Last Updated on October 10, 2023 by Melissa Reome
This post is written in partnership with Hestan. Rest assured, all opinions are my own.
Soft shell crabs are a seasonal treat and are different than any other crab you might enjoy as you eat the entire crab shell and all. Once you try one you’ll realize that they are a unique delicacy that is wildly delicious. This flavorful and crispy fried soft shell crab sandwich with a special lemon aioli really hits the spot during soft shell crab season.
What Are Soft Shell Crabs?
Soft shell crabs “softies” are actually “hard shell blue crabs” that are going through the molting process. Unlike humans, whose skin grows and stretches to accommodate growth, a crabs’ shell is external and must therefore be shed and replaced or “molted” as the crab grows.
Soft shell crabs are not a separate species of crab. They are regular crabs. In the U.S. they’re most typically blue crabs which have gotten too big for their shells.
To initiate the molting process, the crab releases enzymes which separate its old shell from the underlying skin. Over the course of several weeks, the crab then grows a new, soft, paper-like shell under the old shell. The crab then ingests enough water to bloat itself, loosening the old shell.
In addition to their shells, soft shell crabs can also replace their legs (ie. in case of injury or the loss of a leg), in as few as three molt cycles.
Reference: Fulton Fish Market
Where Does Soft Shell Crab Come From?
Blue crabs for soft shell crabs can be found most commonly in the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia as well us along the Gulf Coast.
What To Know When Purchasing Soft Shell Crab
If you’re lucky, your local fish market will have live, fresh soft shell crabs for purchase. More commonly however, you will find them frozen, especially if using a mail order delivery service. When buying them fresh, ask if they will prepare them for you. If the crab is listed as “dressed”,all of the cleaning and prepping has already been done.
Soft shell crabs come in different sizes. The larger they are, the more expensive they are similar to shrimp. Pricing varies widely, but expect a range of $6 and up per crab locally and a higher price if buying online.
Size Dimensions Average Weight
Whales 5 1/2 inches + 5.9 oz
Jumbos 5 -5 1/2 inches 4.5oz
Primes 4 1/2- 5 inches. 3.3oz
Hotels 4-4 1/2 inches 2.5 oz
Mediums 3 1/2 – 4 inches 1.8 oz
When Is Soft Shell Crab Season?
Soft shell crab season starts in spring through fall along the Gulf Coast, with slightly shorter seasons along the Chesapeake and East Coast. Soft shell crabs are not in season during the winter months, when the water temperature drops.
Soft Shell Crabs: How To Clean
If you are purchasing soft shell crabs from your local fish market, often they will prep and clean them for you if you ask. If this has been done already the soft shells are referred to as “dressed”.
Most soft shell crab you buy online has already been cleaned. If you have to do it yourself however, it only takes a minute. Essentially, you must remove the face of the crab (mouth and eyes), remove the gills and remove the flap (the apron) underneath which can be tough,
Once the crabs are cleaned, try to cook them within a day as they will spoil quickly. If not cooking them immediately, keep them cold in the refrigerator until ready to use. I wouldn’t keep them over two days in the refrigerator.
For some great pictures of the process on how to clean soft shell crabs, click here.
How To Eat Soft Shell Crab
This is the fun part! If your soft shell crabs have already been prepared and cleaned, you eat the entire thing legs, shell, body and all. I remember the first time I had one. It was at a seafood restaurant when I was just a teenager. Eating the whole crab seems to contradict how we have typically ate crabs our whole life.
Think about it however, there is no need to bust apart the hard shell to find little piece of meat. Easy access delicious crab is definitely a great thing! A fried soft shell crab sandwich is my personal favorite way to eat them, but I do enjoy them sauteéd as well.
Fried Soft Shell Crab
Frying soft shell crab is quick and easy to do. I like to coat the crab in seasoned flour, then dip it in either egg white or buttermilk. Coat the crab one more time in the seasoned flour then place in the hot oil to fry. The flour can be seasoned with whatever you like. I love Old Bay Seasoning on any crab so I use that in my flour.
Fried Soft Shell Crab Sandwich
I am frying my Hestan range in a Hestan sauté pan. This range has impressive powerful burners. What I might cook on low on this range, might have been a medium to medium-high on my old stove. The dual-flow burner system allows for a robust range of heat control, from a searing 23,000 BTU flame to a continuous gentle simmer of 500 BTUs. By far, the most impressive range I’ve ever had the joy of cooking on, and it’s in my own home. Moral of the story is watch your heat because it’s the temperature of the oil in the end that will affect your finished product the most.
Using an instant read thermometer, make sure the oil is 375°F prior to battering and dropping the crab in. If the oil is not hot enough or you crowd the pan too much, the coating will come out soggy as the temperature will be too low.
I tested the recipe two different ways. If I only used the egg white mixture and then dip the crab in the flour and fry, the coating is not thick enough for my liking. Much like when making fried chicken, if you flour, egg mixture, flour then cook, you get a thicker more desirable coating and crunch on the crab.
Make sure all of your other ingredients are prepped and ready to go prior to frying the crab. They are best served when they are nice and hot. If you aren’t into sandwiches, the fried crab dipped in the aioli by itself is excellent as well. Add some chopped chives to the aioli if you have some on hand for an additional layer of flavor in the sandwich that I love.
Fried Soft Shell Crab Sandwich
- 4 soft shell crabs, thawed and dressed (cleaned)
- 2 tbsp Old Bay Seasoning (or other seafood seasoning)
- 4 sandwich rolls
- 4 leaves green leaf lettuce
- 2 red tomatoes, sliced
- 8 slices bacon
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1/2 tsp hot sauce (may adjust to your liking)
- 1/2 tsp capers, small, drained and chopped
- 1 lemon use 1 tsp for recipe and slice the rest for garnish
- 2 cups white flour
- 1 cup egg whites
- 1 cup ice cold water
- vegetable oil (for frying)
- Salt and fresh ground black pepper (to taste)
Make Lemon Caper Aioli
- Mix mayonnaise, capers, hot sauce, lemon juice until well combined. Season with fresh ground black pepper if desired. Cover and refrigerate until needed. Ideally, make at least 30 minutes ahead of time.
- Skillet method: Place bacon in room temperature in skillet in a single layer and cook over medium heat. Slowly cook the bacon, flipping periodically until the bacon is as crispy as you prefer. Place bacon on a paper towel on a plate to drain off excess fat. Hold until needed.Oven Method: Place bacon in a single layer on a baking sheet. To minimize clean up time, line the baking sheet with foil or parchment paper. Cook bacon in 400°F oven until desired level of crispness or approximately 25-35 minutes depending on thickness of bacon.
- Make sure lettuce is washed and pat dry, and tomatoes have been sliced. Set aside until ready to assemble sandwich.
- Preheat oil to 375°F in fry pan or a sauce pan.
- Mix flour and Old Bay seasoning until well combined. Add to shallow dish or bowl.
- Mix egg whites and ice cold water together and whisk well to combine. Add to shallow dish or bowl.
- Pat crabs dry with a paper towel then dip into flour, then into egg/water mixture, then back in flour mixture. Carefully shake off excess then place into hot oil.
- Fry crabs for 3 to 4 minutes or until lightly browned and crispy. Flip crabs at least once in oil to ensure even cooking. Remove crabs from oil and place on either an wire rack over a tray to drain off excess oil, or place on a paper towel lined plate.
- Place lettuce, crab, tomato, bacon and aioli on sandwich roll. Serve immediately with lemon wedges.
Love crab? Try out my favorite recipe on my website: Crab Cakes With Lemon Caper Sauce.