Soft-shell crabs: The savory swimmer
Photo by Fran Marler

For many seafood lovers, spring means it’s soft-shell crab season.

Callinectes sapidus, or the blue crab, is native to the Mid-Atlantic region, and for many it is a culinary delight. As the weather begins to warm, so begins the season of spawning and growth for these crabs.

However, this period of growth can be a bit tricky for our voracious little friends, as growth occurs on a linear level. The hard carapace shell must be shed in order to make way for the new shell underneath, which can be as much as twice the size as the old one. Once the old shell begins the process of molting, it’s a true race for survival of the fittest. The new shell beneath is soft and paper thin, making the crabs vulnerable to predators and fishermen alike, who wait with a keen eye.

While it may seem counterintuitive to eat an entire crab — shell and all — when cleaned and prepared properly, soft shell crabs are a treat like no other, which is why the month of May (and often times later into the summer) crab pots are tended to like a mother hen tends to her eggs.

“You have to set the crab pots so that you are able to collect the crabs just before they molt,” says Judy Beasley of Billy’s Seafood, 1341 Colington Road on Colington Island, which consists of two islands on the west side of Kill Devil Hills. “Once the pots are pulled, the crabs are brought back and in put in our shedders.”

From that point forward, the following 24 hours are a salty hustle, Beasley says. “It’s actually like having a new born baby, except that we get to go outside.”

Every three hours, one of Beasley’s crew goes out to check the shedders, which are constantly being supplied with water from the surrounding habitat. The purpose is to see if any of the crabs have begun to molt, at which point they are referred to as “peelers.”

For anyone else, it may seem like finding a needle in a haystack, but after 46 years in business, this family pulls the task off seamlessly, identifying males from females by the shape of their aprons and the color of their claws and knowing which crabs will molt the soonest by the color of their shell. To say it’s impressive is an understatement: During the peak season, more than 20,000 crabs are collected from the shedders each week and whisked up front to the retail market — all before the new shell hardens and cannot be eaten.

Why such a demand? Limited access is one sure bet, however, the briny, yet sweet, flavor is a flavor profile that seems to send the salivary glands into overdrive.

“They are honestly good anyway you cook them,” shares Chef Nate Robinson of Blue Moon Beach Grill, 4104 S Virginia Dare Trail in Nags Head. “You can grill them with garlic butter, pan sauté or fry them. Some even steam them with Old Bay and beer, like you would another piece of seafood.”

After quite a bit of “research in the field,” it really is just a matter of preference, Robinson says. “I’ve actually eaten soft shells three different times this week and when it really comes down to it, the flavor in each crab was slightly different — not so much because of how I prepared them but because they were all harvested in different areas of the local community, each with different moon phases, diets and water temperature.”

As with any organism from the sea, there are a million factors that can contribute to flavor nuances in soft shells, he says. “You gotta just go for it. Take a bite. Once you try it, you won’t be able to get enough.”

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