How to: Clean Soft Shell Crabs

Start with a live soft shell blue crab. They are in season now so if you live in an area where they are available, they should be fairly easy to find alive. Buy them on the day you plan on eating them and keep them refrigerated until you are ready to prepare them. I keep them in the box they come in or on a plate covered with a paper towel. If you do have to use frozen, they probably have already been cleaned. Defrost them and double check before cooking. I don’t recommend buying dead (refrigerated/”fresh”) soft crabs. Soft shell crabs are very perishable and should be cooked or frozen within a day of their demise. If they are already dead, you have no way of knowing when they were caught or how long they have been kept refrigerated and that puts you at risk for food poisoning. Frozen crabs can be defrosted overnight in the refrigerator.

Start by cutting off the mouth and eyes of the crab using a knife or kitchen shears. I used kitchen shears because I could cut using my non-dominant hand while the other wielded a camera but a knife works just as well. There is some goo behind the eyes. Use the tip of your knife or closed shears to scoop it out. Don’t worry about the crabs moving around, the cold makes them pretty dopey and once you do this step, they are dead. Keep the rest of the crabs refrigerated while you work on each one.

Flip the crab over. That pointy bit is the apron. Bend it towards you.

Cut it off at the base of the crab.

The appearance of the apron depends on the sex of the crab. It might look like this. Cut it off in the same way.

Flip the crab over. Lift one side of the shell. It isn’t attached on the ends so it will open easily. Those squishy pale things are the gills. Use your fingers to pull them out or your shears to cut them out. Repeat for the other side. You’re done!

This is just to show you how the shell is attached to the crab. There are some organs in the the middle section but they will be thoroughly cooked when you cook the crab and are safe to eat. If you really want to remove them for some reason, you will have to cut the bottom of the shell. I don’t bother. I think it makes some of the juices run out and I like a juicy crab.

Cleaned and ready to go!

Try this method of cooking them up!

My thoughts:

If I had a favorite food I think it would be soft shell crabs. It seems like they are increasingly difficult to find so when I do, I snap them right up. When I was a child my mom would buy at least a dozen soft shell crabs at a time. She’d prepare them, we eat a couple of soft shell crab sandwiches and then she’d freeze the remaining ones in bundles of two and every week for the rest of the summer we’d defrost a pack and have another sandwich. In my opinion, that is the best way to eat soft shell crabs: dredged in flour with a little salt and pepper and pan-fried in butter. On white bread. Nothing else that might possibly distract from the crab’s flavor. I do have to say that I had a soft crab sandwich that had a cornmeal crust that was pretty good. The crab was huge though, I haven’t found a crab that big at the market yet, and that helped the crab flavor stay strong.


  1. Soft shell season! There is no better time in Maryland. I have been buying them by the dozen at the Baltimore farmer's market and freezing what we dont' eat for later. I like mine fried with a flour/cornmeal crust and eaten with just a squirt of lemon and a dusting of Old Bay. No bread needed in my house.

  2. What great timing for this post. Thank you for the great instructions.

  3. Thank you so much for the information…very helpful…love the pictures as well 🙂

  4. Great timing! I'm from Baltimore, but I just had soft shell crabs for the second time this weekend, and the first time I had them was at a Baltimore restaurant where they were prepared to be a take on buffalo wings. This past Saturday, we bought them already fried in Ocean City, and the store we got them from had a "shedding area" for soft shell crabs obviously shedding their shells. But with your helpful pictures, I should be able to shed them myself next time. Thanks!

  5. Just had softshells the other night. Our host cooked them on his grill – out of this world yumminess! Ate them with a squeeze of lemon and a lovely Australian Sauvignon Blanc.

  6. Susan Rubinsky

    love the pics! Thank you for the instructions.

    You showed the two different kinds of aprons depending on sex. Which apron designates which sex? (Just curious.)

  7. The Food Hunter

    This is very useful…thanks so much.

  8. To Susan: the wider apron denotes female crabs whereas the narrower apron pictured first denotes male crabs.

  9. Thanks for this! I love soft shell crabs, but as a girl who grew up in Kansas I never had the opportunity to see how they were prepared and I've been too unsure how to clean them to try it myself. I may be a little late this year, but when the season comes around again I'll be ready!