Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Boiled Maryland Hard Crabs

As a third generation aficionado of Maryland steamed crabs, I decided to boil up rather than steam this dozen after purchasing them for $18.00 at Baltimore's downtown farmers market. Accustomed to enjoying my hard crabs doused with Old Bay and steamed over a boiling mixture of beer and vinegar, I was ready to try a different approach.

Hard crabs are boiled by default in every other state I'm aware of but Delaware. The other exception is where some Asian restaurants around the country cook them in a well-oiled wok or large frying pan with various spices, vegetables, herbs, and condiments. The mix can vary from ethnicity to ethnicity, and restaurant to restaurant.

At the four or five regional spots where I've enjoyed boiled hard crabs in Virgina and North Carolina, melted butter, vinegar and Old Bay were served on the side for dipping the meat. For me these enhancements proved as critical to the experience of eating boiled crabs as Old Bay is to enjoying our steamed crabs here in Maryland. Discretion is important when ordering boiled crabs. A lot of cooks boil them til they're mushy. Some restaurants (I know this happens a lot in Louisiana) boil all the crabs they expect to sell over a period of time and then refrigerate them for long enough (for more than 24 hours) to lose the delectable freshness that's definitive of hard crabs as we know them here in Maryland. Often they're later reheated, sometimes enough so to further increase the likelihood they'll be mushy. Heaven forbid that any Maryland establishment would even think of trying to pull something like this.

Whether boiled or steamed, freshness and cooking time are the most important considerations. In Maryland, when purchasing cooked hard crabs, we know to expect they'll be steamed, their shells coated with a significant quantity of Old Bay. For any Marylander interested in trying them another way, here's my recommendation:


Fill a deep pot with water to whatever level the number of crabs to be boiled would pile up to reach, but don't put them in. Add salt and any desired seasoning to the water. Bring water to a boil. Once at full boil, drop in your crabs (alive, of course) head first. When the water returns to a full boil, leave uncovered and cook for an additional six to twelve minutes, depending upon the size of the crabs, until their top shells have turned a bright red. Remove and place immediately under cold water, throwing on some ice perhaps, to stop the cooking process. Accompany with separate small containers of melted butter, vinegar, and seafood seasoning.