Boy, do I have a treat for you.
This past weekend’s Supermoon–the first full moon in May–marked the beginning of soft-shell crab season. And I have discovered the very best way to eat soft-shell crabs: grilled and slathered with barbeque butter. I’m almost reluctant to share, this is so good.
Soft-shell crabs are in season from May to September, mostly from the waters of the central Atlantic coast. This is the time of year that blue crabs molt, leaving them with nothing but a paper-thin proto-shell for a few hours at a time. If these crabs are caught before their new shells have a chance to grow, they are completely edible–exoskeleton and all.
The thin shell of a soft-shell crab is crackly, almost like the crisp skin on a roast chicken; the inside is juicy, gooey, sweet and unmistakably crabby. If you can get your hands on these bizarre little beasties, you are in for a treat.
Nine times out of ten, soft-shell crabs are battered and deep-fried. I like that fine. But grilling them–or broiling, if you don’t have a grill–is even better, because suddenly the crab is the real star. The crispy shell becomes charred and smoky, while the flesh inside gets plump and tender. Bite, and you get a fleeting crackle, a burst of briny juice, and a mouthful of delicate meat.
But wait, there’s more. To take these grilled crabs from good to GHGNGFHGFHFD, baste them as they grill with something Mark Bittman calls “barbecue sauce.” It’s a powerful mix of melted butter, garlic, Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice, and it’s go-weak-in-the-knees good. You will want to put this stuff on just about anything that touches a grill. On soft-shell crabs, it gives the crackling surface a salty, spicy, tangy kick.
You can serve these crabs on their own, plop them on top of a salad, or slip them between slices of crusty bread for a moan-worthy sandwich. Any which way, they’re irresistible.
Grilled Soft-Shell Crab with Barbecue Butter (serves 4 as an appetizer or sandwich filling, or 2 as an entree)
Note: If you’re planning on cooking your crabs within 24 hours of purchasing them, you can ask the fishmonger to kill and clean them for you. If you need to wait two or three days, you’re better off buying them alive and keeping them on ice in the fridge, then killing and cleaning them yourself when the time comes. Mark Bittman will show you how. Or, you can buy frozen crabs.
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
3-4 large garlic cloves, minced or finely grated
1/4 tsp Worcestershire sauce, or to taste
Juice of half a lemon, or to taste
4 soft-shell crabs, cleaned (thawed if frozen)
Heat your grill until moderately hot OR turn your broiler to high. Place the grill grate or oven rack at least 4 inches from the heat source. In a small saucepan or a microwave-safe bowl, combine the butter, garlic, Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice. Warm over medium-low heat, or microwave in 15-second bursts, until the butter is melted and the mixture is warm and fragrant. Stir to make sure everything is combined.
Grill or broil the crabs for 3-4 minutes per side, brushing them occasionally with the melted butter mixture. When the crabs are plump and firm, they’re done. Serve with lemon wedges to squeeze over the top.