Types of Crabs

By Dale Mayo


Types of Crab

Image source:  CulinaryPro[1]


Crab facts

Crabs are decapods (ten-footed, though crabs usually have four pair of legs and one pair of claws) from the crustacean family.  They generally walk and swim sideways.  Crabs are omnivorous, eating both plants and animals. There are approximately 4,500 species of crab worldwide ranging in size from tiny pea crabs (no more than a few millimeters across) to Japanese Spider Crabs, which can get to be 12 feet across and can live up to 100 years.[2], [3]  Crabs are arthropods and have an exoskeleton that protects their soft tissues.  Periodically, crabs shed their shells (blue crabs molt about 20 times during their lives):  they shed their outer shell and take in water to expand their new soft shell which starts hardening within hours.  Within two days, they have a hard shell again.  Fun fact:  a group of crabs is called a “cast.” 

Crabs have existed across the earth for millions of years and are thought to have lived in the Jurassic period (200-million years ago).[4]  A 100-million year old crustacean recently found in amber shows large compound eyes, delicate mouthparts, and even gills – which is like its modern counterparts, Eubrachyura.[5]  Other 95-million-year-old fossils of Callichimaera perplexa have been found in Boyacá, Colombia and in Wyoming.[6] 

Crabs are found primarily in salt water (from the coast to the deep sea), though some 850 species live in fresh water or on land.[7]  Edible crab species are found in the bays, inlets, estuaries, and brackish marshes near the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico  - all along the coast of North America.

Crabs we eat

Crabs We Eat

"line4170" by NOAA Photo Library is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Blue Crabs

Callinectes sapidus (from the Ancient Greek κάλλος,"beautiful" + nectes, "swimmer", and Latin sapidus, "savory"), the blue crab, Atlantic blue crab, or regionally as the Chesapeake blue crab, is a species of crab native to the waters of the western Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.[8] 

Blue crabs can grow up to 10 inches and weigh, on average, about a third of a pound. Jumbos are at least 6 inches (length of shell) and the smallest legal size to be caught is 4.5 inches.  These crabs are known for their uniquely good flavor. Jumbo lump crabmeat describes the largest intact body meat (i.e., not from the claws).  Crab cakes can be made from regular lump or jumbo lump meat and are best made with minimal filler – enough to hold them together – in a way that you get the full flavor of the crab and traditional spices.  In summer, a typical crab feast anywhere along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay would include steamed blue crabs to be picked by the diner (see picture above) Usually little mallets or nut crackers are used to break the claw shells.  Soft-shell Crabs are molting blue crabs available in the spring and summer months and are meant to be eaten whole once the crabs are cleaned (here is a good description of cleaning, plus a recipe).[9]

The blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay has declined over the past 30 years.  An annual Bay-wide Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey shows that there was a persistent and substantial decline in the spawning stock, recruitment, larval abundance, and female size of blue crabs between 1992 and 2007. However, management actions initiated in 2008—including a blue crab spawning sanctuary and harvest restrictions—have helped the Bay’s blue crab population rebound toward a healthy, sustainable level.[10]

Over the past 30 years, in part due to lower blue crab populations in the Chesapeake and the cost of harvesting and processing (including hand-picking), another change has taken place:  local blue crab meat is frequently replaced with imported crabmeat from Southeast Asia and South America.  Labeling of crab cakes has changed to “traditional” or “Maryland-style,” but often made from less expensive imported crab meat.[11]  When purchasing crab cakes, you may want to inquire where the actual crab meat is from.

For further information and an entertaining read about blue crabs and the Chesapeake Bay, William Warner’s Beautiful Swimmers:  Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book.  A shorter description of the habitat and life cycle of blue crabs can be found at the NC State University Center for Marine Sciences and Technology. 

King Crabs

King Crab, prized for their leg meat, are the largest species of edible crab weighing in at 10-15 pounds with a back length of almost a foot and a leg span of 5 feet. They are found in the northern oceans off the coasts of Alaska, Canada, Russia and Japan, and in the southern hemisphere near Australia, Chile and Argentina.  While there are three commercially marketed species, golden, blue and red that are found in the waters of Alaska with red king crab (Paralithodes camtschaticus) considered the best quality.[12]  Red king crab legs are large, bright red with darker highlights around the spines and tips, and full of tender white meat that is packed with rich, delicious crab flavor.

Historically, the red king crab fishery has been Alaska's top shellfish fishery.  The Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands crab stocks are managed jointly by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) and the State of Alaska to protect the crab population.  Management measures include guideline harvest levels, pot limits, permits, onboard observers, and other requirements.[13] 

Cooking king crab legs is simple and requires minimal preparation. You are basically reheating them, because they are precooked before they are packaged for sale. They can be baked, boiled, or grilled and served with butter flavored with minced garlic or a few drops of hot sauce. If you’re preparing a stew or soup, add king crab legs for the last five minutes of the cooking process.

Snow Crabs (aka Queen Crabs)

Snow Crabs (Chionoecetes opilio) are found in the northern Pacific and Atlantic Oceans (including Japan and Norway), as they prefer deep (65-650 feet), cold-water conditions.  They are harvested primarily along the coast of Alaska, Japan, and the Atlantic coast of Canada and Maine.  The legal size limit for harvest is 6-6 inches across (the shell, not including the legs) and they can weigh up to 3 pounds. They can live up to 20 years. 

