How to Eat a Crab

It takes some know-how to get all the luscious meat from a crab. We'll show you how in six steps.

Close up of steamed crabs
Photo: Gbuglok/Getty Images

Once you learn how to cook crab, the next step is figuring out how to eat one properly. Let's face it: There’s a lot of shell to get through before you can enjoy that sweet, ocean-fresh taste. 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.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Paring knife
  • Mallet
  • Bowl
  • Cutting board


  • Butcher paper
  • Paper towels


  1. Prep for the Mess
    Adam Cruft

    Prep for the mess.

    • Lay down butcher paper or newspaper, grab plenty of paper towels, and take out 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.
    • Bring out the 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.
  2. Pop Open the Shell
    Adam Cruft

    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.
    • 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.
  3. Remove the Inedible Bits
    Adam Cruft

    Remove the inedible bits.

    • Scrape out the not-for-consumption lungs, which look gray and spongy, using a 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.
  4. Butterfly the Body
    Adam Cruft

    Butterfly the body.

    • Break the crab in half with your hands.
    • Cut it down the center with a knife to make it even.
    • Split the crab in half, which will let you see the crabmeat separated into chambers. "You can then just take the meaty morsels out with your fingers," says Whalen.
  5. Snap Off the Legs
    Adam Cruft

    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.
  6. Cracking crab legs
    Adam Cruft

    Master the crack. If the meat didn't come easily out of the legs, you'll need the mallet.

    • Hold your knife vertically, with the tip of the blade on the center of the leg.
    • 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.
    • Word of caution: Be gentle. "Otherwise the shell will shatter and you'll have to pick the fragments from the meat," says Whalen.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • 1. What parts of the crab can you eat and not eat?

    Generally, you can eat the main body of a crab under its shell and the claws. Take care not to eat the viscera, or internal organs, which are located under the crab's back. They may potentially contain toxins like domoic acid.

  • Where can you buy crabs to cook?

    Crabs are very perishable and need to be eaten right away, preferably from local waters. If you live near the ocean, you can easily pick up fresh crab at a fish market or nearby grocery store. If you don't, you can buy from an online vendor like

  • What are the health benefits of eating crab?

    Like many types of seafood, crab has numerous health benefits. It contains such nutrients as Vitamin B12, Folate, Iron, Niacin, Selenium, and Zinc.

Real Simple is committed to using high-quality, reputable sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts in our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we fact check our content for accuracy.
  1. UC Davis News, "Safe Ways to Eat Crab," Accessed May 29, 2023

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