As we looked around the market, Kyle caught sight of some pretty soft shell crabs in the case, and suggested them for dinner. I commented that yeah, they looked good, but I had no idea what to do with them once I got them home. One of the guys working overheard me and asked to what I was referring. I pointed to the crabs, and he responded, "Oh, you just clean 'em, bread 'em and fry 'em." He then pulled one out of the case and gave me a quick tutorial on cleaning a soft shell crab. He offered to clean our for us, but added that it was best to clean them right before cooking. I decided that it looked easy enough for me to handle, and we bought two, packed them in our cooler and took them home.
Soft shell crabs are blue crabs that have molted their hard exterior shell. They must be harvested immediately after molting, as they begin to grow a new, hard shell. Molting season is generally May- late July, which means we caught probably some of the last soft shells of the season. Since the shells are so soft, after a quick cleaning the crabs can be eaten whole, shell and all. Soft shell crabs generally arrive to market "fresh", meaning they are no longer alive. They should smell clean and "ocean-y", not like ammonia or stinky rotting fish.
Cleaning them is very simple. I was intimidated at first, but it's not hard at all. (And really not very messy- cutting up a chicken is a messier ordeal.) First, with the crab "right side up", lift the shell up (kind of like the crab's shoulder... if crabs had shoulders...) There are grey gills there (my fishmonger called them "dead man's fingers"). With a small knife, cut them out. Repeat on the other side.
Flip the crab onto its back. There is a small flap on the crab's belly. Use the tip of the knife to pull it down and trim it off.
Flip the crab back over. Using kitchen shears trim off the eyes and mouth about 1/2" back.
You're done cleaning! Since I'd never cooked soft shell crabs before, I decided to keep my preparation simple. I sprinkled the cleaned crabs with Old Bay Seasoning and dredged them in flour, then dipped them in beaten eggs. I let the excess egg drip off, then coated them in cornmeal. I set them on a rack to allow the crust to set while I heated some canola oil in a heavy bottomed skillet. I filled it about 3/4" and using a fry thermometer, brought the temperature to 350F. Once it was hot, I fried the crab for about 3-4min on each side. I removed them to a clean rack with paper towels under it to drain, and sprinkled them with some more Old Bay while they were hot.
Many seafood joints will serve a whole fried soft shell crab on a bun as a sandwich, often with a remoulade or tartar sauce. Since, in addition to never cooking one, I'd also never eaten one, I decided to skip the bun and sauce and just eat it plain. I also kept the sides simple, just a nice fluffy baked potato and some corn on the cob.
They were quite good, and surprisingly easy to prepare. The meat was juicy and sweet, and the cornmeal crust (and shell) gave it a pleasant crunch.
It was a fun experience, stepping a bit out of my comfort zone to try cooking something new. It has definitely made me a bit more confident to venture deeper into the weird world of seafood cookery... although I don't think I'll ever cook a live lobster. I just don't like lobster meat enough for all that work... and guilt.