The crab is a shellfish with over 400 different varieties, not all of them being edible. Most have a rather rounded, flattened body. They all have a hard outer shell that is shed and regrown many times. This allows the crab to grow. It is at this stage that we get soft-shell crab. They get this name only because their new shell has not yet hardened. They all have 5 pair of legs and the first pair has a set of claws which will vary in size according to the type of crab. The meat of those listed below are all great tasting and are similar enough to be interchanged in recipes.
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The blue crab, which is the most popular crab on the east coast, can be found in shallow water from New Jersey to the Gulf of Mexico. The largest concentration is found in the Maryland and Virginia area. They average 5-7 inches across the body with the largest on record measuring 10.72 inches. They have a brownish or dark greenish color with blue tinges on the back and a cream color underneath. The male crab has blue tipped claws and the female has red tipped claws. To fishermen a male is known as a Jimmie, a young female is called a Sally or a She crab and an adult female is a Sook.
The blue, like other crab, shed their hard shell during a molting period which enables them to grow and change their shape. After they shed their shell they have a temporary soft-shell which will eventually harden, usually in just a few hours. At this time they are known as busters or soft-shell crab. It goes through this process about 20 times in its lifetime. The blue crab matures in 12-18 months and has an average life span of about 3-4 years. The blue crab can be bought live in both the hard and soft-shell stages. In the soft-shell stage it is eaten shell and all after cleaning and cooking. The blue crab is the only one sold commercially as soft-shell crab. It can also be purchased as plain, cooked meat. When sold as plain meat it can be found as lump, flake and claw meat. Lump meat comes from the body, flake meat from the legs and the claw meat which has a brownish tint is from the claws. After cooking, the shell of the blue crab turns red.
The Dungeness crab, also known as San Francisco, market and common crab gets its name from the town of Dungeness, Washington where the first commercial catches were made. It is the most popular crab on the west coast and can be found from Alaska to Baja California.
It has a hard shell that is light reddish brown and white to light orange underneath. The claws of the crab have white tips. They average 1 ½ to 3 ½ pounds and 8- 9 inches across the back. In the waters off Washington state they can grow to 10 inches across but elsewhere the average is closer to 7 inches.
The Dungeness crab, like other crab molt to rid them of their shell and allow them to grow. In their first 2 years they will molt as many as 6 times a year. They have a lifespan of about 8-10 years. At 4 years they will have grown to harvesting size which is about 6-7 inches. Many areas have regulations restricting harvest of anything under 5 3/4 inches across.
Dungeness crab can occasionally be bought live but it is more frequently bought frozen or cooked in the shell. It can also be bought as cooked, picked meat. If you can obtain live ones make sure that they are lively. The shell will turn bright red when cooked. If buying whole cooked crab in the shell the crab should feel fairly heavy for the size, this shows a good quantity of meat. Also make sure the legs are tucked in. This will show that they were cooked live. Stay away from ones with dangling legs. About ¼ of Dungeness crabs weight will be meat which is a pretty high percentage in the crab world.. The larger the crab the better the yield will be. If you are using cooked crab, remember, just reheat it don’t overcook it. For tips on cooking see; HOW TO COOK DUNGENESS CRAB
The Jonah can be found from Nova Scotia to Florida on the Atlantic coast. It has a brick red to purplish top shell with a yellow belly and averages 1 pound but can grow to 1 ¾ pounds and over 7 inches wide. It is a deep water crab which was once a throw away for people fishing for lobsters. Today because of its taste and the decreasing population of other crabs, the Jonah is becoming much more popular. Jonahs are a close relative to rock crabs although they are bigger and have larger claws. They are similar in shape to Dungeness, with their oval shell, although they have much larger claws and meat that is denser. They are also known as Atlantic Dungeness . For cooking instructions see, HOW TO COOK JONAH CRAB
As the name denotes, the king crab is the largest and most prized of the crab family. It averages 4-10 pounds but they have been known to reach 24 pounds and 6 feet from tip to tip. They have a lifespan of about 20 years. The king is found in the cold waters in northern seas, and is also known as red or Alaska king. The Bering Sea of Alaska is the largest harvest area. It has a heavy, spiny shell that turns orange after cooking. The king crab comes in 3 types, blue, red and brown or golden. The Red being the largest and most flavorful, is the most common and most important commercially.
Government regulations put strict harvest seasons on the king crab. The season is usually set up between November and February and can last anywhere from 1 day to about a month depending on the supply.
Red kings are maroon-red and grow by molting, shedding their shell. They do this as often as five times in their first year and less often as they get older. Because of its size, king crabs are not sold live, but are usually cooked and frozen on the harvesting boat. Almost all king crab sold in the United States is pre-cooked, frozen legs and claws. The cooked legs are sold according to size. There will be numbers like 6-9, 9-12, 20-30 etc. This will tell you how many legs are in 10 pounds of crab. The smaller the number, the larger the legs will be. When cooked, the meat will be white, highlighted with bright red. For tips on cooking see; HOW TO COOK KING CRAB
The oyster crab is a small soft-shell crab about ½ inch across, which is found primarily living in the shells of oyster. They may be eaten raw, deep-fried or sautéed.
The snow crab, also known as queen or spider crab, is a popular on the west coast and is found from Alaska to Mexico. The vast majority of snow crab harvested come from Alaska, Japan and the Atlantic coast of Canada and Maine.
They have long slender legs and a hard rounded shell and a life span of about 14 years. In the United States only males may be marketed commercially.
There are 2 types of snow crab sold on the market, the opilio and the bairdi. The opilio, which is the most important commercially, is found in both the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. The bairdi also known as tanner crab, is the larger of the two, averaging 5 pounds and 3 feet tip to tip where the opilio average a little over a pound, 6 inches across the back and 2 ½ feet from tip to tip. Snow crab is usually sold as cooked legs, claws, clusters or body meat, in or out of the shell. The cooked body meat is white and the leg meat, which is the best eating, is white and bright red. For tips on cooking see; HOW TO COOK SNOW CRAB
Stone crabs are found on the east coast, south of North Carolina and are most are commercially harvested in the Florida area. They have a very thick shell with large, black tipped claws and grow to about 5 inches wide. Government regulations prohibit commercial harvesting of whole crabs so only the claws are eaten. The stone crab has the ability to grow back a lost claw, so the fishermen twist off one of the claws and return the live crabs to the sea. The claw grow back after the crab molts once or twice. For tips on cooking see; HOW TO COOK STONE CRAB