How to Cook Crab Legs

It's a Real Culinary Treat

alaskan crab legs on paper

Tara Romasanta Photography / Stocksy

If you want to treat your family and friends to a special culinary experience, a meal of cooked crab legs is sure to impress. Crabs come from the same family as lobster, shrimp and crawfish. And while these meaty crustaceans are available in many forms and varieties, crab legs are particularly easy to prepare, serve and eat.

What Are Crab Legs?

First of all, if you're buying crab legs at the supermarket or fish market, these are already precooked. That's because most crab legs are king crab, which are cooked either right on the fishing boat or immediately after the boat returns to shore, then flash frozen. 

The same is true of snow crab, which is the next most common form of crab legs. 

These kinds of crabs are only sold as legs and, unless you live near a crabbing community, you're unlikely to ever see a whole one, much less a live one. And that's fine, since a whole Alaskan king crab can have a leg span measuring six feet across and can weigh 30 pounds. You don't want to tangle with one of these creatures, alive or otherwise.

Dungeness crab (which is a West Coast crab) and blue crab (which is an East Coast crab) are common types of crab that you can purchase whole, either live or already cooked.

But with crab legs, what you'll almost always be purchasing are cooked and frozen and a typical leg will be 10 to 12 inches long.

That means what you're really doing is reheating the crab legs. And there are five main ways of doing that. (We'll use the word cooking below, even though we'll only be reheating the crab legs.) 

To Thaw or Not to Thaw?

But first, let's tackle the question of whether to thaw the crab legs before cooking. Should you? 

The answer is, it really doesn't matter, although cooking them while frozen will take a bit longer. But since thawing them only requires the simple step of moving them to the fridge overnight, there's no real reason not to thaw them first. It's possible that cooking them directly from the frozen state could cause them to be tougher.

So in short, if you get your crab legs home and they're still frozen, you can either pop them into the freezer until you want to cook them or put them in the fridge and cook them the next day. In a pinch, you can do a quick thaw by running the crab legs under cold water for about 15 minutes. 

But if you do cook them frozen, just double the cooking times shown below. And by the way, figure a pound of frozen crab legs per person.

Steaming Crab Legs

Steaming is the preferred method of cooking frozen crab legs. That's because steaming is the method that best preserves the crab meat's flavor and texture. 

It's also extremely easy and relatively tidy. All you need is a large pot and some sort of steamer basket or steamer insert that fits inside it. A collapsible stainless steel steamer basket will work nicely and there are silicone steamer baskets that will also do the trick. But a steamer insert that fits your pot is ideal.

Just bring a pot with two cups of water (and your steamer basket) to a boil. Add the crab legs, cover and cook for five to seven minutes or until you can smell the aroma of cooked crab. Then, remove from the pot and serve with melted butter, Old Bay seasoning, and fresh lemon. To get at the meat, break the legs at the joints and snip the shells lengthwise with a pair of kitchen shears.

Boiling Crab Legs

You can also boil them. Simply fill a pot half full with water, and season the water with salt and Old Bay. Bring it to a boil, add the crab legs, reduce to a simmer and cook for five to six minutes.

Baking Crab Legs

You can bake the crab legs in a baking dish with some water at the bottom, which is basically a variation on steaming. Arrange the legs in a large baking dish, add about 1/2 inch of hot water to the bottom, cover with foil and bake at 350 F for eight to 10 minutes. 

You can also dry bake your crab legs. Brush with olive oil or melted butter, cover the baking dish with foil and bake at 375 F for seven to eight minutes.

Broiling Crab Legs

Preheat the broiler, arrange the crab legs on a sheet pan, and brush with oil. Slide the pan in so that it's 5 to 6 inches away from the broiler element. Broil for three to four minutes, then turn the legs with tongs and cook for another three to four minutes.

Grilling Crab Legs

Heat the grill to medium or 350 F. Brush the legs with oil or melted butter, transfer to the grill and cover. Let them cook for 5 minutes, then flip them and cook for another five minutes (covered), until done.

Save the Shells!

Whatever method you choose, be sure to save the shells after you're done eating! They're loaded with intense crab flavor, and you can use them to make crab stock or a delicious homemade crab bisque. You can freeze the shells for a long time. Just wrap them in plastic and seal them in a freezer bag.