Seasonal Cooking with Rita Calvert~The Local Cook

The Soft Shells Are Coming!



Last week in my excitement I checked on the availability of our local soft shells and found only frozen from last year available. John Page Williams of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation knows well and informed me that the soft shells usually molt with the May full moon and then continuous warm weather keeps them going all summer. The full moon molt theory has been challenged but cannot be scientifically DISproved. That means get really ready for May 17- although lo and behold, Cantler’s has some locals in this week and they are plump and scrumptious!

To understand the process “Blue crab info” tells us that in order for the crab to grow larger, it must periodically shed its smaller shell through a process known as molting (or, more accurately, ecdysis-the “busting stage”.) Early in its molting cycle the crab slowly begins to form a new soft shell underneath its existing hard shell.

Always curious, I asked the knowledgeable folks at our cherished waterside restaurant if 'deep fried' was the only treatment for them at the restaurant since I feel it masks the fresh flavor of the fresh shedder. Fricassee (sauteed) in butter and garlic is available-just ask.

You’ll find three recipes here for the long awaited soft shell blue crab. If you can harvest them fresh, you are the privileged one and you probably know how to prepare them for cooking. If not, the traditional recipe explains the simple process. The second recipe is a creation where the local fresh crab shines with a contemporary salsa from produce (except the mango, of course) - plucked from your garden or the farmers market.

The third recipe is Southern style, yet perfect for breakfast-as I first tasted them, lunch, dinner or an appetizer.

Traditional Soft Shell Blue Crab

Serves 4

The traditional format is the rendition most of us first taste when we discover soft shell crabs;  the crunch is most inviting. 'Twas an incredible treat during the Wine Fest St, Michaels and featured by our local Talbot County Watermen.

  • 8 live soft shell crabs
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1 c.up all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • Oil for frying
  • For Serving: lemon wedges and seafood sauce

Clean soft shell crabs by first cutting off the eyes with kitchen shears across face of the crab. Remove the mouth. Lift the points of crab and remove the sandbags and gills. Turn crab over and remove apron at lower part of shell. Wash thoroughly; pat very very dry.

Heat the oil to medium high.

Place beaten eggs in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, mix flour, Old Bay and pepper together.

Dip crab in seasoned egg and then in flour; dust off excess. Fry in oil 3 to 5 minutes or until golden brown, turning once. Drain on paper towels.

Serve with lemon wedges and your favorite seafood sauce.


Crispy Grilled Garlic Soft Shells with Radish, Mango Salsa

Serves 2

  • 4 plump local soft shell crabs, cleaned and prepared
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil or butter
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste


At least 30 minutes before grilling place the soft shells on a plate and coat with lemon juice.

Heat the oil or butter until hot, add the garlic and heat until just golden. Remove from heat and have ready to brush on crabs while grilling.

Preheat the grill to medium high.

Brush the first side of each crab with oil/garlic mixture and place on hot grill directly on the grill rack. Brush the top side with garlic/oil. Close the lid and let cook a few minutes until grill marks show and the crab begins to brown. Flip, brush the top side with more garlic/oil. Close the lid again and continue grilling another 3-4 minutes; until soft shells are golden browned and crispy but not charred.

Place on serving plates with the salsa on the side.


Radish, Mango Salsa

Make this salsa at least an hour in advance so it can season while the crabs grill.

  • 1/4 cup minced radish
  • 1/2 large mango, peeled and diced
  • 1/4 cup fresh diced cucumber
  • 2 tablespoons chopped garlic scallions or scallions
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • Crushed red chile flakes, if desired
  • Dash Old Bay, if desired

In a medium bowl, combine the salsa ingredients. Taste and adjust lemon juice and seasonings.


Pecan Cornmeal-Crusted Soft-Shelled Crabs

Serves 4

  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 8 live soft-shelled crabs (preferably 4 to 5 inches wide), cleaned
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup finely chopped pecans
  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • lemon wedges

Whisk together buttermilk, eggs, salt, and pepper and pour into a 3-quart shallow dish. Add crabs and soak, covered and chilled, 1 hour.

Melt the butter in a deep saute pan and heat to medium high but do not burn.

Mix together pecans and cornmeal; transfer to a large sealable plastic bag. Lift 1 crab out of buttermilk, letting excess drip off, and shake in bag to coat with pecan/cornmeal. Gently shake off excess and transfer to a tray. Repeat with remaining crabs. Place crabs in butter but do not crowd or overlap. Cook about two minutes per side. Drain crabs on paper towels.

Serve hot with lemon wedges.



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