The Expert Way to Eat a Crab

Because there’s a lot of shell to get through before you can enjoy that sweet, ocean-fresh taste.

Close up of steamed crabs
Photo: Gbuglok/Getty Images

Want to look like you actually know what you're doing when you're eating a whole crab? We talked to Bruce Whalen of Jimmy Cantler's Riverside Inn, a beloved Maryland crab house since 1974, for some tips and tricks to getting the most out of your crustacean meal.

01 of 06

Prep for the mess.

Prep for the Mess
Adam Cruft

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.

02 of 06

Pop open the shell.

Pop Open the Shell
Adam Cruft

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. 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.

03 of 06

Remove the inedible bits.

Remove the Inedible Bits
Adam Cruft

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 non-contaminated waters. Make the call to sample it or scoop it out.

04 of 06

Butterfly the body.

Butterfly the Body
Adam Cruft

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.

05 of 06

Snap Off the legs.

Snap Off the Legs
Adam Cruft

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.

06 of 06

Master the crack.

Cracking crab legs
Adam Cruft

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.

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