The ultimate Hardshell bible.

By Jane Marion
Photography by Christopher Myers

Illustrations by T.M. Detwiler

Food & Drink

A-Z Guide to Crabs

The ultimate hardshell Bible.

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APRON

(a•pron) n. 1. If you’re going to get up close and personal, it’s best to know basic anatomy. So let’s talk about the apron. No, not the one you wear when you cook, but the flap on the white underside of a crab that ends in a point. It’s also useful for judging the sex—an egg mass develops under the female’s apron—and maturity of the crab.

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BUCKET

(buck•et) n. 1. While a mountain of blue crabs (formally known as Callinectes sapidus, aka “savory beautiful swimmers”) is a sight for sore eyes, a pile of picked-over shells is not. Think of the galvanized bucket as the Marie Kondo of the crab feast—tidy up your table by depositing crab carcasses here. (And don’t forget to thank your sidestepping sweetie for its service!)

Use to keep your beers cold!

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CRAB HOUSE

(crab•house) n. 1. It’s hard to swing a mallet in Maryland without hitting a crab house. Here’s a smattering of classic spots for picking our state symbol.

Captain James LANDING

This crab house in Canton has many claims to fame, from its whopping crustaceans to its neighboring boat-shaped restaurant to the fact that former Baltimorean Oprah Winfrey eats here when she’s in town. 2127 Boston St., Baltimore

Costas Inn

With its keno, pit beef, bottles of Boh, and spiced crabs, this Dundalk crab joint is total Bawlmer, though the colossal crabs hail from Louisiana and Texas year-round, so whatever the month, it’s always crab season here. 4100 North Point Blvd., Baltimore

Nick’s Fish House

This Port Covington spot has a beach-meets-bay vibe with its sprawling crab deck, string lights, large wooden deck, and views of the Patapsco River. Man your mallet and enjoy a hot heap. 2600 Insulator Dr., Baltimore

Conrad’s Seafood Restaurant

With so many spots sourcing outside of the state (and even the country), take your (jumbo) lumps at Conrad’s in Perry Hall if you care about local sourcing. In season, Maryland crabs are always the catch of the day thanks to owner-fisherman Tony Conrad. 9654 Belair Rd., Perry Hall

Mr. Bill’s Terrace Inn

It really says something that the titular “Mr. Bill” has been perched at the bar—and the host stand—for more than 50 years. This Essex crab house, like its proprietor, is something we can count on. Head here for dependably delicious cold buckets of beer and a spicy stack of crabs. 200 Eastern Blvd., Essex

Schultz’s

Look in the dictionary under “crab house” and you’re sure to find this Essex original—voted “America’s Classic” by the James Beard Foundation—that has been throwing down crabs on brown paper since 1969. Get ’em hot, hefty, and straight from the steamer! 1732 Old Eastern Ave., Essex

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DOZEN

(doz•en) n. 1. Crabs are priced singly, by the bushel, and, commonly, by the dozen. A good rule of thumb is four to five crabs per person, especially if you’re also enjoying a selection of sides. But when you do your calculations, unlike most math problems, there’s no wrong answer here: Leftovers can come in handy. (See “X is for X-tras!”)

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EXPERIENCE

(ex•pe•ri•ence) n. 1. Cracking crabs is not a meal—it’s an experience, an event, and something best done en masse. For the full immersion, blare some music, crack open some cans, and indulge your appetite—for crabs and fun in the sun.

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FRIENDS

(friends) n. 1. Like crabs, you can never have too many of these. The more, the merrier, especially when it comes to gathering around galvanized buckets. Here are some guest-list tips on throwing a flawless and friend-filled crab feast:

Separate couples. This isn’t middle school. Breaking up couples, cliques, and BFFs allows everyone to expand their world and maybe even meet someone new.

Assign seats. This might feel formal for something as casual as crabs, but crab-shaped name cards or any kind of nautical notecard will work.

Don’t worry if not everyone knows each other. Part of being an adult is knowing how to make new friends through the art of conversation. That said, do make sure that each person invited knows at least one other person—you’re the host, not the babysitter. Warn your guests to stay away from politics as a talking point—way too tempting to start a food fight with empty shells.

