17 Ways To Elevate Imitation Crab

The rising cost of groceries may have you rethinking how you integrate seafood into your meals. Imitation crab is a thrifty alternative for when you're trying to save money since real crab can be quite expensive. In some cases, there isn't any crab in it outside of a flavoring extract. Instead, the main seafood component is a blend of surimi, which is a fish paste derived from species like Alaskan pollock and Pacific whiting. Other ingredients will vary based on the brand and may include egg whites, mirin, paprika, and more. Imitation crab may not have the same protein content as expensive king crab, but it's still a wonderful option to keep in the fridge. 

Not to mention, there are loads of ways to elevate imitation crab that can take it from something you forgot you had in the fridge to a kitchen staple. Plus, it has a comparatively longer shelf life than fresh seafood. There are a few varieties on the market, including chunks, sticks, shreds, and flakes, to choose from. You can mix and match and use most of these in our recommendations, though some may require a particular product. 

1. Impress your guests with an imitation crab mac and cheese

If you're a fan of lobster mac and cheese, then you'll love this more affordable way to liven up baked mac and cheese. You can use any type of packaged imitation crab and chop it to your desired size preference. Shredded crab can be incorporated seamlessly into every bite, whereas chunky crab can resemble hunks of lobster meat. Imitation crab is ready to eat right out of the package, so mix it straight into the cooked mac and cheese before transferring it to the oven to prevent overcooking it.

Your mac and cheese doesn't need long in the oven — just enough time for the top to get gooey and golden. The surimi works well with the dish because it's not overly fishy. This is a good place to start for those who aren't particularly fans of seafood but still want to give their pasta an edge. Use mild cheddar cheese, mozzarella, gruyere, or herbed goat cheese to craft your cheesy creation. Lobster mac and cheese is a decadent dish, but when you're looking to make a budget-friendly alternative, imitation crab is the way to go.

2. Cook it in seasoned butter

All you need to make imitation crab taste like the real deal is to douse it in seasoned butter. Seasoned butter is just that, butter with a flavorful addition, which can vary based on how you want to spice it up. Since we're working with seafood, you can use options like dill, basil, parsley, tarragon, chili powder, or rosemary. Add your seasoning to a pan with melted butter and you'll be set.

You may choose to simmer the herbs in the butter and then strain it, or you can chop them up and leave them in. Both options are not too labor-intensive and can make your imitation crab burst with flavor. Think of how you like to season fish or seafood, and then add that seasoning to the mix. You can opt for fresh or dry herbs or a seasoning blend like herbs de Provence or garam masala.

3. Grill it for a smoky flavor

Give imitation crab a smoky twist by grilling it over an open flame. This cooking method ensures a firey flavor that can enhance the surimi's sweetness. You don't have to grill it for long either; only a few minutes on each side will do. You'll want to keep your eye on your imitation crab as it's cooking because you don't want to leave it on the fire long enough for it to become rubbery. Sprinkle on sea salt, pepper, and Cajun seasoning for a quick flavor upgrade.

This is one of the more straightforward ways to elevate imitation crab and give it an additional flavor dimension. You can add this smoky twist to almost any dish, including pasta, salad, and imitation crab patties. For best results, grill whole imitation crab sticks and then cut them into your desired size. You don't want to use chunks or smaller pieces that will fall through the gaps of your grill. 

4. Roll imitation crab into sushi

When you want to have a fun date night or interactive meal with your kids, try making homemade sushi with imitation crab. Try a spicy crab salad sushi with crab, cucumber, and scallions, or go for a California roll with avocado and cucumber instead. Follow your favorite recipe and swap the fish for imitation crab, or get creative and add a rainbow of fillings to your sushi. 

To serve, add a sprinkle of black sesame seeds, dunk the pieces in soy sauce, and devour. This is a cool way to use up imitation crab, especially since it's often used in sushi. For a family activity, each person can customize their rolls with their favorite fillings. Put out small dishes with options like microgreens, shaved carrots, pickled radish, sliced bell peppers, and more. The world is your oyster, or in this case, imitation crab is your oyster.

5. Liven up your ramen with imitation crab

Bulk up instant ramen with some imitation crab and a drizzle of sesame oil. This is a fantastic way to liven up a weekday meal when you don't feel like spending 30 minutes cooking — and just as long to clean up and put dishes away. Use imitation chunks, flakes, or shreds to eliminate any need for extra chopping, or chop whole sticks into pieces for a bit of crab in every mouthful.

To preserve the protein's delicate texture and flavor, avoid cooking the imitation crab ahead of time. After all, the pieces are sold ready to eat, and overcooking can render them rubbery. Instead, put the chunks directly into the hot broth when you are ready to serve. Upgrade your instant ramen further with some fresh chopped scallions, your favorite hot sauce, and a soft-boiled egg for a tasty, yet easy, meal idea. 

