How To Cook And Clean Live Crab

August 12, 2008

I was asked the other night how long you are supposed to cook crab. Good question! I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and have cooked and cleaned plenty of crab, yet I had never considered that it could be a daunting task for many. Silly, since I had no idea how to cook and clean a lobster when I visited my friend on Nantucket.

Many people get squirmy at the thought of plopping a live creature in boiling water. Personally, it's not my favorite thing either, but according to my trusted fishmonger at Pike Place Market, there is no scientific evidence that crustaceans feel pain. That "screaming" you hear when you drop them in the water? That's actually just air escaping their bodies.


Bring a large pot of heavily-salted or seasoned water to boil. Add the crabs and bring back to a full boil. Once back to a boil start your timer.

For crabs up to 1 1/4 pound, cook for 15 minutes.
For crabs up to 2 pounds, cook for 20 minutes.
For crabs up to 3 1/4 pounds, cook for 25 minutes.
Anything larger, cook for 30 minutes.

Remove from water and let cool before you clean.


  1. Break of the claws and legs, making sure to remove the knuckle too (the closest joint to the body).
  2. Flip the crab over and lift and break off the tail flap.
  3. There's a small gap between the top and bottom shells on the "butt" of the crab. Push a knife blade into that gap and twist to pry the shells apart. You can also pull apart with your hands.
  4. Remove the "dead man's finger's," the gray gills on either side of the body, and throw away.
  5. Using a teaspoon, scoop out the soft brown substance in the center of the body. This part is known as the "tamale," and is considered a delicacy in many countries. In Japan it is called kani miso.
  6. Cut the body section in half lengthwise.

Usually I serve cracked crab in a big bowl from which everyone can feast. I usually give each leg, especially the the claws, a "pre-crack" to make it easier for people to get to the meat. To do this I simply make a single cut halfway through the leg with kitchen shears. I will give the claws one good whack with the back of a knife blade.


Eating cracked crab is messy business, so I like to provide each quest with finger bowls filled with warm water and a slice of lemon.

The best tool for picking? The pointy tip of one of the legs. It's small, manageable, and fits perfectly in all the nook and crannies.

Save the shells and boil them down later for a delicious crab stock.



Austin's picture

That sounds deliciously similar to eating blue crabs (one of my favorite things to do when I visit Maryland). Good tip on the crab stock, as well.
Do you ever season the outside of Dungeness crabs? I'm a big fan of old bay, but I'm not sure how it would taste with the sweet meat of dungeness.

Barnaby Dorfman's picture

I like a bit of Old Bay in the water with Dungeness, but no where near as much as with the blues.

Mizé's picture

Hi. I found your site trough Link Referral and I liked some of the recipes I read.
Here in Portugal we do crab just like you described. In my house we add the "tamale" a bit of beer and/or mustard. Sometimes we add sliced boiled chrimps in the mixture, with homemade bread, it´s a feast! As you mentioned in your post many countries consider it a delicacy, mine is one of them.
I bookmarked and will drop by later.

Thumbbook's picture

Thanks for the tip on using the crab legs to pick out the meat. There was a lot of happy crab eaters at the picnic last weekend :)