Picking and eating crabs is an earthy, down-home way to enjoy these tasty crustaceans -- but crabs do not give up their treasures lightly. Picking crabmeat takes time, but it's pretty easy once you know some tricks and tips.
First get a large work space ready. Lay down newspaper because you're going to get messy. Sorry, but pickin' crabs ain't dainty. I recommend a bowl for your cooked crabs, a bowl for good shells -- use these for stocks and sauces -- a bowl for the pure meat, and a trashcan nearby.
Once you have this all set, turn on some music, grab a beer or a lemonade and get to pickin'.
There are many ways to go about picking crabs, but I start by removing all the legs and claws. Do this by grabbing the very base of each leg and pulling it away. Set them aside for later.
On the bottom of the crab is a plate. If it's a boy crab (a jimmy in East Coast terms), it'll have a narrow, pointy plate. If it's a girl crab (a "sook" in the East), it'll have a wide, triangular plate. This one's a sook.
Slip your finger under the plate and peel it back. Grab the base of it and pull the whole thing away.
Now it's time to open the body. Wedge your thumbs on opposite sides of the body as shown, then pull the top of the crab away from the bottom of the crab.
There will be all sorts of icky-looking stuff in there. Start cleaning it by grabbing the front end of the crab and pinching away the whole thing.
The only toxic part of a crab is the lungs, the feathery cones that line the side of the body. It is important to remove them all. Throw them away.
After you do this, scrape out the gooey stuff that is in the center of the body's two equal solid parts. The greenish stuff is the tomalley, or mustard; it's the liver. You can eat it, and many love this part of the crab. I don't.
If you have a female crab and you see bright orange stuff inside, that is tasty: it's roe, or eggs, also called "coral" in shellfish. Coral is very delicious warmed and served on toast, or put into crab cakes, or added to crab soups -- it is the key ingredient in she-crab soup.
There is a lot of good meat in the body of most crabs, especially blue crabs and Dungeness crabs. It is located in cartilage-lined channels in each of the two equal sides of the body. To get at it, grasp each side and break the body in half.
Now comes the persnickety part. You must fish out all the yummy meat from this maze of cartilaginous channels. Don't get discouraged, because after a few crabs you will learn how to navigate this maze and the picking will go much faster.
I advise you to only bother with this part in Dungeness crabs, blue crabs and any other crab whose top shell is wider than 5 1/2 inches. The bodies of smaller crabs are still tasty, but picking the meat is too much work for what you get. Instead, add the bodies of smaller crabs into stocks and sauces to get that sweet crab flavor.
I always start with the legs and claws by pulling the lower part of each claw off. This often pulls all the inner claw meat with it, but it'll be attached to a hard, cartilaginous fin-shaped thing in the center.
You just pinch the meat at the base of the claw and pull it away from the cartilage.
To get the leg meat -- again, only bother with this in blue crabs, Dungeness crabs or especially large crabs of other species -- start with whatever meat happens to be attached the end of the leg.
The meat inside the legs can best be extracted by breaking the joints backwards. Meat will usually remaing attached to a thin piece of cartilage. You just slip the meat from this cartilage.
After you've done all this, you finish a crab by cracking the hard-shelled claws and knuckles -- my mother likes the knuckle meat the best, and it is of exceptional flavor.
Remember to use only what pressure you need to crack the claw: Gently increase pressure until the claw is cracked, then pick away the shell and extract the meat. If you crush it too forcefully, you will mash the meat and bits of shell will get into it. You'll get the trick soon enough.
All this sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But once you get the hang of it, you can pick a crab in just a few minutes.