You've Got Crabs! Of the Soft-Shell Variety

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Photos by J.C. Reid
Take me to your eater

For true seafood lovers, one of Mother Nature's greatest inventions is undoubtedly the soft-shell crab. "Softies" are one of those rare creatures that seem engineered specifically for human consumption.

For the uninitiated, a soft-shell crab is a crab that has just molted (shed) its hard shell due to the growing process. Immediately after molting, and for up to 48 hours thereafter, the "shell" of the crab is soft and skin-like. During this time the crab is extremely vulnerable to predators (especially those of the two-legged variety).

The most common soft-shell variety in the U.S. and especially on the Gulf Coast is the well-known blue crab. The soft-shell crab season traditionally runs from May to September when warmer waters spur crab growth and the associated molting process.

Softies are harvested by crab fisherman who trap crab and then separate out the "peeler" crabs that are showing signs they are about to molt. These crabs are placed in underwater trays and then watched closely for when they finish the molting process. Once they shed their hard shell they are immediately removed from the water to prevent their now-soft shells from beginning the hardening process. They are then kept moist and refrigerated and shipped live to seafood distributors and restaurants for purchase/consumption preferably within 48 hours.

Soft-shell crabs are sold live, fresh, or frozen. Live softies are alive right up until cooking, fresh are recently harvested and fresh but no longer alive, and frozen are harvested crabs that have been processed and immediately frozen for eating year-round. Most of the soft-shells you get in poboys and sushi spider rolls are of the frozen variety.

In Houston (and arguably the entire US) the go-to vendor for soft-shell crab is Airline Seafood on Richmond. Nobody gets live soft-shell crab earlier than Airline (the warm waters of the Gulf spur earlier molting). This year they were delivering softies to local restaurants such as Mark's American Cuisine and Reef in early March. When I visited this past week, VP Mark Musatto showed me tray after tray of live softies that had just arrived from Seadrift, Texas.

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Just molted

This particular tray of 30-40 medium-sized softies was headed to Reef seafood restaurant in Houston. Chef Bryan Caswell serves them as a tempura battered-and-fried appetizer with an avocado and radish salad and a splash of roasted pepper sauce.

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Tempura Fried Soft-Shell Crab at Reef

And to answer the question that many of you are asking yourselves: YES, you do eat the whole thing. Sure it does seem non-intuitive, especially for those crab lovers who painstakingly pick through the hard shell of boiled or BBQ crabs searching every crevasse of the body and claws for those delectable pieces of crab meat. But that's the beauty of the softies -- no sharp shells and hard work -- just pick the whole thing up and start eating.

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