6. Put some in a stir-fry

Stir-fries are beautifully diverse. They're colorful, nutritious, and filled with an assortment of veggies and protein. Add any of your favorite veggies, such as broccoli, carrots, onions, snap peas, and mushrooms, to a wok to cook them, and then add your sliced imitation crab to bring it up to temperature. The crab doesn't need much cooking time since it's sold ready-to-eat. 

There are so many stir-fry recipes you can get inspiration from. Swap the imitation crab for other proteins or seamlessly integrate it into a vegetable dish. For example, try an orange chicken stir-fry with crab instead of chicken. You can do bigger pieces of crab or chop it into thin slices depending on how big of a bite you want. Lightly fry them in a little bit of sesame oil for a slightly nutty flavor to go with your other stir-fry ingredients.

7. Air fry them for a nice crunch

If you're looking for a way to mix up the texture of imitation crab, pull out your air fryer. Imitation crab can get slightly rubbery, which is why you don't want to overcook it and make it even chewier. That said, if you feel inclined to change up the texture a bit, air frying is a fantastic, low-oil alternative to conventional frying.

Imitation crab belongs in the air fryer if you're craving a crispy texture for your protein. The appliance will cook your food evenly and give it a pleasant crunchiness. You can leave the imitation crab sticks as is or chop them into smaller portions or thinner strips. Smaller chunks are great as little crab bites served alongside some vegetables. Give it a light coat of oil and seasoning before popping it in the appliance and cooking it until crisp. 

8. Marinate imitation crab for more flavor

Marinating works wonders for many different proteins, whether that's chicken, steak, or fish. Marinades can provide the imitation crab with a lot of flavor, which can be a scrumptious addition to sandwiches or pasta. While some marinade recipes often recommend leaving the protein in it overnight, this isn't the case for all foods. The biggest mistake you're making when marinating seafood boils down to letting it marinate for too long. Fish is a more delicate protein compared to something like beef brisket, so it doesn't need to marinate for more than two hours. 

While imitation crab isn't made solely of fish, it makes up a significant portion of its ingredients list. The longer you let it marinate, the softer it gets since the acidic ingredients in the marinade practically cook it. Imitation crab is ready to eat right out of the package, you can marinate it and serve it cold, or you can choose to heat it up.

9. Savor them in a crunchy crab rangoon

Elevate your imitation crab by turning it into crispy crab rangoons for a scrumptious weeknight appetizer. You'll need a few ingredients to make this outstanding crab rangoon recipe, including imitation crab meat, cream cheese, wonton wrappers, and scallions. Start by mixing all the ingredients you need to make the crab filling, and then assemble them in the wrappers. Fold and pinch the wrapper into the classic purse shape, make triangles, or try a different shape entirely.

These are fried, bubbly, and crispy on the outside and soft and creamy on the inside. It's a symphony of textures. Serve with sweet-and-sour sauce, chili sauce, or your preferred dipping sauce. You can make a large batch and then freeze the assembled ones, which gives you the flexibility to fry them when you're crunched for time. This savory snack is sure to be a hit at the next potluck. 

10. Include imitation crab in ceviche

Ceviche makes seafood the star — whether that's a shrimp or fish ceviche with sea bass or another white fish. Each recipe is a bit different, but they're equally packed with flavor. Channel this similar idea with an imitation crab meat ceviche. Follow a recipe for fresh crab ceviche and substitute all or part of it for the imitation version. It's tangy, zesty, and perfect for cooling off on one of those unbearably hot days. 

It has nice color from the tomato, jalapeño, cilantro, and the crab itself. The acidity of lime juice gives the dish brightness, while jalapeños or serranos will provide that hint of spice. Once it's ready, store it in the fridge until you're ready to serve — but don't let it sit for too long because you don't want the imitation crab to become limp and soggy. 

11. Drop imitation crab in seafood soup

Seafood soup is always a good option when you're in the mood for something warm and filling. There are a lot of recipes out there, so you can have a lot of fun and flexibility in selecting your ingredients. Much like making any soup, a lot of it is intuitive and customizable based on the ingredients you have on hand.

Follow a crab and corn chowder recipe and substitute in the imitation crab. This is a colorful and hearty meal with potatoes, carrots, and crème fraîche. Preparation takes a few minutes, and then it's cooked on the stove for the rest of the time. On the other hand, slightly spicy cioppino is the perfect seafood soup for fresh-from-the-sea ingredients like seafood stock, clams, mussels, jumbo shrimp, and squid tubes and tentacles. Drop imitation crab into the mix for more seafood essence; chunks, flakes, or chopped sticks share a similar texture with the shrimp and squid. 

