How to cook a crab

Food & drink
How to humanely kill and cook a live crab

On something of a whim, I bought a couple of live crabs from Kirkgate Market in Leeds.

When we got home, I tipped the crabs into the empty sink and left them there, scaring Jen half to death when one made a determined bid for freedom before she’d noticed its presence.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them – I’ve always bought conveniently dressed crabs before –  but a few judicious tweets and a bit of Googling  provided me with everything I needed to know about dispatching and cooking the pair of them.

There’s no real consensus on the best method of killing and cooking a crab.  Some people go for the traditional plunge in a boiling pan as an appropriate and humane way of killing the fish, whilst others prefer killing it outright before boiling it.

Methods of physically killing the crab before cooking vary widely, with the most gruesome involving simply removing the whole shell from the side with a cleaver, something that strikes me as unnecessarily brutal that I wasn’t about to do.

So, this is how I did it.

On balance, this seems to me to be the quickest and most humane way.

Flip the crab onto its back and you’ll see a triangular tail piece pointing up towards the crab’s head.  Lift this back fully, away from the claws, and you’ll see a small cone shaped hole.  Driving a sharp chopstick or screwdriver into the hole, with a sharp tap from a rolling pin, kills the crab instantly.  Do this quickly and decisively, and with enough force to drive the spike right through the crab until it reaches the shell on the other side.

Brown crab showing triangular tail

It’s a fairly gruesome business, but it’s necessary.

Next, cook the crab in plenty of boiling, salted water for about twelve to fifteen minutes for a normal sized half kilo brown crab.  Bigger specimens may need longer.

When the crab is done, take it out of the boiling water and run the cold tap over it briefly to cool it enough to handle, then twist the claws and legs off.  Give each section a sharp tap with a rolling pin to crack the shell.

Prise the shell away from the body and discard the feathery looking gills and anything else that looks like innards. The inside of a crab is hardly appetising…you just need to look beyond that.  Chop the body into quarters to get to some hidden pockets of meat.

There’s plenty you could do with the crab meat.  We just simply ate it with a salad, some home made mayonnaise and a baguette.

The crab was delicious, but the ratio of effort to reward was way out of kilter.  Believe me, extracting the meat from a crab is a slow, tedious, messy job, and it’s probably best left to people who do it for a living.

Let’s just say that later that evening, Jenny went and got a packet of chocolate biscuits from the kitchen and sat munching them in front of  the telly.

Next time, it’s a pre-dressed crab for me.

Live crab

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21 comments… add one
  • Kavey Sep 12, 2010

    I TOTALLY feel your pain – it's a slow, messy, fiddly job that results in an aching back. And a huge pile of delicious crab meat.

    And wow, doesn't it suddenly shift your perception about the price/ value of dressed crab? I'm waaaay more willing to pay good money for a ready-dressed crab now than I was before!

  • Sara Sep 12, 2010

    While I do appreciate a good "how to," you lost me at gruesome! Oy. I don't have the stomach for killing my own crab. In another lifetime I definitely would've been vegetarian. Lovely pictures.

  • Magic of Spice Sep 12, 2010

    Excellent and informative…Love the photos :)

  • Sara @CaffeIna Sep 12, 2010

    I always wanted to learn how to cook a crab and this post is very informative. However, after reading the killing part I don't think I will ever be able to do that. Now I feel iper-protective towards crabs (I still think they are really good though…I'll just have to buy them already dead!)

  • Jennifer Sep 12, 2010

    Thanks for the pictures and the tip…I always did the drop in boiling water but I much prefer the idea of killing the crab before boiling it alive.

  • Well, I have to admit killing = ain't gonna happen. I have no problem eating meat or the fact that other people have to kill it; I'm just squeamish that way. I hate spiders but even they have to be carried outside (by my husband preferably) instead of being squashed.

    Even so, should the situation arise where I'm forced to do it, thank you SO much for the information on the way to do it the most humanely.

  • Conor @ HoldtheBeef Sep 13, 2010

    Gotta admit, I love to eat crab but have never gone to the effort of doing this myself before. Crab is more something I order out! But, I'll happily(ish) peel a pile of prawns, or deal with crayfish at home, so perhaps I should at least try to do this one day! Cheers for the how-to :)

  • I'm very impressed! I'm not sure I could do it; I'd have to have a back-up with me, just in case I missed! Great job of explaining!

