Blue crabs hide under a gracious and silvery-serene Latin name, callinectes sapidus, meaning “beautiful savory swimmer.” In reality, these little buggers are crusty, crotchety, crabby little crustaceans and won’t hesitate to pinch the hands trying to feed them. But South Carolina seafood lovers know that these surly little swimmers also have a soft side.
Soft-shells are crabs in the process of moving from one mobile home to the next. As their old shells become cramped and uncomfortable, these grumps molt out of their exoskeleton and immediately begin growing a new, roomier replacement shell. If they can be caught in this transitional process — after the shedding and before the hardening — they can become what could be described as the nirvana of seafood feasts: all meat with no labor-intensive shell to crack.
Catching these crank-pots is extremely difficult when they’ve let down their shells and become vulnerable, sensitive little softies because they toughen up so quickly, and, if not pulled promptly from the water, they are no longer candidates for that delectable dish known as soft-shell crab. The process is further complicated by the fact that blue crabs tend to molt for just a few weeks during the spring or summer months, and the dates fluctuate.
Jeff Massey worked 21 years at Livingston Bulls Bay Seafood before he and his wife, Kim Livingston, bought the McClellanville, South Carolina, market from Kim’s parents. Along the way, Jeff became an expert in timing the influx of those malleable mollusks.
“The season does not really have a hard date,” says Jeff. “It’s based on water temperature and air temperature. A very specific temperature range has to be hit to kick it off.”
Some surprising specific signals in nature signal the soft-shell season is beginning. “Strawberries are a dead-on indicator,” he says. “The dogwoods bloom, and we know we are within a couple of weeks. But whenever the u-pick strawberry farms start up … we’re within a day or two of each other every time.”
Crabbers catch the “peelers” — crabs on the verge of molting — and sell them, live and still residing in the rigid confines of their now-too-small shells, to local seafood markets.
Often caught with non-molting blue crabs, peelers are identified by a tell-tale reddish belly color and fished out of the crabbers’ crab pots. “Green” blue crabs are not ready to shed and can only be harvested if they have a 5-inch minimum measurement from point to point. But peeler crabs have no such minimum requirement because it is impossible to tell how big they will be after they shed.
“When they come out of their shell, they expand,” says Jeff. “They’ll grow close to 50 percent of their original size every time.”
Jeff looks at the two back fins of the peeler crabs to help predict whether or not the molting process is eminent. When the crab first begins to pull its leg out of the back fin, a little white line appears. A red line occurs when the crab pulls up further still. Without line evidence on the back legs, crabs can linger for up to two weeks before deciding to pull up stakes and build a new home. The goal is to get crabs that are as close to shedding as possible.
“White lines on the back leg mean they are going to shed within a few days, and the red lines mean they are going to shed in the next day or two.”
Jeff’s facility has 60 tanks, each 4 feet by 8 feet, filled with approximately 400 crabs. The sheer number of peevish little pinchers requires a minimum of two or three employees on duty to monitor the tanks seven days a week, 24 hours a day. The crew put their hands in the tanks — very carefully — to check each crab for cracks in the shell. Once a split is detected, the crab is classified as a buster and must immediately be removed from the rest of its peeler peers. If not, the other crabs will gang up on the fracturing crab and erratically stab at it.
“Crabs don’t like anything,” says Jeff. “They’ll just randomly try to bite you.”
Put into a separate tank for busters, these vulnerable shedders are watched carefully as they turn to super busters — those crabs in the final phase of transformation. At this point, they appear to undergo an illuminating self-epiphany, put aside their ill-tempered ways, and no longer attempt to bite or pinch any fingers within claw distance. These kinder, gentler, down-right-affable mollusks are put into a separate tank to complete their shedding process. They have only about 20 minutes to make it or they become a “still,” a croaker, a washed up, never-to-see-the-inside-of-a-sandwich crab. And if they survive the molt but aren’t quickly removed from the water, they will start to harden back up and, yes, immediately try to bite.
“If they get just a little bit hardened,” he says, “we don’t use them. They’re called ‘leather backs’ and aren’t any good as soft-shells. Crabs will harden up and molt multiple times during their life as it is the only way they can get any bigger.”
Seasons within the season tend to inspire the crabs to shed their shells. A full moon, the weather, and the changing tides are all triggers for molt-minded crabs.
