Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Food section’s recent crab taste test — well, other than the winner — was that the judges scored all four samples higher in appearance than in taste. Coincidence? Or evidence of a certain truth about jumbo lump crab: that the smooth, pearl-like beauty of the shellfish muscles prompts a gustatory anticipation that the meat doesn’t always satisfy.
Or maybe this is more accurate: The anticipation is satisfied only by a certain crab sold at a certain time of the year, when the meat is sweet and fatty.
The world of crabmeat has become so complicated — and so international, with producers in Venezuela, China, the Philippines and Indonesia — that it’s nearly impossible to know which country’s product (or even what species) has been used in your “Maryland crab cake,” that iconic sandwich of the Chesapeake region. That, in part, is what drove the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to launch a program in May called True Blue, which certifies and promotes restaurants that use 100 percent Maryland blue crab.
True Blue has received scads of publicity since its debut over the Memorial Day weekend, many of the stories emphasizing the years of fraud perpetuated on an unwitting public, which has apparently gobbled down oceans of imported Indonesian blue swimming crab billed as Maryland blue crab. But the premise of the program has rarely been challenged: that the 600,000-plus pounds of blue crabmeat pulled annually from the Chesapeake Bay is worthy of state protection, sort of like French champagne or Italian Neapolitan pizza.
Could a diner even tell the difference between, say, the fresh blue crabmeat imported from Venezuela and the fresh blue crabmeat processed from the Chesapeake? That was the underlying question of our taste test, which Dino chef and owner Dean Gold hosted at his Cleveland Park restaurant in June.
Historically, the strike against the tens of millions of pounds of imported jumbo lump and backfin crab — at least the stuff from countries other than Venezuela — has been the pasteurization process. After the crabs are harvested, cooked and picked, the meat is sealed into airtight cans and heated to a temperature of about 185 degrees, then cooled quickly. The process kills off any pathogens in the tins. Critics have accused pasteurization of adversely affecting crabmeat’s natural sweetness and texture.
But veteran crab men like William Ruark, the 80-year-old president of W.T. Ruark & Co., a Maryland processor that has been in business since 1948, say that’s just not true. “It’s the closest thing you can get to fresh,” Ruark says. “If it’s done right, there’s not that much difference” between fresh and pasteurized crabmeat.
One step that may affect flavor is the cooking of the crabs. Some processors boil the shellfish, but in Maryland, they steam them under pressure, with equipment that cooks the meat to a temperature of 235 degrees. Steaming doesn’t inject water into the crab, says Jack Brooks, the 60-year-old owner of J.M. Clayton Co., a seafood processing facility in Cambridge, Md. With boiling, Brooks adds, “you’re introducing a lot of water into the crabs,” which adds weight and reduces flavor.
The truth is, a number of factors can affect the quality of the crab on your plate, some of which have little to do with the shellfish itself or where it was harvested. (Incidentally, crabs are generally resistent to commercial aquaculture practices, because the shellfish have a habit of cannibalizing each other.) Transportation, in particular, can be a problem for overseas processors who export their crabmeat to the United States. Fresh Venezuelan crab, for example, can “turn on a dime” if somewhere along its journey, the temperature of the meat rises above the danger zone of 40 degrees for a few hours, says Jimmy Phelan, a sales manager for Mister Fish in Baltimore. Phelan worked several years with a company that imported crab from Venezuela.
Good crabmeat, like any other animal product, is the result of good-quality feed and good-quality habitat, experts say. The crabbers around the Chesapeake, of course, think their brackish waters offer the best of all possible worlds: succulent razor clams and soft-shell clams for blue crabs to feast on, and cold waters in the fall and winter that force the crabs into deep-water dormancy, where they store up reserves of rich, delicious fat. (Those fall-season specimens, in fact, are considered the finest Maryland has to offer.)
All of this information naturally leads to some basic tips on buying commercial crabmeat: After you’ve decided on grade — in descending order: jumbo lump, super lump, backfin, special and claw meat — look for crab in plastic eight- or 16-ounce tubs. Those are filled with fresh meat, with a shelf life of approximately 10 to 14 days when refrigerated. Maryland tubs are identifiable by the processor’s name and its license number which will start with the letters, “MD,” followed by two or three digits. These local containers will have traveled a tiny fraction of the distance traversed by their Venezuelan counterparts, sometimes under better conditions than those afforded by Third-World processors. Ask your fishmonger how long the tubs have been sitting in the store. The metal cans contain pasteurized crabmeat only, often from countries that sell a different species of shellfish, like the red swimming crab from China.
Would our taste testers show a Maryland blue crab partisanship? Would our voting match the results of a blind taste test last year at the Maryland State Fair, where the public favored the state’s blue crabs more than 50 percent of the time over meat imported from China, Venezuela and Indonesia? Find out in the chart below.