How to Eat Steamed Blue Crabs

You need:
crab mallet
paper towels

Quick notes:

Crabs are sold by size: small, medium, large, jumbo and occasionally colossal. They can be very expensive (especially if you buy them already steamed) and the price difference between the sizes can be significant. I recommend getting at least the medium size. The size difference between medium and large is often slight but the price difference is frequently about $10 a dozen.

Picking crabs is time consuming. Unless you are a professional, plan to spend the bulk of an afternoon or evening picking crabs.

Your hands will get very dirty. I find it is difficult to eat anything but crabs while you are picking unless you’re willing to get up and wash your hands frequently. If you want to serve other food, I suggest serving it before or after the crabs.

Avoid touching your eyes while picking, seafood seasoning burns. Also, it is not uncommon to cut your finger on a shell but it is generally no worse than a papercut.

Step One:
Cover a large dining surface with a thicker than you would think layer of newspaper. It really is best to do this outside on a picnic table if at all possible. If not, resign yourself to cleaning the floor afterwards.

Step Two:
Pick out a crab. Try and get one that has both claws and feels “heavy” before someone else does.

Step Three:
Bend or twist the legs and claws to snap them off at the body. Some times a bit of crabmeat will come off with the legs or claw. Eat it. Set the claws aside. There is not much meat (if any) in the legs so I just push them aside.

Step Four:
Pull off the “apron”. Some people use a butter knife for this but I am a purist and only use my hands. Simply slip your finger under the edge of the point and pull down. It should pull off easily.

Step Five:
Pry the shell away from the body. The easiest way is to use both hands and pull the crab halves in opposite directions.

Step Seven:
Flip the crab over.

Remove the squishy, grey gills. They pull off very easily. Discard them. The yellow stuff is colloquially known as the “mustard” and is edible.

Step Eight:
Crack the crab in two. Pull out any loose crabmeat and eat it.

Crack the halves and extract the meat. Again, some people use butter or crab knives but I find that fingers work just fine. Eat the meat as you go.

Step Nine:
Hold both sides of the crab claw and break off the part that I am holding in my fingers.

The meat should come off on the claw. If not, break the claw with your mallet.

The other half of the claw has meat as well. Break it off at the joint. If this doesn’t yield meat, hit it with your mallet.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

My thoughts:

Steamed hard shell blue crabs are a staple here in Baltimore and I think us natives possess innate knowledge of how to pick crabs. However, I realize that this isn’t true of many people, my husband included. Last year I posted a how to steam crabs that was well received. After that post, I got quite a few requests for a how to pick crabs post. I had tried to take pictures of the picking process at the time but it is hard enough to photograph yourself but covered in seafood seasoning? Nearly impossible. So I waited until we had crabs again and tried again with much more success. Having a crab feast is a lot of fun and it is a shame to miss it because you are crab-wary! Now everyone has a slightly different crab picking style but this is all you really need to get the most out of your crabs.


  1. Thank you for the wonderful post and I simply love the pictures. It made my mouth fill with saliva!

  2. LoveFeast Table

    We just posted about our crab feast! Tis the season! Hey, just a quick hint…my hubby who grew up on Eastern shore gave me…if you get the joints off when pulling legs off, the meat inside is large and lumpy!! Try it next time and let me know how it works! -kristin

  3. I just ate my first whole crab the other day. As much as I love crab I've always been intimidated by how to eat them (growing up in Kansas didn't give me many opportunities!). This is a great post!

  4. Rachel, that was an awesome post!! You know I love some good crabs and you did a perfect job teaching everyone just how to do it. One thing we do serve with out crabs is regular UTZ chips. They ease the burn a bit and are the perfect pair for steamed crabs!

  5. Love it. Picking crabs is definitely a coastal art and so necessary. My husband was trying to get me to teach him how to eat them recently, and it's hard to describe. Great photos!

  6. You're definitely right that seafood seasoning burns… I scratched my eye after handling a bag of Zatarain's shrimp/crab boil seasonings the other day and it burned so badly!

    Thanks for the advice on picking crabs! I don't eat crab nearly enough

  7. You've made this "Bawlmer" girl hungry, hon! Great pictures and post. You make it look easy for all the non-crab eaters.

  8. Being from Maryland myself, I am a huge fan of blue crabs!! And I appreciate that you described the "real" way to enjoy them — on a newspaper-lined picnic table, with just a mallet and your hands as tools. The only part I dislike is when you get a cut on a finger, and the old bay seasoning gets in the cut.. boy that stings!

  9. Brilliant! I wish this had been around when my friend and I held an impromptu crab-picking lesson at her college when we saw people attempting to cut crabs with a *knife and fork*!!!!

  10. Woah it looks so yummy every time i visit your site im getting hungry

  11. Rachael,
    When having crabs, we like to serve onion sandwiches along with the crabs. Take white bread, (white bread is a MUST!), butter both slices; top it with a thick slice of Vadalia onion. Add salt and pepper to taste and you've got yourself a heavenly feast.

  12. Washington Cube

    I posted on my blog a few years back about eating crabs. I used my brother's advice, and his Cambridge Maryland crab knives, as well as his method for steaming that starts with building a fire. I miss going out and catch crabs at dawn.

  13. It's funny, it is true that we are 'born' knowing how to pick crabs. But honestly, I think it I just that we learned so early on in life. Even my 4 year-old likes to pick crabs! But he's been watching us do it all his life.

    I remember days when I was a kid where we would get crabs at about $40 a bushel for #2 males. *sigh* those were the days…

  14. we are never full

    i feel the same way as many in MD. i grew up on the jersey shore during summers and eating crabs don't need instructions – you just know! but you forget that most people don't know what to do! great post.

  15. Wow, yummie! Love the pictures, yummie crab!

  16. Oh goodness… that is food porn to the max… and I am loving it!

  17. I googled and found you – i am so glad you took pictures – I was wanting to teach my son how to pick crabs – he is 5 and THIS helps a lot.
    God Bless!!

  18. Okay, a LongIsland guy headed to DC and Baltimore this weekend. Crabs are definitely in the plans. Here's my question – I know they are sodl by the dozen in the crab shacks, but how many do we need to order for a meal?
    Island Guy

  19. Island Guy-
    It really depends on the size of the crabs, if you are eating other food as well, how long you want to spend eating, etc. For a rough estimate I'd say maybe 6 medium crabs a person.

  20. I like to eat my crabs with vinegar dipping sauce. Its easy to make and way tastier and healthier than butter. Heres the recipe:

    2tbsp. Old Bay or Seafood Seasoning
    1 1/2 cup White Vinegar
    Mix well and Thank me later!!!


  21. How interesting, Jill. I've never heard of eating blue crabs with butter or vinegar before.