Chances are if you've eaten crab anywhere in the West, it was a Dungeness crab. These are the most common crabs in the Western Pacific and are among the tastiest, too. Dungeness meat compares well with the famed Eastern blue-claw crabs.
Another reason we love the Dungeness is that you get more meat per crab -- and not just because they are far larger, averaging nearly two pounds. You will typically get about 25 percent of the crab's weight in pure meat, which may not sound like a lot, but it is in the crab world.
There are three common ways to buy Dungeness crabs: Live, cooked whole or as picked meat.
Live crabs are my favorite because you know they're fresh. They are also far more versatile than pre-cooked crab because a great many Asian and Mediterranean crab recipes call for uncooked crab. You just can't do that with a pre-cooked crab.
Choosing a live Dungeness crab is easy -- look for the lively ones! Listless and sad-looking crabs should be left alone. You don't want to buy one that is, well, crabby. For Easterners, be advised that Dungeness are far less ornery than blue crabs, which are the meanest animals alive.
To cook those lively crabs, through it in a pot of boiling salted water for 15-18 minutes.
Whole Cooked Crabs
Most often, however, you will be required to buy whole cooked crabs. This is fine; I buy them all the time. Look for one that is heavy for its size, and -- this is important -- has its legs curled up underneath it. This is a sign the crab was cooked alive. Crabs cooked after they die probably bad. Don't buy a Dungeness with hanging legs.
You can reheat a cooked Dungeness in boiling water (or under the broiler) for 4-5 minutes. I also like to pick the meat and make broth from the shells.
Cooked crab meat of any kind should not be re-cooked. Reheated yes, but that means only a minute or two in the soup, or stir-fried or sauteed. No long cooking!
Picked Crab Meat
The last way you will commonly find Dungeness crabs is as picked meat in a tin or jar. This is often very expensive -- but not always. Remember you get 25 percent of the crab's weight in meat, so look at the price for whole crabs, then look at the price for pure meat. Sometimes it's a deal.
Treat the picked meat as you would meat you picked yourself. It's great for soups, crabcakes, crab salad or anything else you want to make.
For those of you who want to eat sustainable seafood, the Dungeness crab fits the bill. All the watchdog groups rate Dungeness as a "best choice" because there are lots of them, and they are caught in pots, not by a trawler.