Limit the number of guests. A crab feast is both expensive and messy. Make sure you have enough space for everyone to have a seat at the table. Eight to 10 guests is the ideal number.

is for GET MESSY

(get•mess•y) v. 1. Making a mess adds to the fun of the feast, so Tide sticks can come in handy for those stubborn spice stains. Equally effective: cold water (which is also useful if you cut yourself and get blood on your blouse). Adding white vinegar or liquid laundry detergent also works magic. For best results, treat the offending area quickly after it happens. If all else fails, call your mother for an age-old home remedy.

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HUSH PUPPIES

(hush•pup•pies) n. 1. As far back as The Civil War, these deep-fried cornmeal-based babies were supposedly fed to barking dogs (hence the name) by fishermen, hunters, and the like. But these Southern fritters—a popular seafood side—are so delicious, we’re ready to shout it from the rooftops (or at least the crab decks).

Ingredients

  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. Old Bay
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • ¾ cup whole milk
  • 1 small onion, chopped

Directions In a large bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, baking powder, Old Bay, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk egg, milk, and onion; add to dry ingredients and mix. In a large cast-iron skillet, heat oil to medium heat. Drop batter by tablespoonfuls into hot oil. Fry until golden brown, about 2½ minutes. Drain on paper towels. Serve immediately.

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ICE-COLD BEER

(ice•cold•beer) n. 1. Though National Bohemian hasn’t been brewed in Maryland for decades, many crab houses around the bay are true to the iconic brand of beer. Even so, there are plenty of truly local brews that go great with crustaceans, too. Try Flying Dog’s Dead Rise Old Bay Summer Ale—it’s made with the crab spice, and with its citrus, celery, and salty notes, it’s an ideal complement to crab. And should you want to sip your day away at the crab feast, Union Craft Brewing’s Anthem is both creamy and floral—in other words, it goes down easy.

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JUMBO

(jum•bo) n./adj. 1. There’s huge, there’s outsized, there’s massive, there’s mammoth—and then there’s jumbo. Hardshells of any size are delicious, but if you’re impatient or inexperienced or don’t like working for those prized pieces of lump, size does matter. There’s a reason that jumbos are the least caught and most in-demand crab. Call your favorite crab house early in the morning to reserve them for later in the day—or risk disappointment.

When it comes to crab, the bigger the better.

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KNIFE

(knife) n. 1. Much like the 4.3-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the crab knife divides Eastern Shore residents from everyone else. Shore residents practically invented the sport of picking, which they practice silently and swiftly. The knife helps with the basics of hardshell surgery—from cutting off legs and gills, removing the apron, and cracking the shell of the claws and the body to extracting the meat. For many Eastern Shore residents, using a mallet is like nails on a chalkboard—or claws, in this case.

Bona-fide Carvel Hall Crab-Picking Knife from the Eastern Shore.

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LEMON

(lem•on) n. 1. Just because you love crabs, that doesn’t mean you have to smell like one. The briny Bay odor can linger on your hands for days—and Wet Ones have their limitations. To neutralize the aroma, simply squeeze the juice of a lemon wedge across your fingers and the palm of your hands. You’ll go from fishy to fabulous in an instant. (Note: Bowls of water are also useful for seafood sanitation.)

is for MALLET

(mal•let) n. 1. While Eastern Shore folks tend to use a knife to extract their crab meat from the shell, those who reside west of the Bay Bridge usually wield a wooden mallet or hammer. Pro tip: Swing lightly—you don’t want to damage the delicate meat. A knife is a good alternative. (See “K is for knife.”)

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NECESSITY (OLD BAY SEASONING)

(old•bay) n. 1. Bagels and lox, peanut butter and jelly, Old Bay and crabs. Has there ever been a more classic combination than this yellow-, blue-, and red-tinned crab seasoning and the sweet meat of Maryland true blues? Of course, crabs can stand on their own, but no crab worth its salt—or, in this case, Old Bay—should go it alone. Here’s a recipe for the perfect crabs/Old Bay ratio every time.

STEAMED BLUE CRABS

Ingredients

  • 2 cans light beer
  • ¼-½ cup of cider vinegar
  • 1 dozen live blue crabs
  • ½ cup Old Bay
  • 1 tbsp. kosher salt

Directions Pour beer and vinegar in the bottom of the pot to form a layer of liquid. The liquid should not bubble above the steamer insert. Using tongs, layer live crabs inside the steamer. Cover pot and place over a flame on high heat. Sprinkle seasoning and salt over crabs. Steam for 15 to 20 minutes, depending on size of crabs and how many are in pot. Crabs are cooked when the aprons begin to lift from the body of the crab. (Use extra Old Bay if you like them super spicy.)

