Soft-shell crabs are almost absurdly delectable. And we human Orleanians are not the only ones who think so. Every creature that eats crabs relishes these. It's a wonder any crabs make it past that vulnerable stage.
Soft-shell crabs are just regular blue crabs molting their old, too-small shells. We all know that. But did you know. . .
Almost all soft-shell crabs are farm-raised. Wild crabs hide effectively and can't be caught by normal means. Soft-shell crab producers can tell when their crop is about to molt, and from that point on they observe them closely. A crab is taken out of the water as soon as it molts. Otherwise, the shell stiffens and gets "papery."
Strictly speaking, there is a big difference between a buster crab and a small soft-shell crab. A buster was on the verge of molting, but taken from the water before it does. The shell is removed manually, usually resulting in the loss of the legs and claws.
A crab increases its size tremendously in the minutes after it sheds the old shell. If you ever see the process, you'll wonder how that crab could possibly have been in that old hard shell. It does that by pumping up with water. By catching the crab before it has a chance to do this, you get meat that's significantly richer and more flavorful.
Crabs are definitely one of those things that get better as they get bigger. A gigantic soft-shell crab contains, among many other wonderful things, two massive jumbo lumps of a size one rarely gets in straight crabmeat dishes. I'd prefer one "whale" (as they're known to the trade) to two smaller ones any day, even if the two smaller ones together weighed significantly more than the big one.
The hardest part of preparing a soft-shell crab is cleaning it. You have to open the underside and remove the "dead-man's fingers" (the gills, which really do look like their nickname) and the sand sac. Some places just leave the crab as is, and what you get is notably flattened. Some places stuff it with crabmeat stuffing. For a long time at Commander's Palace (and maybe still), they jammed a couple of shrimp in there. My favorite solution: put some crabmeat inside.
No cooking method is better for soft-shell crabs than deep-frying. I've occasionally had broiled or grilled soft-shell crabs that were as good as fried. But never better, and usually worse.
The single best recipe for soft-shell crabs was the cold-smoked-then-fried crab at Christian's. The smoking process was so gentle that live, moving crabs came out of the smoker still moving. It came to the table fried and moistened with brown butter and fried parsley. (This is one of many reasons we hope Christian's will reopen.)
The guy who first had the idea of topping a soft-shell crab with more crabmeat was Warren LeRuth. That was one of the best dishes at LeRuth's, and it took the soft-shell crab up to the next level. You can still find it there at Clancy's, which does it exactly as LeRuth's did.
Spring is when the first and best soft-shells begin to appear. The crabs are stuffed with delicious white meat and go down good. With the warmer water temperatures, they become more common day by day. They take a dip in size in late summer, but come back again strong in the fall. I hope the restaurant you go to gives you two of them.
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