Crab Cakes

Pen and Palate Crab Cakes

illustration: tram nguyen


For years, my family took summer vacations at the beach in North Carolina, where we’d all compete to see who could get the worst sunburn (“best tan”) and otherwise lie around a rental cottage stuffing our faces. This was the one time a year my siblings and I were allowed to eat junk cereal, so we really went for it, inhaling those miniature cereal boxes starting at about 9am until they were all gone, which was usually about 9:30. Then we’d move to ice cream. Dinner, however, was always an elaborate family ordeal, involving thousands of dishes and (once we aged into it) copious amounts of white wine. The culinary highlight was always toward the end of the trip, when we’d gather our innumerable relatives together for a crab feast.

I loved our crab feasts for a few reasons: I’m from Maryland, so I am bound by honor to like crabs, and I’m also a little bit attention-starved, so I really enjoy wielding anything reminiscent of a gavel. Smashing a defenseless, barely-dead crustacean with a huge mallet and then literally picking its guts out can be a real pleasure when you are a tween with low self-esteem.

Unfortunately, if you abide by the Hippie School of Eating Animals — which, for the record, I usually do not — one must kill a crab, or several crabs, with one’s own two hands if one wants to eat a delicious crab cake. More to the point, fresh crabmeat is really delicious, pretty much the most delicious thing you’ll ever eat. But picking your own crabmeat is also an expensive and a time-consuming affair, so depending on your priorities you can use prepackaged lump crabmeat too.


If you live in New York or another big city, Chinatown is probably a good bet for buying live crabs. (If you live by the seaside, go to a dock or something?) Do not assume finding said live crabs will be a simple task requiring only a 20 minute trip, however, and certainly do not tell a friend to meet you at your house at a time that’s predicated on your finding crabs easily. This will result in you being very late while your friend hangs out with your slightly-too-cool doorman, Kenneth, with a six-pack in the lobby. Finding live crabs in Chinatown requires some trial and error, i.e. walking into 40 storefronts until you find the one that sells what you are looking for.

When purchasing crabs for crabcakes, I have found that one Dungeness crab, which weighs approx. 2 lbs and costs $15.99/lb at my preferred store, can yield maybe .75 lbs meat, or 4 decent-sized crab cakes. Blue crabs will be smaller, so you’ll need to buy several.

Once you’ve procured your crabs, put them in the freezer for about 15 minutes (30 to be safe?) to numb them. Put a huge pot of water on to boil. You are numbing the crab because you don’t want it to struggle when you immerse its body in boiling water and murder it. This step is easily the hardest part of the whole gambit, both because you are heartlessly taking the life a creature and because the idea that the crab might escape from your clutches and run around your kitchen floor is kind of terrifying. So, once you feel semi-confident the crab is numb and thus unable to wriggle free, take it out of the freezer (presumably it’s in a bag of some nature, you weren’t just letting it run wild in there) and use tongs to put it in the pot, belly-up. By the time it’s boiled, which should take about 7-8 minutes per pound of crab, it should be red and dead.

Take the crab out of the pot and rinse it with cold water. Find a flat surface and protect it with cardboard and/or newspapers. Slowly dismantle your little crab guy with a mallet (or a crab cracker), crab leg for crab leg, and use your hands to mine it for every single shred of meat it’s worth. Put the meat in a bowl. With your friend, discuss your emotions.

Once you’ve finished the legs, move to the body. There will be a mustardy colored part and some little squiggly white parts: These are the guts; cast them aside. Surrounding the guts will be white, tube-like things that taper off at the ends and have a slightly rougher texture than the meat you pulled out of the legs. That too should be abandoned. Crack the spine and split the crab in two. This is where the great meat is. It will be white, moist, and tender. Put that in the bowl also.

Once you’ve picked your crabs, rinse the meat off and comb through it for any stray shells. Crab shells are hard; they will break your teeth.


Makes 4 crab cakes

¼ cup mayonnaise
1 egg
1 tbs Dijon mustard
1 tbs chives, chopped
1 ½ tsp Old Bay Seasoning
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 lb of crabmeat
1 – 1 ¼ cups panko (it should soak up the moisture in your mixture and bind the meat together)
Hefty pinch of salt and pepper
3/4 tsp Tabasco sauce
Parsley, chopped
Lemon wedges for serving

In a bowl, mix the mayonnaise, egg, Dijon Mustard, chives, Old Bay seasoning, and lemon juice. Fold in crabmeat, panko, salt, and Tabasco sauce.

Mix together and form into patties. Refrigerate for 15 minutes. While you’re waiting for your patties to cool, pour some panko onto a plate. Take the patties out and heat a skillet with some olive oil.

Once the olive oil is hot (but not smoking) coat your patties with panko and throw them onto the skillet. Cook each side for a few minutes each, until they’re golden brown. Garnish with some parsley and lemon. Serve warm.

2 Comments Write a comment

  1. The numbing in the freezer seems very sensible. I wish I had found this post before my recent attempt to cook lobster. Overcoming the emotional hurdle of putting a live creature in the pan is tough but somehow makes you appreciate the final dish even more. I really enjoy reading your blog, the writing and the illustrations are so good.

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