While a lot of crab feasters boast about their ability to down great numbers of the hard-shelled crustaceans, caterer Bobby Higgins admits his family of six can't even finish a bushel. For one person, "just eating a pound is difficult," he says.
In other words, all the boasting means is that the crab eater is wasting a lot of meat -- in the shell and in the limbs -- through improper technique.
To get the most meat from a crab, suggests Higgins,:
(1) Remove each of the two claws with a twist and lay the crab in your hand, with the white belly side down.
(2) Put your thumb over the backfin of the crab to hold it down, place your other hand under the point of the crab and pull; the top shell should come off in one piece.
(3) Keeping the crab in hand, remove the mustard substance in between the two body sections. Remove the tapered lung sections from both sides (these are somewhat gray in color), scraping them down toward the legs of the crab. Cut the legs from both sides of the body.
(4) Lay the body section, white side down, on the table. Make a horizontal cut from the center of the body section (where mustard was) to where legs were (approximately halfway down); remove the two pieces, exposing all the meat in the body.
(5) With a paring knife, remove meat from body; where every leg was will be a section of meat. Break open the two remaining claws with a mallet, and pick the meat from each.
Higgins prefers to cook fresh crabs, refrigerate them overnight and eat them cold the next day -- cold crabs are not just easier to pick, he maintains, but the meat also stays in bigger lumps.
Regardless of how they're consumed, however, Higgins is adamant about freshness. At the time of purchase, they should be alive, "moving and crawling around," says the caterer. And as soon as possible after buying them, the crabs should be cooked.
Once they are brought home, the crabs should be placed in a sink full of ice water for about an hour -- this stuns the crabs and makes for easier handling. It also helps to keep intact the claws and legs, which can fall off during the cooking process, rendering an edible but unattractive meal.
To steam hard-shell crabs, place a layer of crabs, top shell up, in a large pot with a grate in the bottom. (The grate must be 1 1/2 inches from the bottom.) Pour 1 quart of water, at least 3/4 inch, and 1/4 cup vinegar into pot. Sprinkle crabs with a generous dusting of seafood seasoning (Higgins recommends 1 cup of seasoning for each dozen crabs), add another layer of crabs and continue adding crabs and sprinkling layers until all the crabs are in the pot. Place the kettle on high heat and watch for steaming. Once the steam appears, time the crabs for 30 minutes. After cooking, remove from heat, take the lid off the kettle and let crabs cool about 15 minutes before serving.
What's not eaten in 3 hours should be refrigerated. Higgins says the shelf life of the cooked crab is 4 to 5 days.