Many years ago, soft-shell crab wasn’t really an Alabama Gulf Seafood dish.
Sure, we served it here. But up until the 80s, 99 percent of those soft-shell Blue Crabs came from the Chesapeake Bay areas of Maryland and Virginia. And because of the familiarity of the crabs from that region, that’s what chefs and restaurateurs down South preferred to serve.
Until folks like James Morris worked with the Auburn University Marine Extension & Research Center (AUMERC) to introduce a new way of harvesting soft-shell crabs—right from your own home.
About 40 years ago, Morris began using a tank system for storing and observing soft-shell crabs. Similar to a standard saltwater aquarium, these tanks employed biological filters to allow soft-shell crabs to be monitored as they begin to molt, which allows the crabs to be removed at just the right time.
“We introduced these systems to the industry,” said Morris, whose family has been in the seafood business for generations. “We learned how to deal with these biological filters, where a person could actually raise these soft crabs at their house. They didn’t have to be located along the shoreline anymore.”
The first step, of course, is finding the crabs. But not just any Blue Crabs will do if you’re trying to raise the perfect soft-shells.
Blue Crabs that are just about to molt are called “busters”—as in they’re busting through the shell, a visible sign that molting will happen soon. Luckily for crab fishermen, these immature crabs (meaning young and ready to shed) typically don’t mix with the more mature crabs that aren’t preparing to molt.
Once the immature crabs are harvested and properly transported to an in-home tank system, the busters can be separated into a “buster pen” and the monitoring can begin.
But you have to pay close attention, or else you’ll miss your window. Molting crabs only remain in their soft state for a few hours, so frequent check-ins are key.
“You have to stay on top of that, because after three hours or so, the crabs will grow a paper shell and become too hard to call it a soft crab at all,” said Morris. “So you have to get up every three or four hours all during the night just to get them out of the tank when they’re shedding. You can’t miss a shift. It’s like having a baby.”
All that hard work and constant observation makes for quite a tasty dish.
Because soft-shell crabs are only plentiful during the warmer months—their season begins in late April or early May and lasts up until the water temperature drops below 70 degrees—they’ve become a bit of a delicacy here on the Gulf Coast.
Just don’t let the appearance fool you. Soft-shell crabs can be grilled or sautéed, but they’re most commonly fried.
And yes, folks, they’re fried whole. After a bit of cleaning (to remove the gills, the backs, or other small pieces), they’re thrown into the fryer shell and all, retaining their crab shape when they’re cooked. It may be a bit alarming if you’ve never tried a fried soft-shell crab. But appearances can be deceiving.
“If you like crabmeat out of a container, soft crabs are full of that same crabmeat,” said Morris. “Difference is, you can eat the whole thing, you don’t have to depend on taking the crabmeat from certain cavities out of the crab. The soft crab, you can eat everything.”
Nowadays, you’ll find soft-shell crab on plenty of menus throughout Alabama. And while Maryland and Virginia are nice places to visit, we’re proud to serve local soft-shell crab to our friends and neighbors.
“When we came along and introduced those systems, we kinda took our own market over because the places wanted our local catch,” said Morris. “Once more and more people started doing the raising themselves, the big restaurants started just using them from us. Now a person who wants to be in the soft crab industry can build their own tank and keep their own busters.”
For more information on soft-shell crabs, check out the latest Blue Crab Fishery of the Gulf of Mexico Regional Management Plan from the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission.