The end of spring is a wonderful time. For starters, we get more daylight (and eventually recoup the hour of sleep lost at the start of Daylight Savings Time).
That means little to Mother Nature though: the world continues to turn, and tilt on its axis, bringing warmer weather to the Northern Hemisphere. It’s here, in the Mid-Atlantic, where we begin to reap those rewards. Watermen take to their boats on the Chesapeake Bay and prepare their traps for the blue crab harvest.
As water temperatures rise, these blue crabs begin to molt and shed their shells. It’s at this moment when the live crabs are harvested – at the peak of tenderness.
Learn more about their journey – from blue shell to softshell, and from the country’s largest estuary to one of our favorite seasonal offerings – here.
About Blue Crabs
Who says Latin is dead? The language tells us a lot. Exhibit A: the scientific name for blue crab is Callinectes sapidus, meaning beautiful savory swimmer.
These crabs propel themselves through the water using their back fins, or swimmerets. You’ll find this species all along the Atlantic Coast, down through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, and even to some northern parts of South America. But all roads lead to Crisfield, Maryland – the softshell crab capital of the world.
You could say this crab is the Chesapeake’s answer to the jewel of the Nile. It’s the most valuable fishery in the bay.
Blue Crabs live anywhere from three to four years and reach maturity around one year to 18 months. Growth is very dependent on temperature. Mating occurs from spring through the fall and, interestingly, females can only mate once during their life but can spawn multiple times.
Females, especially those carrying eggs, prefer higher salinity areas and often migrate towards the mouth of the Chesapeake to spawn. Males prefer lower salinity waters and can often be found closer to river mouths and estuaries.
Harvesting generally begins in late Spring as water temperatures warm and crabs prepare for their summer growth. This is often marked by the first full moon in May.
A Coming of Age
Softshell crabs are blue crabs. They’re harvested throughout the Chesapeake Bay by commercial crabbers when the hardshell blue crabs are deemed to be peelers, or crabs that are ready to molt.
Watermen will look for signs, such as white, pink and red colors on the shells, to tell which crabs will molt, and when. In fact, a red outline, called a “red sign”, on the swimming fin indicates that a crab will molt in less than two days.
These crabs are then transferred to shedding tanks where they are monitored until they molt.
Once a crab molts, it is removed from the shedding tank as soon as possible before the shell begins to harden. It’s at this moment when a blue crab becomes a softshell crab. They’re then carefully packed and arrive to us daily – directly from the Chesapeake to our restaurants.
Iconic, sweet and earthy, softshell crab is a crunchy treat with olive-like notes imparted from the shell.
At King’s Fish house, we prepare soft shell crabs two ways:
· Southern-fried, with corn succotash and fried green tomato
· Picatta-style, with Israeli couscous, lemon butter and capers
At Water Grill, our Wild Maryland Softshell Crab is prepared with a watermelon and cucumber salad and a brown butter soy ginger sauce.