Snow crab usually have a brown to light red hard rounded protective shell and a yellow or white abdomen.  Prized for their sweet, delicate flavor, Snow crabs get their name from the snow-white color of their meat. They’re known as Queen Crabs because their legs are comparable to King Crabs, but smaller.[14] 

U.S. wild-caught Alaska snow crab is a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations.  NOAA Fisheries, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game manage the Alaska snow crab fishery according to the “three S’s” – size, sex, and season. [15] 

Snow crabs, like king crab, are usually sold cooked and frozen as legs and claws.  The meat is often used in sushi.  It is easy to cook crab legs by oven broiling, steaming, or boiling.  Sizzlefish offers you the largest type of snow crabs, Bairdi, which are high in protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.  A good guide to preparing and serving Bairdi crabs can be found here.

Dungeness Crabs

Dungeness Crabs (Metacarcinus magister) are named for Dungeness, Washington, and are found along the west coast of North America from Alaska down to California.  A mature crab’s purple-hued shell may grow to about 10 inches but are typically 6-7 inches wide and weigh 1.5 to 3 pounds.  Before Europeans arrived in North America, Dungeness crabs were a traditional part of the diet of Indigenous peoples who lived on the west coast.[16] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dungeness_crab - cite_note-15

They thrive in sandy or muddy parts of the ocean floor, especially around eelgrass beds, but can be found at depths of 750 feet.[17] Unlike many other types of seafood, 99% of the Dungeness crab we buy in the United States is actually from the United States.[18]

Dungeness crab meat has what is considered to be a delicate and slightly sweet flavor.  Today they are an integral part of the cuisines of California, British Columbia, and the Pacific Northwest and traditionally feature in dishes like Crab Louie or Cioppino.

Stone Crabs

Stone Crabs (Menippe mercenaria) are found off the east coast of North America from Connecticut to Belize, including the Gulf of Mexico.  Florida Stone Crabs, as they are known, are 5 to 6.5 inches across, but unlike similar-sized blue crabs, their bodies yield little meat.  They are prized for their claws, which are sold by size: medium, large, jumbo, and colossal.  Stone crabs are harvested by removing one or both of claws and returning them to the ocean where they can regrow their lost limbs.[19]  The most conventional and common way to prepare Florida stone crabs is to sauté or steam the claws which can be served with either just butter and lime or a creamy mustard sauce.[20]

Crab goodness

Crabs are a favorite dish not only because they are tasty, but also because they are low in calories and saturated fats, good source of protein, Vitamin B12, magnesium, copper, zinc, and phosphorous (but are high in cholesterol and sodium). 

Be sure you’re getting what you pay for.  Some purveyors of seafood are selling imported seafood without disclosing it or are using terms that indicate local, traditionally prepared seafood (e.g., “Maryland style” crab cakes) without disclosing the origin of the crabmeat.[21]  At Sizzlefish, you can see exactly where your seafood is coming from and know that we are focused on offering fresh, sustainable fish and shellfish.

[1]  https://www.theculinarypro.com/fish-shellfish-identification

[2]  https://www.mba.ac.uk/fact-sheet-crabsus

[3]  https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/facts/japanese-spider-crab

[4]  https://jurassiccoast.org/focus-on-fossils/crustaceans/

[5]  Luque, J., Xing, L., Briggs, D.E.G., Clark, E.G., Duque, A., Hui, J., Mai, H., and McKellar, R.C. (2021). Crab in amber reveals an early colonization of nonmarine environments during the Cretaceous.  Science Advances, 20 Oct 2021. Vol 7, Issue 43. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abj5689

[6]   Shelton, J. (2022). A crab’s-eye view of the ancient world. Yale News, January 5, 2022. https://news.yale.edu/2022/01/05/crabs-eye-view-ancient-world

[7]   https://www.mba.ac.uk/fact-sheet-crabs

[8]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Callinectes_sapidus

[9]   Maloney, A. (2022). How to buy, clean and cook soft-shell crabs, a seasonal delicacy.  The Washington Post, June 7, 2022.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/food/2022/06/07/fried-soft-shell-crab-recipe/

[10]   https://www.vims.edu/research/units/programs/bc_winter_dredge/index.php

[11]   Paolisso, M. (2007).  Taste the traditions:  Crabs, crab cakes, and the Chesapeake Bay blue crab fishery.  American Anthropologist, Vol. 109, Issue 4, pp. 654–665. https://web.mnstate.edu/robertsb/445/Taste%20the%20Tradition.pdf

[12]   https://www.theculinarypro.com/fish-shellfish-identification

[13]   https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=redkingcrab.uses

[14]   http://bioweb.uwlax.edu/bio203/s2012/cropp_cass/facts.htm

[15]   https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/alaska-snow-crab

[16]   http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/marine-invertebrates/crustaceans/page.aspx?id=6518#dung-b

[17]   https://oceanconservancy.org/wildlife-factsheet/dungeness-crab/

[18]   https://oceanconservancy.org/wildlife-factsheet/dungeness-crab/

[19]    https://www.theculinarypro.com/fish-shellfish-identification

[20]   https://freshstonecrabs.com/pages/how-should-stone-crabs-be-prepared

[21]  Paolisso, M. (2007).  Taste the traditions:  Crabs, crab cakes, and the Chesapeake Bay blue crab fishery.  American Anthropologist, Vol. 109, Issue 4, pp. 654–665. https://web.mnstate.edu/robertsb/445/Taste%20the%20Tradition.pdf

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