Look like you actually know what you're doing with a little help from Bruce Whalen of Jimmy Cantler's Riverside Inn, a beloved Maryland crab house since 1974.
Close up of steamed crabs
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Prep for the Mess
Credit: Adam Cruft

1 Prep for the Mess

Lay down butcher paper or newspaper and grab plenty of paper towels. You’ll also need a paring knife, a mallet (in a pinch, a hammer will do), a bowl for empty shells, and a cutting board to protect your table against potential whacks. And, of course, cooked crabs. Blue and Dungeness crabs are usually served whole, so you can use these instructions for either, says Whalen. “Don’t be too concerned about size—just select a heavy one.” Have melted butter at the ready too.

Pop Open the Shell
Credit: Adam Cruft

2 Pop Open the Shell

Place the crab on its back, belly up. Slide a knife under the “apron”—a small tab that resembles the Washington Monument if the crab is male and the United States Capitol if it’s female—and pull it backward to break it off; discard. Flip the crab over and, while holding the bottom, insert the tip of the knife between the shells, in the opening where the apron was. Twist to detach the crab’s back shell and expose the inner cavity.

Remove the Inedible Bits
Credit: Adam Cruft

3 Remove the Inedible Bits

Scrape out the not-for-consumption lungs, which look gray and spongy, using the knife, a spoon, or your hands. You’ll see the yellowish brown substance some call the mustard; that’s the hepatopancreas, an organ that filters out toxins. “It’s considered a delicacy, with a strong flavor people either like or dislike,” notes Whalen. Generally, it’s safe to eat as long as the crab is from noncontaminated waters. Make the call to sample it or scoop it out.

Butterfly the Body
Credit: Adam Cruft

4 Butterfly the Body

Break the crab in half with your hands. Whalen then likes to cut it down the center with a knife to make it even. Splitting the crab in half will let you see the crabmeat separated into chambers. “You can then just take the meaty morsels out with your fingers,” says Whalen.

Snap Off the Legs
Credit: Adam Cruft

5 Snap Off the Legs

While holding a crab half in one hand, use your other hand to pull each leg off with a slight twisting motion. “If all goes well, when you remove the leg at the joint, the crabmeat will slide out in a chunk,” says Whalen. At the base of the back legs, called the backfins, you’ll find the mother lode: succulent lump crabmeat. The small appendages in the middle aren’t usually worth the trouble, but try sucking the meat out.

Cracking crab legs
Credit: Adam Cruft

6 Master the Crack

If the meat didn’t come easily out of the legs, you’ll need the mallet. Word of caution: Be gentle. “Otherwise the shell will shatter and you’ll have to pick the fragments from the meat,” says Whalen. Try this trick: Hold your knife vertically, with the tip of the blade on the center of the leg. Then firmly tap the blade with the mallet to slightly fracture the shell and extract the meat in one solid piece. Use the same technique for the claw, but hit the blade slightly harder, right below the pincers.