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OTHER FISH IN THE SEA

(oth•er•fish•in•the•sea) n. 1. Crabs are not the only fish—make that crustaceans—in the sea. There are plenty of other options for seafood savoring. Consider:

A proper pairing with crab.

Fried Calamari

Golden rings of calamari are a great starter to any feast. For a kick, sprinkle them with Old Bay.

Oysters

Local oysters are among the Bay’s bounty. Whether they’re Skinny Dippers, Holy Grails, or Choptank Sweets, slurp the day away.

Clams

Nothing says summer like a pile of these marvelous mollusks. For a Maryland touch, steam them in a can of local beer.

Steamed Shrimp

Man cannot fill up on crabs alone. Add some steamed shrimp to turn your meal into a feast fit for Poseidon.

Lobster

For an innovative appetizer, make a lobster salad (or mix it with crab) and serve it Maryland-style on Saltines.

Rockfish

In Maryland, rockfish reigns. Slather with olive oil, grill, and finish with a squeeze of lemon.

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PAPER

(pa•per) n. 1. No need for napkins or starched white tablecloths here—whether it’s rolls of paper towels for wiping, print-free brown paper, or newspaper for covering the table, pulp products are an essential element of any crab feast.

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QUENCH

(quench) v. 1. A drink is required to quiet the heat—enter the mojito or any citrusy spirit to complement your crab. Think of this cocktail as a fire hydrant for your taste buds.

MOJITO

Ingredients

  • 2 oz. mint leaves, two leaves left whole
  • 2 oz. fresh lime juice
  • 1 ½ oz. light rum
  • 1 tsp. granulated sugar Crushed ice
  • 4 oz. club soda
  • 1 slice of lime for garnish

Directions Muddle the mint with the lime juice in the bottom of a tall cocktail glass. Add rum, sugar, ice, and soda. Cover and shake. Garnish with a lime slice and whole mint leaves. Serves 1.

is for REAL DEAL
(MARYLAND CRABS)

(real•deal) n. 1. Blue crabs hail from as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Uruguay, and, out of season, lots of local spots serve crabs sourced from Texas, Louisiana, and the Carolina coast. But the best blues hail from our beautiful brackish bay. At 64,000 square miles, the watershed is the largest estuary in the United States and the place where 50 percent of the country’s blue crabs come from. Maryland crabs have a buttery flavor, thanks to the stores of fat that come from many months of hibernation, something their crabby kinfolk do not do. In other areas of America, crabs get boiled, which can make them mushy and wet. In Maryland, they get steamed, which makes them moist, gives them depth of flavor, and maintains their delicate texture.

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SOFT SHELLS

(soft•shells) n. 1. Unless you hail from around the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, the concept of eating an immature blue crab, legs and all, tossed in flour, salt, pepper, and crab spice, then deep-fried or sautéed in butter—might seem straight out of Survivor. But once you taste this Tidewater treat, often placed on a toasted bun slathered with mayo and adorned with lettuce and tomato, your craving will kick in every April as these molting marvels signal the start of the season. This soft sammie, pictured above, is from Rye Street Tavern.

Soft Shells kick off crab season in April.

The Dos and Don’ts of the soft shell
DON’T use ketchup. Yes, it looks like a burger, but it’s not. DON’T overthink it. Yes, you’re eating the whole crab carcass, but ignorance is bliss. DO use two hands to make sure nothing falls out. DO tuck in all appendages, close your eyes, and focus on the flavors.

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TO-GO!

(to•go) adj. 1. Many Maryland traditionalists like to have at it at a picnic table in their own yards. If that’s the way you roll, here are some spots to get ’em while they’re hot—and crack ’em back at home.

ANNAPOLIS SEAFOOD MARKETS

This market has an ocean of offerings—from crabs to scallops to wild salmon and swordfish. And once we’re back at home, we love referring to the company’s recipes and handy seafood cooking tips listed on its website. 1300 Forest Dr., Annapolis

FAIDLEY’S SEAFOOD

You don’t stay in business for 133 years without doing something right. Faidley’s name is synonymous with seafood, especially crab cakes and steamed crabs. You’re not a Marylander until you’ve brought home a paper bag from this Lexington Market stall. 203 N Paca St., Baltimore

J.M. CLAYTON CO.

