What Is Dungeness Crab?

A Guide to Buying and Cooking Dungeness Crab

A stack of Dungeness crabs

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Dungeness crab is the most common crab in the western Pacific and is among the tastiest, too. It takes its common name after the Dungeness Spit in the state of Washington, where crab fishing largely supports the local economy. Found in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, this crab can be caught during the winter (and up until July) by licensed fishing companies but also by anyone lucky enough to lure some into their pot. This crab is sustainable seafood and considered the best choice when buying crab because there are lots of them. It is caught in pots (one-way door cages) and not by a trawler. Good for traditional crab recipes like dips, crab cakes, and salads, Dungeness is usually boiled or steamed, with its sweet and firm meat picked afterward.

What Is Dungeness Crab?

The Dungeness crab is a large crustacean that can weigh up to 2 pounds after molting on various occasions. When this crab's shell isn't big enough for the developing animal, it loses the old shell and a new one hardens. Dungeness yields more meat per unit than any other crab not because it is far heavier than most crabs, but because around 25 percent of the crab's weight is pure meat. That may not sound like a lot, but it is in the crab world.

Dungeness crab meat, freshly picked, is expensive (between $30 to $50 per pound, depending on the origin and company); buying the whole crab (for $20 to $30 per unit) implies a lot of work, so canned meat is a good alternative, although the flavor and freshness are sacrificed for convenience and economy.

How to Cook Dungeness Crab

Live Dungeness crab can be steamed or boiled whole. Simply place the live crab in salted boiling water, wait for the boil to return, and cook for 15 minutes, placing the crab in iced water once cooked. For steaming, place the crab in the steaming basket and cook for 15 to 20 minutes. As a rule of thumb, when steaming Dungeness crab, allow cooking for seven to eight minutes per pound of crab. If cooking many crabs at a time, weigh all the crabs and divide the weight by the number of crabs you have so that you can apply the seven- to eight-minute rule. Use Dungeness crabmeat in stews, salads, bisque, dips, crab cakes, baked crabs preparations, and pasta dishes.

What Does Dungeness Crab Taste Like?

Sweet, nutty, and mild in flavor, Dungeness crab is a favorite for crab recipes. The body meat is tender and juicy, whereas the leg meat is firmer and slightly more flavorful. The flavor depends on the area where they lived in the wild and how they were cooked, but generally speaking, the sweet-salty flavor is common to all Dungeness crabs.

Dungeness Crab Recipes

Use Dungeness crab in the traditional cioppino stew or mix it with fresh greens and a citrus vinaigrette for a light crab salad. Mix the cooked meat with mayonnaise, chopped crunchy vegetables, seasonings, and olive oil to use on toasted baguette, crunchy tortillas, or as the stuffing for rolls and wraps. Replace the mayo for full-fat Greek yogurt, if preferred, and generously use cilantro, dill, parsley, extra-virgin olive oil, pink salt, and dry herbs to make a thick paste to stuff cold conchiglie (large pasta shells). Or serve it as a dip with plantain or yuca chips. Grill it or make it into a spicy curry served with steamed white rice.

You could either reheat cooked Dungeness crabmeat in boiling water (or under the broiler) for under five minutes before adding it to a ready-to-serve dish, or add it cold to your hot soup, broth, stir-fry or any similar dish a minute before serving, giving it time to adequately heat up. Cooked crabmeat of any kind should not be recooked, but only reheated, to avoid rubbery texture and loss of flavor.

Where to Buy Dungeness Crab?

Fishmarkets everywhere might carry Dungeness crab, but call ahead to confirm. Live crab should be your first choice because you can't beat the freshness, and they are also far more versatile than precooked crab because a great many Asian and Mediterranean crab recipes call for uncooked crab. When choosing a live Dungeness crab, pick the lively ones; listless and sad-looking crabs should be left alone because they might be sick. Be advised that Dungeness is far less ornery than blue crab, which is a particularly mean species.

If buying a cooked crab, 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. Don't buy a cooked Dungeness with hanging legs.

Storing Dungeness Crab

As with all live crabs, you can keep it out of the water for 24 hours, as long as it's placed in a cool and moist environment. Once the meat is cooked, consume within three days and keep refrigerated in airtight containers.