Cleaning and Picking Meat from a Crab

Once you know how to pick it you can quickly enjoy tasty crab meat

Steam blue crabs
hillwoman2/ Getty Images

Getting Started

Lay out your work space
Holly A. Heyser

Picking and eating crabs is an earthy, down-home way to enjoy these tasty crustaceans. Crabs don't give up their treasures easily. Picking crab meat takes some time to learn, but it's pretty easy when you know how it's done.

First, prepare a large workspace. Lay down newspaper because you're going to get messy (there's nothing refined about pickin' crabs). Use a bowl for your cooked crabs, a bowl for good shells (you can use these to make stocks and sauces), and a bowl for the pure meat. It's best to have an easy to access and open trashcan nearby. You may also want to have nutcrackers, wooden mallets, and lots of paper towels on hand. 

Pick off the Legs

Pick off the legs and claws
Holly A. Heyser

Start by removing all the legs and claws first. Do this by grabbing the very base of each leg and pulling it away. Set the legs aside for later.

Peeling off the Plate

Peel off the bottom plate
Holly A. Heyser

If you turn a crab over, you'll notice a plate on the bottom. A narrow, pointy plate means it's a male crab (a "jimmy" in East Coast terms). Female crabs, called "sooks" in the East, have wide, triangular plates. Slip your finger under the plate and peel it back. Grab the base and pull the whole thing away.

Opening the Body

Open the body
Holly A. Heyser

Now it's time to open the body. Wedge your thumbs on opposite sides of the body, then pull the top of the crab away from the bottom and brace yourself; there will be all sorts of icky-looking stuff in there.

Remove the Lungs

Remove the lungs
Holly A. Heyser

The crab's lungs appear as feathery cones lining the side of the body. Remove them and throw them away. An old wives' tale says crab lungs are toxic, but they're actually just not digestible and taste terrible. 

Now scrape out the gooey stuff in the center of the crab's body's two equal solid parts. The greenish stuff is the liver, called the tomalley. You can eat it and many love this part of the crab. If you have a female crab and you see bright orange stuff inside, that is edible. It's the roe or eggs, also called "coral" in shellfish. Coral is delicious when it's warmed and served on toast or used in crab cakes. You can also add it to crab soups; it's the key ingredient in she-crab soup.

Getting to the Body Meat

Cracking the body to get at the meat
Holly A. Heyser

There's a lot of good meat in the body of most crabs, especially blue and Dungeness crabs. It's located in cartilage-lined channels in each of the two equal sides of the body. Grasp each side and break the body in half to get to it. 

Extracting the Body Meat

Extracting meat from the body
Holly A. Heyser

Now you'll pick out the meat from this maze of cartilaginous channels. It can be daunting at first but don't get discouraged. You'll learn how to navigate this maze and the picking will go much faster after a few efforts. 

You might only want to bother with this part if you have Dungeness, blue crabs, or any other crab with a top shell that's wider than 5 1/2 inches. The bodies of smaller crabs are tasty, but you'll do a lot of work for just a little meat. Add the bodies of smaller crabs into stocks and sauces instead to get that sweet crab flavor.

Starting on the Claws

Getting at the claw meat
Holly A. Heyser

Start with the legs and claws by gently pulling the lower part of each claw off. This often pulls all the inner claw meat with it, but it'll be attached to a hard, cartilaginous fin-shaped thing in the center. Just pinch the meat at the base of the claw and pull it away from the cartilage.

Picking Meat From the Legs

Pulling meat from the legs
Holly A. Heyser

The meat inside the legs can best be extracted by breaking the joints backward. Just like with the claws, the meat will usually remain attached to a thin piece of cartilage. Slip the meat from this cartilage. Again, you might only want to bother with this if you have large crabs. 

Finishing up With the Nut Cracker

Using a nut cracker for the claw and knuckles
Holly A. Heyser

Finish your crab by cracking the hard-shelled claws and knuckles with a nutcracker. Some people like the knuckle meat best because of its sweet flavor.

Use just enough pressure to crack the claw. Gently increase pressure until the claw is cracked, then pick away the shell and extract the meat. If you crush it too forcefully, you'll mash the meat and bits of the shell will grind into it. 

If all this sounds like a lot of work, don't worry. You'll be able to pick a crab in just a few minutes once you get the hang of it.