Cooking

Rule of Claw

Everything you need to know about buying crabs
Photos: Lizzie Munro/Tasting Table
King Crab

Get out the lemon wedges and Old Bay. Crab season is already here.

Are you ready to tear into Alaskan king crab this summer? Trick question! Alaskan king crabs aren't technically crabs (more on that below), and their season has just ended.

So maybe your memory's a little muddy on the different types of crabs out there, like West Coast Dungeness or shell-less blue crabs (aka soft-shell crabs). We're here to help: Before you shop, peruse our guide to these luscious crustaceans to discover their availability, distinct qualities and, of course, flavor. Let's get cracking:

Blue crab: Scientists call them callinectes sapidus, or "savory beautiful swimmer." Louis Rozzo, fourth-generation fishmonger at F. Rozzo & Sons in NYC and supplier to Le Bernardin, Eleven Madison Park and this TT photo shoot, calls them his crustacean of choice. "I remember my mother bringing them home, breading them and sautéing them real quickly," he shares. "They have a much more distinctive taste, whereas Venezuelan crab has hardly any taste at all." Found along the coasts of Nova Scotia and the Gulf from April to December, these small guys with sapphire arms yield a sweet, tender meat. Fun fact: Most soft-shell crabs are blue crabs scooped out of the ocean before their shells have developed.

Blue crabs

Dungeness crab: The season begins earlier for these native West Coast crabs, which you can find up the coast from Alaska to Mexico, starting in November and ending officially in July. They have a saline, super-clean taste similar to Maine lobster but a softer texture. And their popularity is legendary; James Beard once said, "Dungeness crab is sheer unadulterated crab heaven." So there you have it.

Peekytoe crab: Also known as rock crab or Maine crab, this species native to cold Maine waters was an overlooked lobster-harvesting byproduct until about 1997. Rod Mitchell of Browne Tradition Company in Portland changed all that, putting these crustaceans on the market as "picked toe" crabs, due to their inward-facing back legs. Hence, a 10-legged restaurant menu star was born. Now this year-round crab is coveted by chefs and favored for its silky fine meat and delicate, refreshing flavor.

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Stone crab: You know when you're eating these Floridian crabs. Their big, beefy claws have a distinct peachy pink fade into stark black tips, and that's where you'll hit the crab jackpot. Flavor-wise, they're a cross between blue crab and Maine lobster, a little richer than your average picked-over meat with a hint of the sea. Though you can find them all over Florida, these guys also call waters from Connecticut to Belize home, and their season starts in October and ends in May.

Snow crab: Twiggy has nothing on these guys. The bright orange beauties with strong, thick (read: meaty) legs that more than double their bodies are restaurant workhorses and considered the most economic species of crab. That might be because of their more fibrous, sometimes stringy flesh (perhaps a touch too long languishing in hot buffets?), but they still have a lightly buttery flavor. Alaska is their home from January to April, Canada from April to August and our bellies the rest of the year.

Alaskan king crab

Mud crab: Hit up any seafood shack along Thailand's many beaches, and you'll find this mottled dark green, nearly black-hued creature steamed and coated in green chile powder for you to crack open and suck out the meat. Lucky for those of us living stateside, these tasty little crabs, also called mangrove crabs or black crabs, nestle themselves in oyster reefs, swamps and marshes along the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Brazil. They're harvested from December to April, similar in season to Dungeness but on the opposite coast.

Alaskan king crab: Alaskan king crab is technically not a "true" crab. Mind blown? Though it's considered a "false crab" since it falls under the Anomuran species rather than Brachyura like all the leggy guys listed above, it would be a shame to not mention this buttery behemoth. There are three types: prickly looking golden; mild-flavored blue; and red, the most prized for its succulent meat (pictured above). They station themselves in Alaska, obviously, and the Aleutian Islands, and their harvest season is very short, usually starting in October and ending in January.

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