When the subject of crabs on North America's West Coast comes up, most people think of Dungeness crab, the giant, meaty crustacean that is the key ingredient in cioppino and several other West Coast classics. But the Dungeness lives with another crab known as the Pacific red rock crab, which has some unique culinary charms of its own. Read on to learn more about this small yet distinctive crustacean.
What Is Pacific Red Rock Crab?
The Pacific red rock crab or red rock crab for short, also known as Cancer productus, lives in and around rocky places (hence the name), on the West Coast of the United States. It's most often found in Puget Sound in Washington state. While it might look nice on the outside, this crab is rather mean and will pinch you—hard. A mature Pacific red rock crab has strong pinchers and is a predator to hard-shelled clams and oysters, so beware.
The meat of red rock crab is as delicious as Dungeness, but the red rock crab is notably smaller, making its body meat more challenging to extract. This is probably the reason why the red rock is less common, even though it is plentiful in the waters of the Northwestern coast of the U.S.
The red rock crab can grow to more than 10 inches across, but four to six inches is more common. Males generally measure seven inches, while females are closer to five inches across the shell. Its large claws are edged in black, contrasting with the red-colored shell that ranges from light to dark red depending on where the crab lives. The farther north, the darker the shell.
The red rock is a walking crab, meaning its last set of legs is like the rest. (In blue and calico crabs on the East Coast, the final set of legs have flippers, making them swimming crabs.) As with all crabs, you can tell the male and female apart by the plate underneath the body—it's narrow in the male and wide in the female. The roe, the bright orange stuff inside the female, is delicious and is a critical ingredient in she-crab soup. Some people also eat the green "mustard" inside the body, which is the liver.
How to Cook Pacific Red Rock Crab
Most of the meat is in the giant crusher claws this critter is armed with. It is virtually identical to the famed Florida stone crab, so you can substitute red rock crab in any stone crab claw recipe you find.
If you come across a mess of red rock crabs, cook the claws like stone crab. Just boil in a seasoned broth and eat with butter or mayo—they will be delicious. Then use the bodies of all but the largest crabs to make stock or sauces.
Cracking the legs and the cleaned bodies of these crabs will give you the fixings for an outstanding tomato-based sauce or soup. You can also make crab stock. If you have lots of crabs at once, store the cooked bits in a bag and the stock in plastic containers, and keep it in the freezer until you need them.
If you are fortunate enough to get a hold of a large red rock crab, meaning the shell is wider than six inches, treat it as Dungeness and pick out all the meat for any crab recipe that suits your fancy.
What Does Pacific Red Rock Crab Taste Like?
Red rock crab is sweet and delicate, with most of the meat being in the large claw. The rest requires a fair amount of work to extract unless you are lucky enough to get some exceptionally large ones.
Pacific Red Rock Crab vs. Blue Crab
Red rock crab and blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) have a lot in common: Both are relatively small, it takes some work to get the meat out of them, but when you do, it is sweet and delicate. One significant difference is that the red rock crab has a very large pincher, where much of the meat is to be found, whereas the blue crabs' two pinchers are closer in size (as with lobster, one pincher is slightly larger than the other). The main difference, however, is where they come from, like East Coasters versus West Coasters. Blue crab is a staple of the southeastern United States, especially the Chesapeake Bay area, where large restaurants with newspaper spread over tables offer big bowls of cooked blue crab along with a mallet for each plastic-bibbed diner to crack them. Red rock crab is found and consumed largely on the West Coast, especially around Puget Sound and in the Seattle area.
Pacific Red Rock Crab Recipes
Red rock crab is easier to cook than it is to find. You can substitute red rock crab for another type of crab in most recipes calling for crab.
Where to Buy Red Rock Crab
Commercial catches of red rock crab are minor compared to those of the Dungeness, so it might be a bit difficult to find, especially outside of the Northwest. Ask your fish purveyor if they can get it. If not, you might try looking for red rock crab in Asian markets.
Storing Pacific Red Rock Crab
Red rock crab is usually sold live or the individual large claws may be cooked like Florida stone crab. Either way, it is quite perishable and should be prepared and eaten as soon as possible. Otherwise, it should be cooked, cleaned, and stored in the freezer in an airtight plastic container until you need it.