The Charms of Soft-Shell Crabs

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Soft-shell crabs are the jewel of the Chesapeake, a culinary luxury on par with truffles, caviar and champagne. Or so they say.

Delicate and expensive, sure. But I have to confess, I've never understood the fuss. Soft-shells don't really taste like much besides deep-fried batter, the prevailing flavor in most preparations. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But there are cheaper and easier ways to satisfy that craving.

What was I missing? I talked to a few chefs, a seafood distributor and finally Kevin Wade, who sells soft-shells at J&W Seafood in Deltaville, Va., on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Most city folk like me, he said, have never tasted a good one: "You've only eaten hamburger. You've never tasted a steak."

Getting a "steak" is harder than it should be, given that we city folk live just three hours from the source. Like tomatoes, which are transcendent only at the peak of ripeness, soft-shells must be eaten within two days of when the blue crab crawls out of its hard shell. Several hours is better. True connoisseurs will move the crabs from the water to the pan within minutes.

That is no easy feat. And that's why so many soft-shells disappoint. The ones in most sushi rolls? Frozen. The ones at the grocery store? Cleaned at the processor days before you buy them, an absolute no-no according to chefs such as Bob Kinkead. "That's nasty," he said. "It's like selling dead lobster."

Even fresh ones can be a letdown. Many producers allow the crabs to develop a very thin shell, called a paper shell, before shipping. It's a trick that makes them last longer but taste like mild-flavored crab cardboard.

Getting the perfect soft-shell -- a delicately crunchy and juicy one -- requires timing and precision from waterman to processor, distributor and chef. In the Chesapeake, crabs usually begin to molt after the first full moon in May and continue through until September; crabs from Florida and Georgia are available as early as March. This year, the run began late because of the cold, rainy spring. Peak season, when both males and female x crabs shed their shells, is happening now and will last until early June. J&W's Wade expects 2009 to be a bumper year, with harvests at least 25 percent higher than in 2007.

Watermen are a crucial link in the fragile chain. Fay Holloway Jr., who has been crabbing for 31 years, checks his traps each day. It's a tedious process. In Virginia, commercial fishermen are allowed up to 210 traps, known as peeler pots. (A peeler is a crab that will soon shed its shell.) Checking them all takes six to eight hours.

Crabbers pull each trap from the water and must inspect every crab. The watermen are looking for a pale pink or red color on the crab's swimming fin, an indication that the crab will soon molt.

Peelers are thrown into a bushel basket; crabs with white fins go back into the water.

Watermen then deliver bushels of crabs to processors such as J&W. The peelers are held in molting tanks, which look like giant bunk beds filled with water, where they are monitored 24 hours a day. Once the crab crawls out of its shell, the staff has two to four hours to "fish up" or remove the crab from the water before it begins to form a new shell.

Relentlessly scanning a tank of crabs is head-wrecking work. In high season, Wade's employees put in 80 hours a week. "This is why God created seasons," Wade said. "Because you can't do this all the time. You'll die."

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