your fingers into the cavity under the apron and tug off the shell; discard it.
- Clean the crab. You'll see lots of meat inside. Remove the green stuff, the gray gills on the sides of the crab and internal organs.
- Break the crab in half. Pull the sides apart and pick out the meat and eat it from your fingers.
- Crack open the claws. Crack them with your hands or a mallet, or cut them open with fingers. Pull out the meat with your hands or a small fork.
Side Dish Recipes for a Classic Maryland-Style Crab Feast
The sides you like to serve for picnics and BBQs are the sides that will also be perfect for a crab boil feast. Corn on the cob, slaws, potato salads, bean salads, anything grilled, watermelon or pasta salad. For dessert, fruit, banana pudding or cream pie, brownies and an ice cream sundae bar are always great options.
This coleslaw’s vinegar-based dressing brings zippiness to the bowl, and it’s perfect to serve with blue crabs.
Traditional American potato salad for a traditional American party.
A crab boil needs some veggies and a starch: this pasta salad has both.
Some coconut-flavored rum brings out all the flavors in this honey and ginger dressed fruit salad.
Rich custard, vanilla wafers, fresh bananas and whipped cream are the key ingredients in our Classic Banana Pudding.