Fresh crabs freeze well if you keep them alive on the way home, but they deteriorate rapidly if you don't clean them within two hours. You almost always find crabs in the market frozen for this reason, as fisherman either boil their catch on the trawler or the dock, depending on the size of the operation. Simply wrapping crabs in wet newspaper after you catch them keeps them alive and pinching, while a quick plunge in boiling water preps them for shell and gut removal. Fresh crabs are a rare treat, so don't be squeamish about dispatching and cleaning them.
Cleaning Hard-Shell Crabs
Bring about 2 quarts of water to a boil in a large stockpot for each hard-shell crab. Fill a large container with ice and add enough water to top it off.
Transfer the crabs from the newspaper or holding container to the boiling water. Cook the crabs for 8 minutes after the water returns to a boil, using a timer to prevent overcooking. Only cook as many crabs at one time as you can cool down at one time in the container of ice water.
Transfer the crabs to the ice water and let them cool for 8 minutes. Place the crabs on a tray and change out the ice water for fresh if you have more crabs to clean.
Place a crab on its back on the work surface. Pull the apron -- the triangular segment of shell -- up and toward the front of the crab to remove and discard it.
Grab the crab by the body. Insert your finger in the hole between the body and the top shell that appeared when you removed the apron. Pull the top shell from the body.
Pull the feather-like gills from the top of the crab body and break off the two J-shaped mandibles, or mouth parts, from the front of the body.
Pull away the yellow organ from the inside and discard or reserve it. The yellow organ, or hepatopancreas, filters impurities from the crab, but it doesn't taste bad when eaten with crab meat.
Rinse away the inside of the body, cleaning out all of the purple and maroon matter, or the guts.
Break off each crab leg with a twist and break or cut the body in half with a chef's knife. Pat the crab parts dry with paper towels and pack them into freezer storage bags.
Mark the date on the bags and store them in a freezer for up to three months.
Cleaning Soft-Shell Crabs
Position the tip of a paring knife between the eyes of a soft-shell crab and insert it about 1/4-inch deep.
Lift the top-left side of the shell and insert your thumb and forefinger inside. Pull out the gills, then repeat on the right side.
Place the soft-shell on its back on the work surface and pull down on the triangular apron, then snip it off with kitchen shears.
Cut the eyes and mouth from the crap in one snip. Pack the soft-shells in freezer bags, mark the date and store them for up to three months in the freezer.
- Wear fish-handling gloves if you worry about getting pinched by hard-shell crabs when you handle them. Soft-shell crabs won't pinch you.
A.J. Andrews' work has appeared in Food and Wine, Fricote and "BBC Good Food." He lives in Europe where he bakes with wild yeast, milks goats for cheese and prepares for the Court of Master Sommeliers level II exam. Andrews received formal training at Le Cordon Bleu.