  • Jess Sep 13, 2010

    I'm a bit of a wimp when it comes to seeing my food alive. I know where it comes from and I happy to eat it but I don't want to be the one doing the killing.

    I can just about handle the cooking part.

    Great post!

  • Liam O'Malley Sep 13, 2010

    Ugh, you remind me, we have this new show on now called Masterchef. One of Gordon Ramsay's 327 different shows on Fox. Don't know if you get it across the pond or not but if not you're not missing too much.

    Anyway, one of the challenges recently was precisely this – cooking a live crab. 90% of the contestants went ahead and threw it in some boiling water, and the deal is done. Yet this one girl just start ripping hers apart – pulling off the claws, breaking the shell, all while it was still alive and breathing. Basically torturing the thing to death. It was awful. Gordon had to come over and stop her in the middle of it.. it was really bad.

  • RavieNomNoms Sep 13, 2010

    Thanks so much for the great post! This is awesome

  • Shree Sep 14, 2010

    wow.. thats amazing. thanks for posting all the details involved with this. I still haven't made a crab at home … yet….

  • neil macrae Dec 10, 2010

    Good article about cooking crab.

    I am a fisherman and pleased to see people appreciating the work going into preparation,i would also like people to realize the whole operation from bottom of the sea onwards is hard work which should help to explain the cost of this fantastic food when finally prepared.

    One thing about breaking the claws and legs: Don't smash them but hit them hard enough to crack the shell enabling you to get at the meat without having to pick small pieces of shell out,this can be painfull ,especially if you end up doing it with your tongue.

    I run a seafood cruise and so regularly cook them up on that and it does not take long to get the hang of it.

    On killing: A good idea to get over being squeamish and understand that it can give a better appreciation of the meal,but then is not for all of us so just pay the cash if you can't. If you can, then the humane way is to do as the guy says ,kill them with the spike in the abdomen, maybe waggle it around a bit,It is instantaneous and causes little pain(i think!). You can probably imagine for yourself what it is like to be put into a pot of boiling water when you are used to walking around in 12 degrees down below. Eat seafood! it keeps me in a job and it is delicious,fast,local,delicious ,good for you,good for me and delicious.

    Most of my langoustine,crab and scallops go from Scotland to Spain! shocking ,but i nead the dough!!

    Seafood cruise…… now there is a good idea!

  • bob the fish Jul 9, 2012

    no need to mess about killing the crab first comercially they are put in a large basket and craned into a vat of water the heat is turned on they die we eat simple as that. Just enjoy!!!

  • sienna Sep 21, 2012

    I was watching Luke Nguyen’s show on the Cooking Channel. He does shows in Vietnam and now the Mekong region of Asia-China, Myanmar, etc. Anyway, he killed crabs humanely by putting them in a ice bath. Place the crab in one of those big plastic bowls with lots of ice and water. The crabs die, in the sleep, from the coldness of the ice. I thought this was a very humane way to kill crabs.

    Of course I was raised where the crab was killed by placing it in boiling water. That method is humane only in that the poor crab dies quickly. But in the few seconds where the boiling water affects that poor crab, you know that’s an incredibly painful way to die. That’s not at all a humane way to die for a crab. I figured out for myself when I saw it at age 8 when I saw it done, many years ago.

  • Dawn Nov 18, 2012

    I was just thinking about this. First let me say that I was perusing a way to humanely cook live crabs.

    Then I got to thinking .. in the wild if some other animals got a hold of a crab, they don’t kill it ahead of time and then eat it. They just start ripping it apart and eat. I know, I know, sounds so barbaric, however, take a look at the food chain and where their meals come from; lions and deer, orcas and seals, etc.

    So, is it still being cruel to freeze/numb them and then cook them?? Hmm I don’t know. Still wrestling with the idea of either buying a cooked crab or going for the experience and adventure of catching live crabs and cooking them myself.

  • Shedecee Dec 22, 2015

    How did you flip the crab over

    • Rich Dec 22, 2015

      You just pick it up and turn it over.

  • Shedecee Dec 24, 2015

    I find it impossible to touch a crab what says pick it up + there is nothing in a crab cos I tried it

    • Rich Dec 24, 2015

      Just grab hold of the crab from behind, and stay away from the pincers. It’s a easy, as long as you’re confident!

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