12. Shred it for an even consistency

Imitation crab is known for its long, stick-like shape, but you can transform the way it looks by shredding it. Shredding gives it a texture that you can easily add to your salad or sushi, sprinkle on your seafood soup, or stir into your mac and cheese. For this genius knife-free hack to shred your crab, start by taking the meat out of its packaging, pressing down on the edge with your hand, and then applying pressure with your palm to slightly twist and squeeze the meat. 

This will separate it into strands while also expelling some of the liquid — which is important to consider when you decide what to do with your strands. You may want to do the shredding process with a tool, such as a stand mixer or a hand mixer, instead to preserve the liquid. Place the crab meat in the bowl and let the mixer run until you reach your desired shred size.

13. Mix up the way you make fish tacos

There's great satisfaction in biting into a fish taco with your head tilted to the side to avoid the lime juice and salsa dripping off. Fish tacos are wonderfully diverse; each taqueria uses a different fish, has different-sized chunks, and includes different toppings or salsas. Make fish tacos your way with imitation crab. This interesting way to use imitation crab likely wouldn't be seen on too many menus, but it's still delicious and worthy of note. 

There are a few ways to approach the taco-making process. While not an exact dupe, shredded imitation crab can offer the look and consistency of shredded chicken, while battered and fried sticks can resemble traditional fish. On the other hand, chunk or flake imitation crab can look like chopped fish. You can top your tacos with whatever toppings you like, including crunchy lettuce, cabbage, avocado slices, or radishes. 

14. Serve imitation crab with some sort of sauce

Richard Blais has a ton of tips and tricks for seafood, many of which apply to imitation crab. For one, if you happen to overcook imitation crab or another seafood, a sauce can potentially save it. Soy sauce is a quick way to give any type of seafood sauce a bolster of umami flavor, but you could also serve your imitation crab with something herby, like a fresh chimichurri, with loads of parsley, cilantro, and oregano.

If you air fry or bread your crab meat, you should consider some underrated sauces to pair it with. Since imitation crab is sometimes used in pasta dishes, Alfredo sauce, marinara, or pesto make a lot of sense as a pairing. Try a bright pesto that tastes decadent and nutty thanks to the pine nuts but still has that hint of freshness with the basil and lemon juice. Teriyaki sauce, gochujang, or wasabi can also pack on flavor with each dunk.

15. Combine it with tuna

You can bring more seafood power to tuna salad by combining it with imitation crab. We recommend using shredded imitation crab so it resembles the similar size and texture of tuna, but you could also go an alternative route with chunks, flakes, or sticks. Cut them into pieces that resemble the size of your other ingredients, such as the celery and onions, and coat them with a delicious dressing to tie everything together.

The surimi isn't overly fishy and can blend well with the tuna without overpowering it. Even with multiple seafood elements, this is very much a tuna salad with imitation crab — not necessarily a seafood salad. But it's still a wonderful hack to use up a package of imitation crab or supplement a leftover portion that you weren't sure how to use. The crab isn't the starring lead but rather a supporting actor who can contribute a lot.

16. Pair imitation crab with pasta

There is a cookbook's worth of seafood pasta recipes out there and just as many ways to use imitation crab in them. On one of those days when you're feeling utterly drained, you could easily add crab flakes to your linguine or spaghetti, drizzle on some marinara or pesto, and call it a day. But you could also follow along with something like a creamy seafood-stuffed shells recipe. Stuff jumbo pasta shells with imitation crab meat, shrimp, cream cheese, and other tasty ingredients to make a slightly spicy seafood pasta. 

For a homemade, from scratch dinner, try a crab ravioli recipe stuffed with shredded imitation crab meat, creamy ricotta, and fresh parsley. This dish makes for a gourmet dinner experience or something special to whip up for date night. Whichever pasta you end up creating, pair it with your favorite sauce, and enjoy each and every bite. 

17. Factor in its freshness

One of the key ways to elevate imitation crab is to ensure its freshness. Be mindful of how long it's been sitting in your refrigerator, because there is a limit to how long imitation crab meat lasts. For your safety and the best taste, you never want to place the open plastic package back in the fridge and hope for the best. Instead, place the crab meat in an airtight container after opening it to keep it as fresh as possible. You should also give your package a whiff before cooking with it to ensure that it has not spoiled.

If it's stored correctly in the fridge, you can eat an opened pack of imitation crab within three days. But you can also extend its life by putting your package into the freezer for up to six months. However, you should expect that the texture of your surimi will change after it has been defrosted.