Since 1890, live Chesapeake Bay crabs have been delivered by watermen to the doors of this local institution that’s the oldest crab company in the world. This is one place where you never need to ask if your Blues are from the Bay. 108 Commerce St., Cambridge

CONRAD’S CRABS

A trip to Conrad’s for carry-out can sometimes feel like a full-contact sport. Parking spaces go fast, and the line forms out the door, but it’s well worth breaking a sweat to haul home some of the heaviest crabs around. Also, sides here are serious contenders. 1720 E. Joppa Rd., Parkville

GIBBY’S SEAFOOD AND
GOURMET MARKET

With its selection of crabs (Blue, King, Dungeness) and jumbo lump cakes, this spot dominates the get-it-to-go market in Baltimore County. There’s always a wait, which is a good thing—this is a sign that your seafood is actually cooked to order. 2322 York Rd., Lutherville

OCEAN PRIDE

This Lutherville-Timonium outpost takes great pride in their products—from jumbo Gulf shrimp to Malpeque oysters to steamed crabs, local whenever possible. Can’t carry out because you moved to Montana? No worries. Ocean Pride ships there. 1534 York Rd., Timonium

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UMBRELLA

(um•brel•la) n. 1. Nothing says summer like sitting outside in front of an ice-cold six pack and picking a hot heap of crabs for hours on end. Word to the wise: You’re here to eat crabs, not look like one. Slather on some sunscreen, park yourself under an umbrella, and you’ll be made in the shade.

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VINEGAR

(vin•e•gar) n. 1. The use of cocktail sauce separates the tourists from the Old-Liners, but dipping the sweet meat into apple cider vinegar is acceptable. The vinegar tenderizes the meat—and cuts the heat. That said, don’t overdo it—a little dunk’ll do ’ya.

The sour of the vinegar draws out the sweet of the crabmeat.

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WHAT TO WEAR

(what•to•wear) n. 1. Just follow this one easy wardrobe rule: Wear anything you don’t care about—whether that’s your high-school prom dress, your old ringer tee, or those worn out clam diggers. Whatever you do, don’t don a plastic bib (this is the Mid-Atlantic, not New England), Granny’s heirloom ring, or anything white. If all else fails, mix up a batch of our secret stain remover.

DIY stain remover

Need: Grease-cutting dish soap, hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, airtight container.

Mix: One part dish soap with two parts peroxide. Add 1-2 Tbsp. baking soda to make a paste. Pour generous amount of paste on stain, rub in with toothbrush (treat both sides if stain has soaked through). Allow to sit for an hour and then wash according to garment label.

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X-TRAS

(x•tras) n. 1. If you have a spare crab or three, waste not, want not. Crabby morsels can be repurposed into anything from the obvious (crab soup, crab cake) to more innovative interpretations (crab mac and cheese, crab fra diavolo). Even the biggest naysayers are not going to whine about leftovers when you tell them what’s for dinner. This is not the mystery mush your mother served—crab is the rare food that’s just as good the next day.

A colorful confetti of flavors.

Mango & crab Tacos

Ingredients

  • 4 corn tortillas
  • ¾-1 cup crabmeat (backfin, claw meat, or lump)
  • 1 ripe mango, sliced
  • ½ red onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 radishes, thinly sliced
  • 1 avocado, thinly sliced
  • Lime wedges for garnishing

Directions Preheat oven to 325 F. Warm tortillas for five minutes on a baking sheet. Layer ingredients across tortillas. Serves 2.

Crab Toast

Ingredients

  • 4 oz. of leftover crabmeat
  • ½ tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 2¾-inch thick slices sourdough, toasted
  • 1 avocado, thinly sliced
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh dill
  • Salt to taste
  • Lemon wedges for serving

Directions In a bowl, mix crabmeat and mustard. Place on bread. Top with avocado and dill. Salt. Garnish. Serves 1.

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YACHT ROCK

(yacht•rock) n. 1. Nothing says summer in Charm City like a crab feast—and so-called Yacht Rock, because everything sounds better on a boat. But no worries if you can’t afford a yacht: Sitting by the Bay will get the job done, too. Some playlist recommendations for a hot summer in the city.

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ZILCH

(zilch) n./adj. 1. When it comes to eating steamed crabs, there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing. However many you order, there should never be any left at the end.

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