Easy prep and flavorful sauces add up to an unforgettable feast.

By Cynthia Nims
April 26, 2007
Becky Luigart-Stayner; styling by Mamie Walling

The great American crab boil is a no-frills meal that hitscountless newspaper-covered tables all summer long. Scatteredaround the centerpiece platter of just-cooked crabs are piles ofpaper napkins, bottles of frosty beer, and loaves of garlicbread.

There's something socially engaging about thisroll-up-your-sleeves-and-eat-with-your-hands extravaganza. You'reat the table for a good while, rhythmically cracking shells,picking out meat, and relishing each bite, with intermittent swigsof beer or forkfuls of coleslaw. The pace of the meal allows plentyof time to visit with tablemates―communal dining at its verybest.

A classic crab boil always starts with live crabs for a coupleof reasons. One, freshly cooked crabs have the best flavor. Andtwo, you can tailor seasonings to suit your taste. Dungenesscrabs―harvested from the Gulf of Alaska to CentralCalifornia―are available live from saltwater tanks at manyseafood markets. Count on a whole crab per person unless you planto serve loads of side dishes. The predominant crab along theEastern Seaboard is the blue crab. This variety is quite a bitsmaller than the Dungeness, so count on about six per person.

Choose crabs that are active in the tank. Keep them cool intransit (ask for a bag of crushed ice if it's warm out or you won'tbe home right away), and refrigerate them as soon as possible.Crabs need air to survive, and it's important they remain aliveuntil they're cooked, so leave the packaging open a bit.

You need a big pot, as much as 12 to 16 quarts, to cook livecrabs, especially if you're cooking for a crowd. You'll be able toboil one large crab at a time in an 8-quart pot, two or three in a16-quart or larger pot.

Though the claws of most live crabs will be secured with rubberbands to keep them from pinching, it's still best to grab a crab atthe back of its shell for easiest handling. If you're a littlenervous about that prospect, you can use sturdy tongs.

At mealtime, provide your guests with crab crackers and slenderpicks or small seafood forks to remove meat from the shells. Andput a bowl or two on the table for discarded shells. When you getto those big, luscious claws, the meat will come out easier if youfirst remove the claw joint: Grab the pincer and bend it backward,pulling it away from the claw. It should come away with a thinmembrane that runs down the center of the claw meat. Now you canextract the whole claw meat more readily.

Purists insist on eating the meat as is, straight from theshell, though melted butter and/or lemon juice are commonaccoutrements. Try our simple sauces for flavorful twists on aclassic summertime crab feast.