Buying Hard Shell Crabs


 

Learn the Lingo

 

Lingo

Male hard crabs are usually called "Jimmies", mature female crabs are usually called "sooks". Jimmies are generally larger and more meaty, therefore more desirable for eating whole--steamed or boiled. Sooks are often sold to commercial processing plants to be picked and packaged as fresh or pasteurized meat. For crabfeasts or picnics, always ask for Jimmies.

 

Grading (Sizing)

 

Grading (Sizing)

There is no industry standard for grading hard crabs. For instance, a crab that is graded "large" in the lower Chesapeake Bay region would be graded "medium" in the upper regions. Use the following as a general rule:

Colossal - Hard crab measuring 6 inches or more.
Jumbo - Hard crab measuring 6 to 6 inches in size.
Large - Hard crab measuring 5 to 6 inches in size.
Medium - Hard crab measuring 5 to 5 inches in size.
Small - Hard crab measuring 4 to 5 inches in size, usually females.

Note: In most states there is no minimum size for keeping mature female crabs (sooks). This is because it is generally accepted that female crabs cease to molt following maturity, thus they remain the same size throughout the remainder of their lives. It is illegal to keep immature female crabs.

Generally, when purchasing live crabs at the dock, there will be only three sizes available to choose from. These three grades are simply called "Number Ones", "Number Twos", and "Number Threes".

Ask for "Number One Jimmies" and you'll get the largest, most meaty, male crabs available.
Ask for "Number Two Jimmies" and you'll get smaller, less meaty, male crabs.
Ask for "Number Threes" and you'll get get a mix of un-graded, small crabs. Usually all females.

It is important to remember that size depends mainly on the region. A bushel of Number Ones purchased in North Carolina might be graded as mediums using our chart. A bushel of Number Ones purchased in Maryland might be graded as large.

Another important factor to consider when purchasing live blue crab is how heavy or "fat" the crab is. Crabs that have recently molted will be light, hollow (full of water), and won't contain much meat. Crabs nearing the end of their molt cycle will be heavy and full of meat. Always ask for "fat" or "heavy" crabs. For more information on this subject, click here.

Hard crabs are almost always sold by the dozen or by the bushel. A dozen crabs is exactly 12 crabs. The actual number of crabs in a bushel depends on the size of the crabs. See the following table for the approximate number of crabs per bushel:

SIZE  CRAB DIMENSIONS DOZENS PER BUSHEL CRABS PER BUSHEL
Jumbo 6 6 inches 5 6 dozen 60 72 crabs
Large 5 6 inches 6 7 dozen 72 84 crabs
Medium 5 5 inches 7 8 dozen 84 96 crabs

Generally speaking, a bushel of Number Ones will hold 60 - 70 crabs depending on how big the crabs are at that time of year. If there are 60 - 70 crabs, they will feed about 10 - 12 people depending upon what else is on the menu. If you have all kinds of food, such as salads, hot dogs, chicken, etc., you'll probably need half as many crabs. If you serve only steamed crabs, clams, corn and beverages, you'll need the whole bushel.

 

Availability

 

Availability

Blue crab meat is available year-round in the pasteurized form, live crabs are seasonal and much more plentiful during the warm water months of the year.

Fresh or pasteurized cooked crab meat is usually available for purchase as lump, flake, or claw meat: lump meat consists of  whole lumps from the large body muscles which operate the swimming legs; flake meat consists of small pieces of white meat from the body; claw meat consists of a brownish tinged meat from the claws. See the crab glossary for more specific information.

 

Yields

 

Yields

An average blue crab weighs about 1/3 pound with the edible portion quite low.

An experienced crab picker can produce about 2 1/4 ounces of meat from each pound of live blue crabs. This is about a 14% yield. The actual yield depends on the size of the individual crab and experience of the crab picker.

The consumer is probably better off to purchase the crab meat already prepared unless the picking is incorporated into a "crab boil" or "picnic type" activity. You can estimate a price comparison between fresh and pasteurized meat by studying the following example:

 

Pay $10.00 per dozen
1 crab = 1/3 pound
Dozen crabs = 4 pounds


Yield From One Pound of Live Crabs X Total Pounds of Live Crabs = Crab Meat Yield

0.14 x 4 pounds = 0.56 pounds meat

 


Cost per Dozen Pounds of Meat = Cost per Pound

$10.00 / 0.56 pounds = $17.85 per pound

 

A pound of crab meat already prepared and selling for less than $17.85 would be the best buy. If the prepared pound costs more than $17.85, buy the dozen for $10.00 and pick your own--if your labor is cheap and you have the time.

 

Yield information courtesy of the Florida Sea Grant College Program and author Don E. Sweat. The full publication can be found here.

 

Storage

 

Storage

Hard blue crabs are always marketed live. Crabs that have perished in transit should be immediately discarded since there is no reliable way to determine the degree of spoilage. Motion and heat are the biggest factors affecting the blue crabs mortality.

The best way to store a hard-shell crab is in a cool, moist environment. It is important to store live crabs at a 50-degree temperature. Holding live crab in a standard refrigerator (36-degrees) will ultimately kill the product. While producers suggest that the shelf life for hard-shell crabs is 2 - 3 days that includes all of the shipping and processing time.

Crabs use their gills to take oxygen out of the water, much like a fish. However, crabs can survive for long periods out of water. As long as a crab can keep its gills moist, oxygen from the air will diffuse into the moisture, and then into the gills. To keep a crabs gills from drying out, store them in a cool, moist environment. Crabs have articulating plates around their gills that help seal them in and prevent drying out.

When you buy (or catch) live crabs, you should place them in a suitable container. A cooler with a layer of ice on the bottom is best. Optimal temperature is 50-degrees. Fasten a shelf to keep the crabs out of any melted ice water. If the crabs get into this water they'll quickly deplete the water's oxygen and will suffocate (for this same reason you should not keep live crabs in a bucket of water). Be sure to keep the lid cracked so that fresh air can get in. Alternatively, you can store the crabs in a wooden bushel basket, covered with a damp burlap sack, and out of direct sunlight.

Before you prepare live crabs, allow them to warm to room temperature. Cold crabs will be slow and lethargic and may appear to be dead. Once they warm up they should become active. Remember to discard any dead crabs.

 

Resources

 

Resources

If you can't obtain blue crabs locally, you can buy them on the Internet. There are several very reputable resellers online who will ship live and steamed crabs to anywhere in the United States. Live crabs are placed in Styrofoam shipping containers which utilize frozen gel-packs to keep the crabs cool during transit. While the added shipping costs are somewhat expensive, it's certainly better than no crabs at all!

 


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