You have to wonder the circumstances surrounding the consumption of the first soft-shell crab, sometime around 1887 according to historical records. Was it the experiment of a settler’s wife after he brought home a measly catch of busters to a hungry family awaiting dinner? In any case, when the culinary idea caught on – it caught on. By 1945 a reported 2.3 million pounds of soft-shell crabs were being produced in Louisiana. Today, a drastic decline of producers for this labor-intensive process combined with a younger generation not interested in taking over and damage and water intrusion caused by hurricanes has put a hard pinch on production. In 2017, only about 10,800 pounds of soft-shell crabs were produced in the state. To appreciate the price of this delicacy is to appreciate what it takes to get them to consumer tables.
Contrary to the belief of many, soft-shell crab is not a species of crab; they are regular crabs. While all crabs shed their outer shells to grow, only a few species of crab can actually be eaten in this form, and the blue crab found in the Gulf is the most prevalent. According to Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Louisiana’s commercial blue crab fishery is the largest in the Gulf and supplies about a quarter of the blue crab harvested in the country.
A Tedious Process
During its two to three-year lifespan, the blue crab will shed its shell 18 to 22 times in order to grow. Though crabs molt year-round, the bulk of the shedding takes place April to May and September through October/early November. Catching soft-shell crabs is the same as catching other crabs; they’re lured into a giant cage. Crabbers sort them out, keeping those that are legally harvestable size (five inches in shell width.) Soft-shell crabbers know the signs of when the crabs are going to shed their shells, indicated by the fine red line along the edge of the backfin, hense the name redliner given to a molting crab. The soon-to-molt crabs are placed in filtered water, temperature-controlled trays to catch them at peak softness as soon after they molt. These shedding tanks are either an open system located near the Gulf to circulate salt water or closed systems that work like an aquarium.
To shed its old shell, a crab swells with water and busts the old shell along the back edge, then wiggles out through the back, which is why they are also referred to as busters or shedders. They are soft for only about two to three hours before a new shell starts to harden again. That’s why crabbers check on them every few hours around the clock, daily. Once molting crabs are spotted, they are immediately removed from the water, to help stop the process, and put in crack trays then either delivered to fresh seafood markets live or immediately rinsed, cleaned, and frozen for distribution. Freshly dead soft-shell crabs have a shelf life of four to five days with proper refrigeration.
Lance Nacio, fisherman and owner of Anna Maria Seafood in Montegut, LA, is also a crab shedder who supplies the soft-shell crabs sold by Delcambre Direct Seafood. You can purchase the vacuum-sealed frozen crabs in small or large sizes.
Yes, The Whole Crab is Edible
Whether a soft-shell crab is fried, sautéed or grilled, you can eat the whole thing; the few nonedible parts have already been removed by the time you purchase it. When a crab sheds its exoskeleton, it loses a considerable amount of weight and meat. This makes soft-shell crabs not as meaty as their hard-shell counterparts, but every bit worth their price – whether sauteed with a meuniere sauce or fried in a sandwich.
Before it’s cooked, a 4-ounce soft shell crab has only about 95 calories, 0.8 grams of fat, NO carbs, and 20 grams of protein. It also provides 102 mg. of calcium and 294 mg. of potassium. On the other hand, soft-shell crabs are high in cholesterol, with 109 mg., and sodium, at 448 mg. per serving. But, since you’re probably not going to have them as often as crawfish or shrimp, enjoy!