“If you have a thunderstorm,” says Jeff, “get ready because it’s on. They’re going to go crazy.” And if there is a thunderstorm at low tide? “You’d better bring in extra help!” says Jeff.
Allen Clifton, owner of Clifton Seafood in Columbia, agrees. “I don’t know why, but when we have full moons,” says Allen, “crabs shed out like crazy. You’d have four or five a night shedding, but when a full moon comes, you’ll get 40 or 50 shedders easily.”
The Clifton family started their seafood business in the early 1980s but was in the commercial fishing industry for many years prior to opening their market. After years of tending shedding soft-shells, he now purchases them immediately after molting is complete.
“It’s a tough process,” says Allen. “They are totally defenseless when they shed out.”
Crabs mate when they are at this most vulnerable state and, perhaps not coincidentally, are the least crabby versions of themselves. The male crab does a little dance, complete with complicated crab two-stepping maneuvers and wild gesturing claw displays, in hopes of attracting a willing, pheromone releasing soon-to-peel female, then holds and guards her while she begins to molt.
“The only time a crab can mate is after it’s shedded,” says Allen. “It’s the only time they can line up. After they mate, the male will sit and protect the female while she’s hardening back up.”
Pulling soft-shell crabs from the tank is all about timing; remove them too quickly and they may be too soft and dissolve into mush.
“They need five to 10 minutes,” says Allen. “When they first come out, they are just a saggy mess, so they need about 10 minutes to straighten up.”
Once pulled from the water, they stop stiffening and are refrigerated. Because they can only live a couple of days out of the water, Allen freezes the soft-shells as soon as they come into his market.
While soft-shell crab does not require peeling, a little light waste elimination is recommended before cooking. Allen freezes the soft-shells until nearly solid before cleaning.
“Take the dead man lungs off,” he says, “and snip out the eyes. Then throw it back in the freezer. It keeps all the juice and blood in him. If that bleeds out, you get a thinner crab.”
With talk of dead man lungs, bloodletting, and eyeball snipping, it’s difficult to understand why anyone would confidently take a bite out of a soft-shell. It’s true that they do resemble a mucky, many-legged bug, even when fried and nestled between two perfectly toasted pieces of bread. But if you can side step the questionable aesthetics, they are a mouthwatering tasty treat that is not to be missed.
Addie and Lucius Moultrie, owners of Palmetto Seafood, Columbia, get their soft-shells delivered clean and frozen. Vicky Basket, one of the cooks, and Addie then fry them for devoted customers or sell the seafood raw for folks who have a recipe they’d like to try at home.
“The crabs come in cleaned and prepped, and we break them down,” says Addie. “We put them in a little cold water and let them come down. Then we shake them dry and put them in our own seasoned batter. The grease is hot and we dip them and fry them. Soft-shell crabs, you can eat the whole thing.”
Addie and Lucius have owned Palmetto Seafood since 1997, but she has been acquainted with seafood her whole life. A registered nurse, she was able to juggle both careers because her son, Greg, managed the store for her. Sadly, that ended this past October when Greg died unexpectedly from a cardiac episode.
“He was going to take over, and I was going to leave,” she says. “When he died, I wanted to close up or sell the shop, but the neighborhood went on about that. ‘Oh my goodness, please don’t go!’ they said.”
So Addie stayed put for another season of soft-shell, and while she won’t divulge her secret recipe, she will say, “It is delicious!”
Addie likes to kick back with her own hush-hush battered-and-fried soft-shell, served with some of her homemade tartar sauce and a glass of white wine. Fried soft-shell, according to Addie, is the only way to go.
While fried is the much preferred way to serve softshell, especially in the South, there are tales of other dishes, including grilled or sautéed soft-shells, served in tacos, or with eggs in a benedict sauce.
With a soft spot for these thin-skinned, naked little niceties, South Carolina always makes the best of the soft-shell season. The following are recipes certain to bring a smile to even the crabbiest guests at your dinner table.
Soft-shell Crabs with Tartar Sauce
Recipe by Susan Fuller Slack, CCP
Wondra flour is “instant” flour for making smooth sauces. Try it for dredging soft-shell crabs for frying; the coating will be light and crispy because the flour absorbs less fat than regular flour. Serve the crabs with homemade Tartar Sauce (recipe below) or Butter-Dill Sauce (see variation.)
