The great American crab boil is a no-frills meal that hits countless newspaper-covered tables all summer long. Scattered around the centerpiece platter of just-cooked crabs are piles of paper napkins, bottles of frosty beer, and loaves of garlic bread.
There's something socially engaging about this roll-up-your-sleeves-and-eat-with-your-hands extravaganza. You're at the table for a good while, rhythmically cracking shells, picking out meat, and relishing each bite, with intermittent swigs of beer or forkfuls of coleslaw. The pace of the meal allows plenty of time to visit with tablemates―communal dining at its very best.
A classic crab boil always starts with live crabs for a couple of reasons. One, freshly cooked crabs have the best flavor. And two, you can tailor seasonings to suit your taste. Dungeness crabs―harvested from the Gulf of Alaska to Central California―are available live from saltwater tanks at many seafood markets. Count on a whole crab per person unless you plan to serve loads of side dishes. The predominant crab along the Eastern Seaboard is the blue crab. This variety is quite a bit smaller than the Dungeness, so count on about six per person.
Choose crabs that are active in the tank. Keep them cool in transit (ask for a bag of crushed ice if it's warm out or you won't be home right away), and refrigerate them as soon as possible. Crabs need air to survive, and it's important they remain alive until they're cooked, so leave the packaging open a bit.
You need a big pot, as much as 12 to 16 quarts, to cook live crabs, especially if you're cooking for a crowd. You'll be able to boil one large crab at a time in an 8-quart pot, two or three in a 16-quart or larger pot.
Though the claws of most live crabs will be secured with rubber bands to keep them from pinching, it's still best to grab a crab at the back of its shell for easiest handling. If you're a little nervous about that prospect, you can use sturdy tongs.
At mealtime, provide your guests with crab crackers and slender picks or small seafood forks to remove meat from the shells. And put a bowl or two on the table for discarded shells. When you get to those big, luscious claws, the meat will come out easier if you first remove the claw joint: Grab the pincer and bend it backward, pulling it away from the claw. It should come away with a thin membrane that runs down the center of the claw meat. Now you can extract the whole claw meat more readily.
Purists insist on eating the meat as is, straight from the shell, though melted butter and/or lemon juice are common accoutrements. Try our simple sauces for flavorful twists on a classic summertime crab feast.