Growing up in Southern California, Dungeness crab wasn’t on my radar. Crab was on my radar and I loved it. But most of that was in the form of king crab legs that my dad would put on the grill in the summer. Definite yum.
So it wasn’t until I moved to Northern California that I noticed the hubbub and wondered, what’s all this about Dungeness crab? Since then, I’ve cooked and eaten more than my fair share of it. And in the process, I’ve gone from being a relative crab dummy to teaching an annual Dungeness crab cooking class for many years (though, sadly, no longer).
Long story short, I’ve learned that Dungeness crab is well worth paying attention to. Here’s why. (And why you should make a Dungeness Crab Louis. Tonight.)
1. It’s delicious!
Many people come from places that are known for crab and they consider those crabs the best—blue crab on the Atlantic, for example, and stone crab in the Gulf. And I wouldn’t turn down any of them.
Dungeness crab has a sweet, buttery flavor and rich, meaty texture that makes it truly unique. I’ve heard it described as lobster but better because it’s more tender.
Just in case you missed that—it’s lobster but better!
2. It’s seasonal
Dungeness crab season is late November to June, but the prime time is winter. So, like anything amazing that you can’t have whenever you want—a really good peach, say, or a perfect day by the pool—it’s that much more precious and worth reveling in when you can.
In other words, get your fill right now.
Here’s the caveat. The 2020-2021 commercial fishing season was initially delayed to protect migrating whales. But for the past couple of weeks, it’s been further delayed in the SF Bay Area because of price negotiations. So for now, if you live in or around San Francisco, look for Dungeness from elsewhere or frozen (frozen is also a good alternative when it’s out of season). Update! The SF Bay Area’s season opened today, January 13! Yaaaayyyy!
3. It’s ours
Dungeness crab can only be found from Baja California to Alaska (although it’s rare south of Santa Barbara). So like redwood trees, fish tacos, Starbucks, and blue jeans, it’s native to the Pacific Coast.
You’re celebrating the West when you enjoy a Dungeness crab.
So then, a few tips for buying and using Dungeness crab.
1. To cook or not to cook
Cooking whole crabs can be a fun way to go if you want to do a crack-your-own sort of meal, where you cover the table with newspaper, set out a few dipping sauces, and let your guests go to town.
You can also buy whole cooked crabs at a good seafood store, and they’ll often do the cracking and cleaning for you, making picking out the meat easier.
For either of those routes, here’s a great article from Sunset magazine about how to cook, clean, crack, and shell live crabs.
But if you’re not serving the crab whole and eating it relatively as-is—in other words, if you’re using the crab meat for a recipe—I don’t recommend starting with a whole crab. It’s just a lot of work to get that meat out of there. Yes, buying cooked, shelled crab meat is more expensive, but it’s a major time saver and the quality doesn’t particularly suffer.
2. Buying cooked, shelled crab
As always, my preference is to buy seafood from a good fishmonger.
There, you might find cooked, shelled Dungeness crab in the seafood case with the other fish and shellfish sold by the pound. It might also be nearby in a refrigerator case, packaged in tubs. Sometimes the meat in those tubs has been pasteurized for a slightly longer shelf life, but it’s still perishable and needs to be used relatively soon. All are good options.
3. What’s lump crab?
Packaged crab meat might be labeled as lump crab. Lumps just mean big, meaty pieces of crab, as opposed to smaller, more shreddy bits, sometimes called backfin. Perhaps obviously, lumps are more expensive, but some packages will have a combination of both, giving you the best of both worlds.
If you’re making a crab cocktail, crab cakes, or a Dungeness Crab Louis, I recommend lumps or a combination of lumps and not. If you’re making a crab stuffing, for example, or something where the meat is going to get all broken up anyway, there’s no need to pay for lumps.
Ready to dig into some delicious Dungeness crab? Try one—or all!—of these recipes.
My recipes from around the web:
Five-Spice Crab Cocktails, on Eat Something Sexy
Crab Cakes with Creamy Cucumber Sauce, for Clean Eating
Jalapeno Crab Cakes with Slaw and Salsa, for Bon Appetit
Pasta with Crab and Pancetta, for Fine Cooking