3/4 cup Wondra flour
Seasoning salt of choice and freshly ground black pepper
6 medium soft-shell crabs, cleaned
6 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
Tartar Sauce (recipe below)
Prepare Tartar Sauce; cover and refrigerate. Combine flour with seasoning salt and pepper. Rinse soft-shell crabs and pat dry. Dredge crabs in the flour mixture. Heat 3 tablespoons oil and 1 tablespoon butter in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, put three crabs, top sides down, in the oil and cook 2 to 3 minutes until golden brown and crispy. Caution: crabs may splatter. Use tongs to turn crabs; cook 2 to 3 minutes or until crispy and plump. Drain on paper towels. Fry remaining crabs using more oil and butter, as needed. Crabs can be kept warm very briefly on a baking sheet lined with parchment in a 200-degree F oven. Serve with sauce.
This delicious dipping sauce is ideal for fried seafood like soft-shell crabs. A large shallot may contain a cluster of smaller bulbs; break them apart for use.
1 cup quality mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup finely chopped dill or sweet pickles
1 or 2 small shallot bulbs, finely minced
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed, minced
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Combine all the ingredients. Cover and chill one hour before serving. Store in the refrigerator 4 days. Makes about 1 to 3/4 cup.
Variation: Soft-shell Crabs with Butter-Dill Sauce
After frying crabs, pour oil mixture out of the pan; discard. Melt one stick of butter. Add the grated zest and the juice of one lemon. Stir in 3 tablespoons chopped, fresh dill or flat-leaf parsley. Pour the hot sauce over a platter of warm, cooked crabs; serve at once.
Crispy Soft-shell Crabs and Spicy Orange Sauce
Recipe by Susan Fuller Slack, CCP
Panko, or Japanese bread crumbs, make a light, extra-crispy coating for fried soft-shell crabs.
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 teaspoon smoked or plain paprika
2 large eggs
1 cup panko bread crumbs, more if needed
4 soft-shell crabs, cleaned
Peanut or other vegetable oil for frying
Spicy Orange Sauce (recipe below)
Prepare Spicy Orange Sauce; set aside. Combine flour, salt, pepper, and smoked paprika. Whisk eggs in a flat pan. Put panko into another flat pan. Dredge crabs lightly in flour mixture, then dip into beaten egg. Coat each crab completely in panko. Pour about 1/4-inch peanut oil into a large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, put the crabs, top sides down, in the oil and cook for 2 to 3 minutes until golden brown, plump, and crispy. Use tongs to turn crabs. Caution: crabs may splatter. Drain on paper towels. Crabs can be kept warm very briefly on a baking sheet lined with parchment in a 200-degree F oven. Serve with sauce.
Spicy Orange Sauce
1 cup quality orange marmalade (like Smucker’s)
3 to 4 tablespoons Asian garlic chili pepper sauce, to taste (or prepared horseradish)
2 teaspoons quality, lite or regular soy sauce
Classic Columbia Soft-shell Sandwich
Soft-shells are heavenly when fried and then slapped between a couple of slices of bread. This recipe, while a tad more elaborate, will turn those beautiful savory swimmers into a scrumptious sandwich.
2 bottles of your favorite beer
4 toasted hamburger buns
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon paprika
4 soft-shell crabs, cleaned
Vegetable or peanut oil for frying
Shredded iceberg lettuce
Thinly sliced tomato
Open one beer bottle, and pour half the contents in a measuring cup (approximately 6 ounces), and then slowly sip the remaining half while preparing the sandwiches. Put 1/2 cup of the flour in a shallow bowl, add crabs, turning to coat. Combine remaining 3/4 cup of the flour with cornstarch, baking powder, salt, pepper, and paprika in separate bowl, whisking to combine. Pour in the 6 ounces of beer, and continue whisking to form batter. Pour 1/2 inch of oil into large skillet over medium heat. As it heats, remove crabs from plain flour and dip in beer batter, coating both sides, then lower crabs into hot oil. Cook approximately 2 to 3 minutes per side, then remove and drain on paper towels. Spread mayonnaise on both sides of the hamburger buns, add lettuce and tomato, fried crab, and close. Open the second bottle of beer and enjoy!