What To Look For When Choosing The Best Canned Crab Meat

Unless you're an expert in the culinary applications of canned crustaceans, it can be an overwhelming challenge to select the right crab meat at the right price for any specific dish. It would be easy to assume the higher the price, the better the crab meat, but that's not necessarily the case. In fact, the lowest-priced variety of canned crab meat is generally considered to be the most flavorful. Aside from price, there's also the matter of packaging. To be clear, we're focusing on pasteurized, refrigerated fresh crab meat — the variety you'll often see displayed on ice in front of the fish counter at the grocery store — not the shelf-stable product for sale alongside canned tuna fish. Most brands of pasteurized canned crab meat are displayed in, well, cans. Some purveyors pack picked and processed crab meat in quasi see-through plastic containers, but let's assume you won't be able to view the product through the packaging. It's a conundrum. 

So how do you make the right choice based on label alone? Let's break it down. (Pun intended.) For context, we're focusing on cooked crab meat that has been hand-picked from the shell. Think of it as the difference between buying a whole live lobster and purchasing prepared lobster meat. The purveyor has already done all the hard work of cooking and breaking down the crab. 

Convenience comes at a price

Hand-picking crab is a delicate process involving precise cuts, picking out every morsel of meat, and combing through picked meat to remove lingering bits of shell. That's a lot of labor and it's reflected in the price. The key is zeroing in on the best choice — and price point — for a specific preparation. As it's picked, the bounty is graded and divided into categories: colossal lump, jumbo lump, lump, backfin, special, and claw. The cost of colossal lump, the most expensive variety, can exceed $100 per pound. Also known as mega jumbo or super jumbo, it's the muscle connected to the crab's swimmers — and there are only two per crab. The initial cut is key to success. If the picker goes too deep, they cut the premium bite in half. If the cut is too shallow, bits of shell stick to the meat. It's a delicate process that, when done correctly, yields large chunks of crab meat revered for their size, color, and delicately sweet flavor. 

Bottom line: Colossal lump crab meat should be the star of the show. Hiding the gorgeous morsels of goodness in a complex or highly seasoned dish would be an expensive mistake. Keep it simple. One of the best ways to savor colossal lump crab is all by itself, dipped in rich, melted butter. Next on the price tier, jumbo lump crab meat. It looks and tastes the same as the colossal variety. In fact, it is the same. It's just harvested from smaller crabs.

When it comes to crab meat, size matters

Which brings us to lump crab meat, the category for the broken or less-than-perfect morsels that are an inevitable byproduct of the hand-picking process. It's equally as sweet and delicate as the more expensive, intact morsels. It just doesn't garner the same wow-factor reaction upon presentation. For that reason, it's less expensive, making it a good choice for dishes like casseroles, soups, salads, risottos, and eggs Benedict with a seafood twist.

Backfin crab meat is next down the line on the price tier. It's a combination of small bits of lump crab mixed with flaked body meat. It doesn't have the visual impact of colossal or jumbo morsels, but it's full of flavor and makes an impressive showing as a salad topper or in pasta dishes. If appearance isn't a concern, the next variety, special crab meat, may be the way to go. It packs solid crab flavor, but is best suited for dishes that don't call for a showy presentation. Think along the lines of soups, chowders, and dips. It, too, is a good choice for crab cakes.

And, finally, claw crab meat. It may be the least expensive variety and it may not be as pretty as a solid morsel of colossal crab meat, but it's definitely not a throwaway option. The secret? Claw crab meat is widely considered to be the most flavorful variety. It has a bold crab profile that holds its own in seasoned dishes like crab cakes, stuffing, chowder, crepes, and quiche.