The Secret to Soft-Shell Crabs - a Chef Tip for Easy Cooking

By Danya Henninger  |  June 5, 2014

Crab meat is delicious, but it’s notoriously hard to get at. That’s why soft-shell crabs are so great - when they’re in season, you don’t have to worry about pecking through the exoskeleton. Just pull out the gills, fry them up and eat the whole thing.

Restaurants often do the crabs tempura style, battering them up and dunking them in oil for a deep fry. While this is a delicious way to enjoy soft-shells, it’s not so easy to achieve at home. (See: messy egg-flour drippings, splattering oil and a big pot of waste oil to dispose of at the end.) Because of this, home cooks usually miss out on the late spring and summer ingredient.

Not anymore. Get ready to crab it up at home, because chef Christopher Kearse of Will clued us into a tip that makes cooking soft-shells easy. Like most chef secrets, it relies on science. Get your load of crustaceans ready and follow these three steps.

Easy Soft-Shell Crabs

1) Within an hour of your meal, submerge the crabs in a bath of club soda and a splash or two of vodka or grain alcohol.

2) After 15-25 minutes, pull the crabs out and pat them dry, then lightly coat them with cornmeal or flour (or a mix of the two).

3) Fill a frying pan about one inch deep with vegetable oil. Heat the oil and fry the crabs for around 1.5-2 minutes per side, flipping once. You’ll notice the crabs puffing up in size as they cook.

4) Pull out the fluffed-up, crisped-up crabs and place them on a paper towel to drain - there shouldn’t be that much excess oil.

5) Eat! Use dipping sauces or garnishes of your choosing, or just bite in.

Why does this work? Soaking the crabs lets CO2 gas from the soda water seep into them, along with alcohol from the vodka. When they hit the hot oil, the gas rushes out, puffing up the crab and letting the shell form its own tempura-like exterior. The alcohol boils faster than water and dissipates quickly, making the interior extra fluffy before it has a chance to dry out. Kearse tells us he learned the trick at Gramercy Tavern, from John Patterson (who happens to be the current chef de cuisine at Fork).

Kearse recently served his soft-shells with malted grains and sprouts and a jidori egg, but even if yours don’t look quite so gorgeous, they should be tasty. Of note, the crabs were part of the beer-ingredients dinner and another dish that evening was this Japanese snapper crudo with razor clam and saison dashi - although we don’t have a recipe for that one.

The $45 Tuesday Tastings at Will are taking a break during the summer, but if you want to stop in, here’s a non-cooking tip: go on a Wednesday, because seats are easier to come by and that’s when Kearse tends to play with new ideas - you’re likely to get an extra bite or two of something special.

1911 E. Passyunk Ave.; 215-271-7683